A Letter From Saudi Arabia

.. and an Arabic Muslim. When I say diversity, I basically mean the traditions, the way of practicing religion. I have come to realize the fact that Islam is practiced differently in all the different parts of the world, and the way I practiced it when I was in the US, is certainly quite different from what I have seen and practiced here. Then there are so many customs which actually have their root in the beliefs of Islam, which I was totally unaware of.For example everybody removes their shoes at the doorstep before entering the house, even when you are invited to someones home.

Umar told me that it is a tradition that has been carried out for centuries now10. Speaking of traditions, in Saudi Arabia there is a long tradition of hospitality, which has its roots in the ancient custom that any traveler in the desert who ran into difficulty could receive protection for three and one-third days3. In fact, just last night I had dinner at Khaled Akhas house. I call him by adding a Akha8 to his name because in Arabic it means brother, and I call his wife Ukht8, which means sister.In the first few days I repeatedly used to make the mistake of calling Ukht by her name, which I later realized is not considered decent for a non-relative man to do unless he is her father3.

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Luckily Khaled Akha is an understanding man, otherwise one can end up in serious legal trouble for doing something like that. You see, the constitution of this country is actually the Sharia- the Islamic law, which prescribes the role of men and women in society1. The most amazing thing that I found out, in my first week here was that the citizens of this country have no say in electing their government! Saudi Arabia is actually a monarchy ruled by a king chosen from and by members of the Al-Saud family. The king rules through royal decrees issued in conjunction with the Council of Ministers, and with advice from the Consultative Council. Members of both councils are appointed by the king7.But what amazed me even more that this system functions as well as the democratic capitalist system in USA! Of course I have come across people who feel otherwise, they demand a more flexible system.

But since freedom of the press isnt as extensive here, you never hear of such groups on television or newspapers. Some of the customs and social practices are very conservative7, and I would say the sharia is responsible for that. Islam pervades all aspects of life here more than anything else. For the same reason, they also have a special police force the religious police called the Mutawwa’iin7. They are basically plainclothes policemen that patrol the streets to enforce the conservative standards of the law.Once I almost got caught by the police when I was trying to photograph a woman in a public fair, I didnt know that there are rules for photography too6.

In fact there are religious laws against certain dressing codes. I feel the laws are too strict to adhere to, which is a view I am sure most people here share with me. But there are also laws that forbid non-Islamic religious articles such as crosses and bibles, and food such as pork 7(which is unholy in Islam), these laws are relatively understandable. When I see women who are dressed so conservatively3, as opposed to the men who have more freedom of choice in what they wear, I feel a certain kind of guilt for the freedom I have! Moreover, the pattern of social roles I have seen is that women take care of the household, the children by staying at home while men are the bread-winners. Bread-earning reminds me, that tomorrow I dont have to go to work, because it is Thursday.Did you know that the working week is from Saturday through Wednesday7.

Not only that, we have breaks between work, for Namaaz (prayers) when people go to the nearby mosques for their prayers4. Friday (Jumma) and Thursday (Jumme-raat) night are considered as important days of the week for prayers, everybody goes to the mosque on this day for their prayers. Religion is a very prominent characteristic of the Saudi society4. It is one of their first priorities.It is quite obvious because of the large concentration of the Muslim population, a 99% majority1! It is also to a certain extent because of Al-Kaaaba, which is the center of pilgrimage for Muslims all around the world.

It is considered the holiest place on earth. I remember talking to you about this in Global Insights class, when we were studying Islam. It is the Kaaaba that attracts the major tourist population to this country4. It is amazing the way, the government handles the enormous tourist population every year, despite the problems that it has to deal with.One of the major problems here is the scarcity of water. Which is also one reason I chose to take this job.

A large amount of the total land area is covered by desert. Desert storms lead to desertification of vast areas of land. This poses a threat to agriculture.

Agriculture engages about 15% of the total labor force. The government is coming up with projects for development of more and more desalination facilities, through which they can then use the sea water to their benefit, for irrigation in agriculture and also for industry. So water is one of the very important resource here.In Khumrah, the water facilities arent as well-developed as they are in the cities1. Sometimes I have to skip shower for the day, because at times when the water supply is short, the tanks are not filled.

But I dont mind that, as long as it doesnt last for days together. When I first came, I was too conscious about my health, so the only water I used to drink was mineral water, which cost me about half a dollar for each bottle11. By the way the currency used here is the Riyal, which is then divided into 100 halalah1, just like dollars and cents. An American dollar is approximately worth 3.75riyals1.So whenever I used to buy something, I converted it into dollars, and it seemed so cheap to me, but later I realized that sometimes I was paying a lot more than the actual price, just because in American terms it was cheaper! In fact I gave up the mineral water, within a month. That however wasnt the best of ideas. I suffered a mild viral fever for 2 days because of that.

But Khaled Aqha and his wife took good care of me, for both the days, Umar got me my medicine, Khaled Aqha took care of me. Now whenever I go to the market, I get some grocery for Khaled aqha, at first he never accepted anything from me, saying that I was like his guest, but now we no more have a guest-host relationship, its more of friendship, I feel.I was fortunate that I did not need any hospital care, it saved me some money. Usually hospitals demand cash payment, usually before treatment! Anyways, so did you make finally make that trip to India that you always planned on? There are some Indians1 at the plant where I work, actually there are people from many different foreign nationalities where I work. The main ones being people afro-Asian backgrounds1. I wish I could write more about my life here. But its something that you really need to have a first-hand experience to know what I am talking about. Hopefully I will see you in Westford next May.

If there is any souvenir or anything that I can get for you from here, please feel free to let me know. Khuda Hafiz (goodbye)8 XYZ Bibliography : 1. The World Fact Book – http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/coun try-frame.html 2.

Water Online- http://news.wateronline.com/industry-news/19980123 -930.html 3. Microsoft Encarta Reference Suite 99- Virtual Globe 4.

Microsoft Encarta Reference Suite 99- Encarta Encyclopedia 5.Arabic News. Com- http://www.arabicnews.com 6. National Geographic- October 1987 7.

Saudi Arabia Consular Information Sheet- http://travel.state.gov/saudi.html 8. Speak Arabic- the easy way (Nadeem Publications) 9. Excite Travel- http://www.

city.net 10.Culture website – www.cultures.

com 11. Retail price of Mineral water in SA- http://www.excelholdings.com/saudicost.html.