Moving!!

Dear readers,

After 1 year and 17391 visits, “Life thru Dusty Lenses has moved to it’s new home: KhanSerai-a rest stop for netravelers (http://serai.strategicsynapse.com). The blog will change from being focused solely on life in and around Saudi Arabia, to a more global nature.

Since centuries past, travelers have rested at serais to break their journey. These were places of rest, water, shelter and trade. People from all over broke their journeys and stories were exchanged.

KhanSerai is a 21st century version of the same, a brief respite in our collective journeys.

All old posts and comments have been moved and archived at the new location. Please change your bookmarks and rss readers to point to KhanSerai.

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Pictures of Pigs to be Removed from Saudi Textbooks

The Saudi Ministry of Education recently ordered the removal of pictures of pigs, music instruments and anything else that might be considered “un-Islamic” from English language text books for private schools.

The rationale for removing the images of pigs as being un-Islamic is not unusual in many Muslim-majority countries however it deserves a second thought. Without a doubt Islam does not permit eating pigs. It also does not allow eating falcons, eagles, bears, dogs, cats, monkeys and a whole host of other animals that are sometimes eaten in other cultures. Will all such animal images also be banned?

The religious prohibition against eating an animal does not make the animal inherently “un-Islamic”. Indeed one has to wonder how any of God’s Creation can be considered un-Islamic?  Viewing of animals is not banned in the religion (whether one is allowed to eat them or not) so why remove their images from books?

Children in Saudi Arabia will not accidently come across a pig and decide to eat it; they are much more likely to come across stray cats!  What is most important in the long run is to teach children what is allowed, what is not allowed and why. Teach them how religious law does not allow eating omnivores; how pigs  fall in the category of prohibited animals and how their anatomy prevents Islamically correct slaughter. It is only when they learn the “why” that they will be less tempted to try pork products in the restaurants of neighboring Bahrain. Erasing a picture will not convey the correct message.

Growing Pains of Reform in Saudi Arabia

Reform is a slow process that takes years and sometimes generations. The ongoing tussle between the public and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (Hayya) is one of the expected growing pains of reform in Saudi Arabia. A recent example was the Riyadh Book Fair, held during the past two weeks.

The event has received much publicity, both local and international. Other than the usual censorship issues, a lot of the attention has been criticism, aimed at an incident where two male authors were harassed by the Hayya for wanting to get the signature of a female author.

As in previous years the Hayya were out in full force and, ignoring their PR booth, were asserting their role as guardians of public morality. What is interesting to note is that the Hayya appear to have become more relaxed over time. This year saw most hours dedicated to family entrance and very little for gender segregated ones. Additionally it was the first time that women were allowed to work at the fair.

Below are excerpts from news reports about Hayya action in previous years and also links to other bloggers who wrote about the 2009 Riyadh Book Fair.

2006 Arab News: Lessons of Riyadh Book Fair

According to press reports, members and volunteers of the Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue were in force everywhere. In the family days, where single men are not allowed, they were the exception. Carrying sticks and wielding religious authority, they went around telling women to cover their faces, wear “abayas” (black cloak) over their heads in one piece, rather than two — head scarf and body cover. In some instances, they told salesmen in bookstands not to smile or joke when talking to women. A man holding the hand of his half-blind wife was told not to show affection in public.

2009 Arab News: Frustrating Experience

The book fair, which ends on Friday, has been marked with controversy once again — with liberal and literary minded people complaining of harassment by the commission. For their part, religious authorities have complained, not just about the mingling of men and women at the fair or how women are dressed, but also about how they claim their voices are being quelled by the visitors.

In one of the more highly publicized incidents at the fair, Saudi writer Halemah Mozaffar was verbally accosted by men who identified themselves as commission members and accused her of immorality for not having her face covered and for signing books given to her by men — she had signed the books as the men had asked her to do so out of admiration for her work.

What is essential for reform is the continuation of raised voices about these controversial topics, with support and encouragement from the media. With Commission members no longer carrying sticks and two piece abayas being quite common, it should be interesting to see what happens at the 2009 Janadriyah festival which is allowing family days for the first time.

