Why They Make Fun of Us?

Arab News reports:

Saudi women expressed outrage at Chelsea Handler, the American host of the TV show “Chelsea Lately,” when she swore at Saudi men for being able to receive notification by SMS of their wives’ travels abroad.

Here’s the 35 seconds long clip that got these women outraged:

The first woman quoted in the story says Handler does not understand how the system works:

Sabah Abdulmalik, a 42-year-old stay-at-home-mom said, “I would like to inform Chelsea that this is only a service that people can activate or decline and that this was not forced upon us,” said.

“This service was developed by the Saudi authorities and not by husbands who want to track their wives, so when she says such a word, she should know that it was not conceived of at a local level and that it’s a matter of choice,” she added.

It might be true that the SMS notifications are an optional service (although it is more complicated than that), but you are ignoring elephant in the room: guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia do not allow women to leave the country without permission from their guardians. In the past it was the notorious yellow slip, now it is the infamous text messages.

Saudi fashion designer Reem AlKanhal says she respects freedom of speech but this crossed the line. “I think we have deeper problems than traveling, driving and covering our faces. They only focus on the aspects of our lives that make them laugh and we hate to be the butt of jokes on live television,” she said.

If we don’t want to be the butt of jokes then we should fix our “deeper problem.” Complaining about others laughing at us will not solve these problems, especially when we are not allowed to discuss and tackle them because of the red lines that you say Hanlder has crossed one of them.

A female Saudi blogger who chose to remain anonymous said that Chelsea’s clip was offensive not only to Saudi women, but to Islam as well. “We learned that Muslim women should not leave the house without the approval of their husbands and I think it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

“Her words were very aggressive and we do not accept such attacks, especially using bad words knowing that this is not how we were raised and this is not normal to us in Arab, local TV shows and talk shows,” she added.

You would think that bloggers are opinionated people who want to express their ideas and stand behind them, but this is not the case here. Here, you have a blogger who wants to be anonymous. She is like the anti-blogger. She complains that Handler, a comedienne who was talking on a late night show, used “bad words.” What are you, five? She adds that “this is not normal to us in Arab, local TV shows and talk shows.” First, this was not an Arab or local show. Second, you almost certainly watched this on YouTube, i.e. you chose to click and watch this. Nobody forced you to do this. Oh and by the way, since you seem easily offended, you should probably stop using the Internet.

Sarah Essam, a 32-year-old mother of two, wonders how Chelsea thought she was defending Saudi women in making these statements. “I know that using shocking language and discussing controversial topics are surefire ways to attract a larger audience, but this is beyond disrespectful and she crossed the line,” she said.

“Thanks to her words, she actually made us defend our husbands and stand behind this service even if we don’t approve of it,” she added.

Again with the damn line. But wait, Handler’s comments made you “stand behind this service even if we don’t approve of it”? Wow, talk about Stockholm Syndrome.

Mariam Hejazi, a 28-year-old banker, demanded an apology from Chelsea. “We have been tolerating the international media for a really long time. How can they judge a whole nation when funnily enough, it is their motto to “never judge a book by its cover,” she said.

Poor Hejazi is upset. Very upset. How dare this Handler comedienne make fun of her plight? How insensitive of her. Okay, khalas, international media will no longer talk about Saudi women issues because someone’s feelings are hurt. Promise. Pinky promise.

In the end, the newspaper has managed to find at least one woman who was not offended by the clip:

Yasmine Abdulrazak, an English teacher at a college in Jeddah, thinks the clip was actually funny and did not feel offended by it. “I don’t know why we are always offended when people talk about us. Yes, the media highlights the negative things about Saudi Arabia and they always make women feel like we need a hero to save us,” she said.

“Chelsea is a comedian and her job is to mock people and attack others to make her audience laugh. We see her make fun of celebrities, politicians and nations but they do not express offense in the same way we did today,” she added.

I found a few more on Twitter. Here’s one of them:

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The Diplomatic Cables, Saudi Edition (2)

As many people pointed out before, most of the US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks are boring. In the this huge pile of documents, shocking discoveries are rare. Today, I will continue what I began yesterday by looking into the some of the interesting cables from the US mission to Saudi Arabia.

Some of the best cables are those describing diplomatic visits to different parts of the country where diplomats rarely go like Abha or Tabuk. This cable for example details the observations made by US officials during a visit to that northern city. The last paragraph reads, “Tabuk is described as a very conservative Muslim community. This was apparent during the drive from the airport and meetings and tour of the city, when not a single women was seen on the streets, in the hotel, or employed in the government offices. The few men passed on the streets during the afternoon tour glanced at the passing motorcade with looks of surprise and curiosity.”

