Thursday, 31 May 2012

Lessons To Be Learned from Qatar Fire

Picture credit:
19 die in Qatar mall blaze 
"A tragedy that could have been averted. Basic fire precautions were not taken care of. Witnesses confirmed firefighters' inabilities tackling the blaze. They even didn't know that there was a nursery inside the mall!!!Fire exits were not marked properly, That is farcical! However, this is the way things done in the Arab world. We tend to care for appearances and magnify the facade, but we are totally in denial with the basics and the elementaries... the result is tragedies. Responsibles for this should be hanged. My heart goes out for the dead".  Comment by Mohammed, Al Arabiya News.
It is sad that tragedies must first occur before lessons are learned.  But then, as I said to my son once you don't usually know you've made a mistake till after you've made it.  What matters is the lessons you learn.   

Most in the west would assume that safety systems are part and parcel of the huge fancy buildings and the glitter they see in the rich middle eastern countries.  We who live here know they have a long way to go.  As Mohammed says, 'we tend to care for appearances and magnify the facade' at the expense of the fundamentals.  This tragedy may have happened in Qatar but just across the border we expats know it's lessons are also relevant to Saudi.

Calling for arrests and hangings won't bring back lost lives.  But calling for arrests and hangings is usually the first reaction people have in this region to any major issue brought to the public attention.  It's a cultural response that, if you live here long enough, you put down to Arab excitablity.  But it's also a response the heirachy use to Save Face.  Only yesterday Hubster was talking to me about this very concept, one he meets all the time in his work. 

'Saving face'.  The Arab culture of non-confrontation which, in extreme cases like this tragedy, operates to throw the light of blame on someone else and usually that someone is lower down the hierarchy ladder when we all know that there are only a few at the top of the ladder with the power to say 'yes build' or 'no, wait, lets make sure we're doing this properly'. 

Unfortunately the culture of Saving Face' goes hand in hand with the culture of greed, backhanders and shortcuts by those with enough money to not have to take shortcuts. 

Saving Face is basically trying to avoid embarrasement - your own or someone elses.  It's a means of avoiding conflict.   It involves doing anything but facing situations head on.  Westerners who like tackling problems head on or who like to be told the truth, and nothing but the truth, do not handle the Saving Face concept well.

Saving Face is not to be confused with 'Giving Face' which is the manoevering done to allow people to approach you about a sensitive topic without embarrassment.  Giving Face is part of Saving Face.  Saving Face is supposed to be a practice where both parties can walk away from a situation with minimal harm to their dignity.  It involves a lot of looking the other way. 

Looking the other way happens a lot in the middle east.  It happens a lot in Saudi.  Looking the other way leaves the highway open for corruption - bribery, forgery, abuse of power, deception,  payouts - all accepted practice in the Arab world.   Looking the other way allows a lot of the top brass here to get away with, well, anything they want.  Taking responsibility doesn't seem to be a large element in the practice of Saving Face.

It was not suprising to see the Qatar Government spokemen being interviewed stating the obvious - there are lessons to be learned from this tragedy.  One presumes Qatar has not become one of the richest countries in the world by not being good at learning lessons and taking appropriate action on the back of those lessons. 

It is hoped that the money Qatar sets aside to implement those actions will not be pilfered away in back handers as everybody looks the other way in business deals that see subcontractors do a second rate job with minimal cash outlay as happened in Saudi before and, it is rumoured, after the Jeddah floods of 2009 resulting in more catastrophe in the Jeddah floods of 2010.

Instead of arrests and hangings one hopes those in charge in Qatar will be able to have an honest talk with themselves about how they do things, admit they need to make a few changes and then do everything necessary to make sure their systems work so future tragedies are prevented. 

With any luck Saudi will recognise this tragedy as an opportunity to be proactive in having their own honest discussions regarding lessons they need to learn starting right at the top of the ladder and looking deep into the heart of the culture.

The King can be excluded from such honest, personal heart-to-hearts on lessons to be learned as he seems to have already had a little chat with himself on such issues and decreed an official position on corruption in Saudi - although such a decree doesn't necessarily mean the right people get their hands smacked (not yet anyway but I can feel it coming) - and handing the Jeddah flood projects to Saudi Aramco with 'no dealing with sub-contractors'.

Ka Kite,

Wednesday, 30 May 2012



I've decided to take back any negative indication I may have given about Steaky's.  The place is ok for steak.   The last couple of times we went the steak was beautifully cooked, though not huge - but size isn't everything, right? 