Writings by other bloggers on the Riyadh Book Fair 2009:

PR by Saudi Commission of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice

Saudi Arabia is infamous for it’s “religious police” who are actually not police but civil servants entrusted with policing society for moral wrongs. Affectionately called Hayya, infamously called Mutawwas, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice tends to have a love-hate relationship with the population.

The recent change of the Commission leadership by King Abdullah was noted by many. The new head has since then made several statements about the new role of the commission, and the need to tone down the tension.

A noteworthy attempt is the Commission PR booth at the Riyadh Book Fair (March 3-13, 2009 at the new Riyadh Exhibition Center). Amidst the religious books by Saudi publishers, the varied books by Lebanese and Egyptian publishers and the kids books by Syrian publishers is the Commission booth. Not to be confused with the Commission resting/tea area by the info counter, it features examples of items that they have confiscated, photos of items found in raids and also the reasons WHY they are banned. There were also several Commission members explaining things at this fairly popular booth!

If one did not know better, just by the items on display you would assume that they are the Saudi Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) equivalent with a special twist of having an Improper Use of Magic Office a la Harry Potter.

Judging by the number of people that thronged the booth, it was clearly a hit! Perhaps the Hayya need to further reach out through such toned down and educational means. It would certainly give them an opportunity to develop a friendlier relationship with the population.

Insulting Royalty- Saudi Arabia and Beyond

Many countries with royal families tend to be extremely protective about defending their honor. Thailand was recently in the news because of the jailing of an Australian writer for insulting the monarchy and his subsequent pardon. A few weeks later a British professor ran from Thailand with similar charges against him. Several years ago Spanish magazines were pulled off the shelves for depicting insulting images of the royalty.

Saudi Arabia is similar to many of these countries regarding the high regard for the royal family, with an additional aspect- the Saudi monarchy are the ACTUAL rulers of the country, not just figureheads! This seems to elevate them to an even higher standard where criticism is not allowed at all and makes people very sensitive about the topic. Blogs that criticize the Saudi royals are blocked in the country as are several human rights web-sites.  Defacing the currency is a big no-no as it has images of the royalty on it. People discuss issues like corruption off the record in “safe” settings with trusted friends only. 

These cultural sensitivities were highlighted last week when the coach of the Al-Hilal football (soccer) team was fired and told to leave the country because he threw down his shirt that had the picture of Crown Prince Sultan on it. This happened right after his team won at the Crown Prince Cup. The organizers of the match did not allow the whole team to come to the podium; in anger the coach did not go to the podium and threw his shirt. The next day he was fired. His apology was not accepted.

Free Tours of Riyadh: Saudi Tourism

SCTA offers free tours of Riyadh
Saeed Al-Khotani | Arab News

RIYADH: The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) started operating free sightseeing tours on Saturday in Riyadh.

The newly appointed executive manager of Riyadh Tourism Development Bureau, Abdul Rahman Al-Jassas, told Arab News that these tours aim at introducing Riyadh’s landmarks to stimulate tourism in the city, increase the number of visitors and encourage tour operators to offer such tours regularly.

He said the tours are conducted in cooperation with the Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company (SAPTCO).

“According to the terms of cooperation, we pay for the costs of tour guides and advertising campaigns while SAPTCO provides transportation on modern, comfortable buses,” he said. “These tours, which operate twice a day, are free of charge for Riyadh visitors and residents and will continue until the end of the week. A tour guide will explain and answer any questions about the city’s landmarks.”

The trips start from Prince Salman Science Oasis on King Abdullah Road, north of Riyadh. The first tour starts at 4:30 p.m., and the second starts at 6:30 p.m. every day, Al-Jassas pointed out.

The tours cover most prominent landmarks in the city, such as Al-Aziziyah, Ghurnatha, the old Diriya town, the Kingdom and Al-Faisaliah towers, the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center, Al-Masmak Palace and the traditional rug market.

Punishment for Gang Rapists- Saudi Style

Saudi Arabia is becoming harsher with punishments for sexual crimes. Last week a teenager was sentenced to 5 years in prison and 500 lashes for black-mailing for threatening to publish a woman’s photos if she did not go out with him.

Two traffic cops were recently beheaded for gang raping an expatriate woman. It is unclear if the sentencing is because the woman is an expatriate or if this is an indication of longer term changes coming to KSA.

Along with more focus on domestic violence cases as well as child rights, changes are slowly creeping in.