Photo by Jay-c 2011 on Flickr

Another good cable comes under the title: “MUST LOVE DOGS.” The cable tries to explain the attitudes of Saudis toward pets, especially dogs. It goes into history, religion and culture in its attempt to understand the relationship between Saudis and animals, and finally reaches the conclusion that: It’s complicated! “This contrast between the words of the Qura’an and the Prophet Mohammad, which imply that kindness must be shown to animals, and the general distaste that most Muslims have for dogs is yet another of the many contradictions in Saudi society,” reads the last paragraph, followed by a joke.

Back to serious stuff, here is a cable about a meeting between the US Ambassador and the late minister of labor Ghazi al-Gosaibi. During the meeting, al-Gosaibi told the Ambassador about his efforts to limit the country’s dependence on cheap foreign labor, and admitted that some of the measures he took to achieve that goal were “draconian.” But the most depressing part of this cable comes at the end, where al-Gosaibi sounded pessimistic about enacting laws to cover and protect domestic workers. “He stated that “no one” is interested in passing such a law because everyone is satisfied with the status quo,” it said.

Speaking of laws, this cable from December 2007 attempts to gauge the likely effects of King Abdullah’s plan to overhaul the judicial system of the country that was announced in October of that year. The conclusion in the last paragraph reads, “Overhauling the judicial system is one of the primary ways of any society to achieve progress and modernization. However, Saudi society changes slowly, and the judicial system is no different.” They were right. Years after the plan was made public, we still hear about bizarre cases in our courts like child marriages and detaining people indefinitely without a trial, access to lawyer or even family visits.

But it’s not all doom and gloom in these cables. This cable from April 2008 about the Embassy’s participation at Riyadh Book Fair is overflowing with happy adjectives. I remember that I was not exactly enthusiastic about the book fair that year, but obviously I did not pay a visit to the American booth. Worth noting here that the US Embassy had to go through difficult negotiations with the Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI) which has a ban on embassies participation at the book fair. Eventually, the Americans did a little trick that worked perfectly: the Embassy would brand itself as the US Information Resource Center (IRC). The cable described the impact of this participation as “huge!” and the largest outreach event of that year. “In a closed society and security-restricted environment,” it concluded, “the book fair underscored the need to continue to identify new and creative opportunities for traditional people-to-people diplomacy.”

The infamous al-Sahat internet forum is the subject of this cable that came out of the Jeddah consulate in May 2006. The cable details controversies surrounding the forum and accusations populated on its pages about American diplomats in the country. “ConGen Jeddah and its officers are regular subjects of commentary, criticism, and the occasional threat from al-Sahat contributors,” it said. Liberal Saudi writers are usually accused of having close relations with the US mission and conservatives use these accusations to smear their liberal opponents. My favorite part of this cable? Using the word “fora” as the plural form of “forum” in the second paragraph.

In addition to these detailed but concise cables, there are other brief ones that caught my attention, like this one listing names of influential women with their contact information. And since we are nearing the end of Ramadan, it is only apt to end the post with this cable in which the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs tells the Embassy that Saudi officials do not receive visitors during the holy month:

The MFA would like to advise all diplomatic missions in the Kingdom that the holy month of Ramadan is nearing. As you know, it is a month of fasting and intensive worship and there is no room during it for visits and meetings. As in previous years, it is not possible for the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and all other officials in the Kingdom to meet official visitors during this holy month.

Runaway woman, La Yekthar, Wikileaks, censorship, sectarian violence, and more

  • In a story that would probably work perfectly for a Saudi action movie, a woman in her twenties has fled her husband and lived for two months in the guise of a man, mixing in male company, driving a car, and praying with males in the mosque.
  • Meanwhile, my good friends Fahad al-Butairi and Ali al-Kalthami continue to impress with their comedy show La Yekthar. Below is the second episode. Can’t wait to watch the next one.