Hubby has tried the ribs twice - beef of course.  Once with the bone, once without.  It's taken him two attempts to decided that ribs that don't originally go 'oink' just do not make the grade.  This has more to do with his palate than with how the Steaky's crew cooks ribs which he admits are nice, they just aren't pork.

The branch of Steaky's we go to is just across the road from Jazeera Market, on Mussah ibn Nasser.  The family section is small and on they way you can look over to the chefs in the kitchen.

You also pass a board with information on how to cook steak which is an eye opening read if comments on your own steak cooking attempts have been less than complementary.  

All seating for families in our branch of Steaky's is booth - no open area.  There has, at times, also been background music playing.  Country and Western, Kenny Rogers. 

The meal has an option for a salad bar to select your own vegetables or the meals have vege's on the side.  We usually do both. 

Although there is dessert, we've never had it.  No particular reason why not other than the fact we've over-eaten our soup, salad and mains. 

If you're after a nice steak meal in a smaller more intimate setting, then yes, come to Steaky's.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Stuff you're unlikely to see in Saudi

I love surfing the net and finding 'flash mob' activity.
Here's some things I've come across lately that make me think: Would this happen in Saudi?

Given that music played publicly has questionable status for a certain sector of the KSA community, this may be asking too much.  And I'm not sure how many of the natives are classical instrument players anyway. Curiously though, there is a center for music that has just opened it's doors in Riyadh where youngsters can learn music (it's called Tune Music Center, phone 01 225 6729) and most major malls have music shops where you can buy musical instruments.  Just don't plan to use them in Saudi for busking.

This isn't exactly a flash mob but it's cute all the same. Even though marriages are arranged here something like this could happen on one of Riyadh's streets, don't you think?  On second thoughts, maybe not.  Women are not to be seen dancing in mixed company or in public.  Such activity is reserved for women only events or a saucy night in the boudoir with the spouse of your dreams.

And from home.

I wonder if the Riyadh's airport revamp includes dancing cleaners?  It might be a way for them to earn a little extra cash in the arrivals hall. 

Last, but by no means least...a Haka.

I wonder if the NZ Embassy could get together a kiwi haka mob in the middle of Riyadh? I bet they'd be keen as mustard to organise that :)

A bit of harmless flash mob activity would certainly add a bit of excitement to the Riyadh landscape and doubtless there are Saudi youth with enough nouse to put a flash mob together I'm just not sure what talent they would be flashing.

Ka Kite,

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Show Jumping In Riyadh

Lovely Lady, whom I am currently visiting the UK with, has a husband who competes in Show Jumping in Saudi.

She is his number one fan and last night received news that he jumped a clear round in his current competition.  She was so excited for him.  I was reminded of the evening  we spent at the show jumping arena in Malaz watching him compete at an equestrian show on a balmy winters evening.

Hubster and I were picked up in the Lincoln and transported to the arena where Lovely Lady met us in the carpark and guided us down a sandy path passed the stables to our seats. 

We were sitting outdoors beneath the shelter provided by tent shaped roofing on plastic chairs sipping qahwah and enjoying the nibbles that she had prepared for the evening while meeting her friends and family who were also there to support her husband.  We had an excellent view of the arena and looked across to the little grandstand with seating for the important men involved in Saudi show jumping.

Never having been to show jumping before I wasn't sure what to expect.  Lovely Lady pointed out her husband when he walked out into the arena with other men resplendent in their riding gear and strode between jumps, measuring the distance we were told, familiarizing himself with the course.

Horses are magnificent beasts.  I've always thought so.  Watching them up close and in action does nothing to lessen that opinion.  Once the show started we couldn't help but be awed by their power, strength and grace.   If I'd figured out how to operate my camera to take photo's of jumping horses without blurring the shot there would be one right here    'X'     but I hadn't, so here's the blurry one.

Her husband placed 7th this night despite the huge cheer and thunderous applause that welcomed him into the arena on his beautiful horse. That night was just not his night.   It was, however, a fabulous night for us.  We were taken into the stables to meet his stable hands and to get up close and personal with his horses. 

Other members of the watching fraternity came in to see the horses too.  As is typical in Saudi, people believe they have every right to do whatever they want so long as it doesn't breach a religious rule.  So complete strangers (because I asked my friend if she knew these people and she did not) were walking into the stable to pat the horse.  

I noted at these stables, as with the horse racing in Saudi, that the attitude of the general masses of Saudi's to animals is haughty arrogance and disregard for the animals feelings.  They don't seem to know how to be kind to animals.

