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Wednesday, 13 February 2008

All Roads Lead to …Saudia Arabia

I am now safely ensconced in Saudia Arabia (city undisclosed) working for a company as a teacher. My first impressions are mixed. As many before me, I had the impression that this country would be awash with terrorists, oppressed women, crazy drivers, inedible food but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact I have met a lot of kind people, a relaxed ambience, malls the size of Manhattan, gas prices lower than a cheeseburger, and facilities that would impress a sheikh.

I think there is a lot to be said for the impressions we get of foreign lands from our media outlets. Every other day you hear stories from Saudia Arabia of women being raped, or thieves being either beheaded or having their hands lopped off; of locals who run amok in other countries with bombs strapped to their torsos, of Arabs who consider a good day as one spent buying up everything that isn’t nailed down. Whilst some of this is undoubtedly true, as always, a little bit of discretion is necessary is one is to see the real picture.

I remember once being in college when I was about 19 and talking to a guy from Colrane, Northern Island. I had grown up listening to the BBC and other local TV channels telling me that everywhere in that forsaken land was full of mad, angry terrorists who would stop at nothing to blow up innocent people or kneecap those who didn’t toe their line (all puns intended!!) But this guy laughed when I asked him the following question – “isn’t it a bit dangerous living there?” The truth was, he’d never even seen a bomb let alone a dead body lying in the road so what does that tell us about the quality of the news we get? Well, it tells me that nothing is what it seems until you see it with your own eyes and experience it for yourself.

I had to laugh this morning when I was in a local mall. As I had a bit of time to kill before the shops opened, I picked up a local newspaper called Arab News. In it was a reference to a local Saudia lady who had the misfortune to be found with a Syrian man in a Starbucks drinking nothing other than a latte. She and the man were arrested by an organization called, and this is a funny name, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. It would seem that the lady in question had somehow contravened some or other article of this commission’s rules and was hauled to an interrogation centre for questioning whereby her mobile phone was confiscated and she was strip searched by members of the said commission (it was not mentioned as to whether the searchers were male or female).

It is hard to believe that such institutions exist and it reminds me of something from an Orwell novel e.g. 1984, where we learnt for the first time organizations like the Ministry of Truth, Ministry of Peace, Ministry of Love, and the Ministry of Plenty. But despite these anomalies, I think there is a lot to enjoy here and a freedom that few could imagine. Yes, we should be mindful of De Coqueville’s assertion that we can ‘judge a nation by the way it treats its prisoners’, especially if they are routinely tortured or beheaded as is sometimes the case in Saudia Arabia, but there is as always another side to the coin and we mustn’t ever forget that and allow our media outlets to paint a picture for us that is wholly inaccurate!

I’ll be posting more on my experiences here as they happen so stay tuned.

1 comment:

Ros Hore said...

I agree with you regarding the danger of the media influencing peoples views in a negative and unrealistic way when it comes to far way places and people. I witnessed peoples misconceptions about what was taking place in my own country while I was travelling in an other.