  • Wael says “It is no wonder that Saudis moved into the cyberspace to vent out their frustrations and dreams; nowadays, they are all over the social networks talking about their daily lives, sharing links with friends and even organizing some kind of virtual remonstrations on twitter, Facebook and blogs.”
  • Faisal Abbas: “You see, what this cable is telling us is that an American informer based in Riyadh actually sent back classified information to his superiors in Washington DC to say that Saudis watch and enjoy American television programs. Seriously? Did it really require an informer to “discover” this? What’s next, a team of American anthropologists revealing that Saudis eat at McDonalds? Drive GMCs? Or Wear Levi’s?”
  • The holy city of Medina has witnessed some sectarian violence last week on Ashura. I was sad to hear the news, but I couldn’t wait to see how local media would cover the event considering its sensitive nature. Not surprisingly, none of the local papers wrote about the real reason behind the violence. This kind of censorship can lead to a hilarious form of reporting, if we can call it such. Take this gem from al-Riyadh daily for example:

    Informed sources have asked the authorities to shut down some websites that have continued to instigate the two parties at certain times by historically linking them to ancient events and demanding to retaliate from the grandchildren under banners that incite differences to serve suspicious parties that aim to shake the stability in the land of security and safety. Some imapassioned young men from the neighborhood who were dressed in ‘black’ have followed these banners, broken into doors, and frightened the people, which made them resist and call the security forces who remained in the neighborhood until dawn.

    Here is an idea for Saudi media: if you can’t cover a story properly, don’t bother covering it at all. Okay?

  • Speaking of censorship, columnist Abdullah al-Maghlooth, who wrote a profile of yours truly a couple of months ago, is reportedly banned from writing after al-Watan daily published his latest article which posed an interesting question: “Who is the youngest official in Saudi Arabia?” I guess an old official didn’t like that question.
  • Apologies for the hiatus. Last week was the last week of the semester, which means I had a lot of work to finish, and I was also moving from my place in the Bronx to a new one near Columbia. A lot to catch up on. Here we go. Scroll up!

Dancing, Reform, HRW Report, Arab iPhone developers

  • YouTube video mashups of Saudi folk dancing with Western music have been a popular item on this blog. Here is the latest in this series, courtesy of Mctoom.

  • Ahmed Ba-Aboud: “When would reforms in Saudi Arabia be real reforms and not the gift of the King? It is when those reforms focus on finding solutions to the real issues of the country rather than creating more fictional wars.”
  • Speaking of reforms, Human Rights Watch recently released their report on Saudi Arabia in which they try to review and evaluate the past five years. The report is well written and reaches a conclusion many of us already know: there have been some changes here and there, but there is still much more to do, and these changes need to be institutionalized to ensure their sustainability.
  • Jordanian blogger Ahmad Humeid writes about the new opportunities that the iPhone and the iPad offer to software developers in the Arab World, with a shout out to my good friend Bandar Raffah.

Female ref, Lou visits KAUST

  • The Saudi football league champions Al Hilal are currently in Austria preparing for the new season. Playing a friendly match against a Romanian team there, the Saudi players experienced something they won’t see in the local stadiums anytime soon: a female referee. Al Hilal lost 0-3. You think we can blame her for this defeat? :P

    Female ref

  • Lou visit KAUST for the third time, and he comes back with a bunch of interesting thoughts. I agree with most of what he has to say, and I think many citizens share his sentiments. At the end of his very long rant, he writes a letter to the Saudi government: “You managed to force a new open campus, with a different take on what a Saudi culture should be.. Please, tell me that you’re doing this just to test how it works, and then later implement it all around the kingdom as a Social Module.”

Land-grab, Saudi vuvuzela, and tasting weird drinks

  • According to recent stats, about 60 percent of Saudis do not have their own homes. The main reason behind this situation is the prohibitively expensive cost of buying land where you can build a house. Of course this is crazy because Saudi Arabia is a vast desert. You would think lands would be dirt cheap, right? Wrong. Why? Land-grabbing. Fellow blogger Essam al-Zamil has been on a roll with a series of thoughtful blogposts about the problem of land-grab in the country. He recently crunched some numbers to estimate the fair price for land, and his findings are nothing short of astonishing. Per his estimate, citizens pay between 5-10 times the fair price when they buy a small piece land in most decent areas.
  • Now that the World Cup is over, I’m looking forward to enjoy watching football without the deafening noise of vuvuzelas. Or so I thought. The vuvzela will find its way to our stadiums because although it might be an African tradition, it is actually made with Saudi materials. The Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) waited until the end of the competition to proudly announce that the plastic horns are manufactured using its high-density polyethylene products. So yeah, Saudi Arabia did not reach the World Cup finals, but they still somehow managed to make themselves heard in this global event. You are welcome.
  • Since drinking alcohol is illegal in KSA, the Burdened Mary decided to sample some of the weird non-alcoholic drinks available in the local market. Her verdict: “These drinks were mostly duds compared to fresh fruit juices or Saudi Champagne.”