This might seem like a very negative generalisation based on one or two visits to horsing establishiments (and OK, it probably is) but if you get to know the expats here who teach horse riding to the locals they will acquaint you with stories of the terrible attitude of many of the locals (not all, because there are some that are more clued up than the rest) to these lovely animals.  Here are my two stories, not totally horrible, so no need to change channels or turn the volume down, but they give an idea of what I mean about attitude to animals, in particular the horse.

At the races it is possible to pat the stewards horses and have your photo taken with them in between races.  The horses are left in the care of stable hands who try to take the horses away from people who think grabbing the reins and hauling the horse forward over the fence with them or yanking continuously on the bit is how to encourage a horse to smile.  The horses reaction (attempting to pull away) is not even registered.  My eyes met the stable hands one night when the man whose turn it was for a photo told the stable hand 'I know what I'm doing' as stable hand tried to get the horse back because it was obvious Mr Man had no idea what he was doing or simply didn't care about the discomfort of the horse.  It is sad, but I got the impression Mr Man thought being unkind is exactly what you're supposed to do with a horse.

While in the stables after the show jumping, this stable hand  tried to distance the horse from the young boys who were thinking it funny to pull its ears or stick their fingers up its nose. The horse was obviously not enjoying this.

Lovely Lady was trying to get the attention of her other half so he could come and tell the youngsters to bugger off but he was in deep conversation with another gentleman and hadn't noticed the concern in the air.  If the stable hand had said anything it is highly likely he would have been abused and/or ignored by the boys in question and as the horses belong to The Husband it is his place to educate unknown Saudi boys on proper treatment of horses, not the wifes.  Fortunately they got bored with their game and left.

Seeing this attitude did bring a bit of a downer to the evening and Hubster and I did discuss what we had seen on our drive home and the possible reasons for it, reasons I'm not about to share on this blog post (sorry).   However, I have to say overall going to watch show jumping was a great experience and it is nice to know it is possible, if you're looking for something to do on a winter's evening in Riyadh, to go and watch show jumping in Saudi.

Ka Kite,

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Loving Oxford.

I'm totally loving Oxford.
One can feel so intellectual here.  Looks what's just down the road from our place---

... I can see myself discussing Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology over a beer or two!  Can't you?

One can also feel that one needs to learn to enunciate better while in Oxford.  British folk in Oxford, because there are a number of other nationalities who roam the University streets here, speak very clear English.  You almost want to say 'Tally Ho by Jove!' whilst holding a plum.  I tried speaking clearly for a few minutes - it's actually hard work! 

Lovely Lady and I met a group of students, young men and women, for pizza the other night.  One studies history - she's focusing this term on Amercian Revolutions, one studies Math - she has more of an interest on applied math than pure math and a goal to teach after university, one studies Politics and History though he is thinking of changing next term to theology, one is studying BioChemistry and is hoping to go into research as that's his main area of interest and yet another is doing a math thesis - with more of a focus on pure math and some unexplainable structure that has something to do with algebra. 

Lovely Lady was trying to understand the English.  Her class has not yet covered vocabulary for the topics under discussion.

What do I like most about this get together?  It is so refreshing being amongst young people who are allowed to, have been encouraged to and obviously do, think!  Thinking is not encouraged in the Saudi eudcational system.  The conservatives are afraid of thought.  They prefer rote memory learning, that way they have more control over what thoughts the masses may have. 

What else do I love about Oxford?

The theatre - We've seen Lord of the Dance and took a train to London to watch Wicked. 
The musical recitals - we've seen The Oxford Concert Party in the Hollywell Room and The Oxford Orchestra in the Shelidonian Theatre.


We've had a squizz through the Ashmoean Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum and a tour through the History of Science Museum.

We've taken a stroll through the grounds of a number of colleges - Trinity, Worcestor, Christ Church, Magdalen and Merton.  

The lake at Worcestor College
We've caught the train to Brighton and spent an afternoon on the pier.
We caught the train to Bath and did a little sight seeing once we realised they are Historical Baths, you can't actually swim in them, though one of us did go for a little dip after dropping a camera in the drink and waded in to retrieve it.

The Baths in Bath
We've joined a walking group and spend our Sunday's walking through English countryside then reward ourselves for our efforts with lunch in a local pub.

I've caught the bus or cycled to numerous little villages in and around Oxford:
- Woodstock - for Blenheim Castle
- Kidlington - just to go see.
- Minister Lovell - a possible link to the whanau
- Biscester - discount outlet shopping
- Cumnor - I got lost!!

There are numerous old buildings in Oxford and though mostly I think they are amazing for their longevity and, if they are made of rock (which most of the colleges are), their sense of solid stability, they are frikken cold!  The churches in particular are freezing.  I attended ANZAC Day in one of the churches and am glad I had my scarf and gloves.  The service was organised by the Antipodeans (a.k.a New Zealanders and Aussies) in Oxford.  I wish I'd taken a video because it could only be described as a real Oxford ANZAC in an ancient church with stained glass windows reflecting light onto tall columns and complete with church choir singing songs I've never heard of.

Pubs have aged differently.  One I walked into smelt like the old homestead my father was brought up in.  The roof was low, the floors creaked and there was a damp, dankness in the air but it still served beer that had to be carried through low doorways past numerous rooms filled with patrons till we found an empty seat in a dark space down the back.

Adjectives to describe many of the coffee shops escape me.  I remember thinking I have no idea why Poms have a reputation for whining when they are so happy to put up with creaky buildings with floors so uneven that, at one in particuilar, my pencil kept rolling off the coffee table.  They call these buildings 'cute' and 'quaint' and 'old world'.  I think they're going to fall down!

An old pub where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis are reputed to have drunk.

Queuing is an unusual mindset in Oxford and I was given a steely stare when I walked up to a bus stop and sat next to a woman who was, apparently, the start of the queue.  Removing myself to the end of the line I had to smile to myself when the bus didn't actually stop next to the beginning of the queue but pulled up and opened its door right next to the person at the back.  One would think you'd simply accept queue status has changed (that's what we antipodeans do) and the back is now the front.  But not in Oxford. 

The person who has been waiting first in line all this time (about 5 minutes because buses are fairly regular) must be first on the bus or lots of eyeball, and occasional vocal, abuse is psychicly daggered toward the person who is standing right next to the open bus door with her foot on the step.  This day she decides, with her own steely determination and a hint of arrogance learned from living in Saudi Arabia (because goodness knows this woman doesn't usually have an attitude issue at all) that unfriendliness is, well, unfriendly, so ignores them and boards the bus.

All in all though, I'm loving Oxford.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Current Location, UK

My current location is in the UK.  Oxford to be precise.

My two month stint started a month ago.  It's fabulous.  Not just the lovely old buildings, the lovely weather (after being in super hot Saudi one doesn't mind the cold, wet and windy English weather at all) the beer and the fact that all my expenses are being paid by someone else (not Hubster - something he is extremely happy about).  It's nice to be around familiarity - green grass (even if you can't walk on some of it)....

... catching trains and buses, being able to walk and ride bikes, not wearing an abaya, catching up on my blog writing and having normal conversations with anyone I please  - all that kind of stuff.

My 'job' is as chaperone to a lovely young lady who is learning English.  We have become friends in Saudi and now her husband considers I am a sufficient trustworthy role model to be chaperone while his wife settles in to England.  My husband thinks he should properly enlighten her husband. 

Our first week was spent in a hotel until our flat was ready.  The hotel had a swimming pool, steam room, sauna and jaccuzzi.  It was so nice coming back, after a hectic day familiarising ourselves with the area, and taking advantage of the available facilities.   Our flat, we knew, did not have such pleasures nearby so we decided to make the most of them.

Once in the flat, which is lovely and much better than the picture on the internet, a couple of issues became obvious that had not crossed my mind at all while we were searching for a flat in Oxford.

The first was the curtains.  Lovely Lady closed every single one of them when we first moved in.  She didn't want any male who may be walking passed being able to see her uncovered hair.  Once she realised we were on the first floor of an old building with smallish windows that no-one can see in she chill-axed a little.

The view from our window
I'm extremely grateful we don't have a ground floor flat else I would spend a large percentage of my time indoors sitting in a lounge dimmed to a dull amber by the yellow curtains shut tight over the windows during the very long daylight saving days. 

Second issue was the bathroom.  There is no hose or bidet for cleaning oneself after toileting.  She thinks English arses must be very dirty.  I prefer not to visualise.  We have decided to go buy a shower hose that can be plugged onto the handbasin tap.  That should do the trick and help make her more comfortable and, I have to admit, I'm finding that reliance on toilet paper alone really doesn't do as thorough a job as it used to.  Hubster thinks my problem is due to an aging issue  - lack of flexibility and reach.

Apart from those two things, the flat is great.  It's a 15 minute walk to the city center, or 5 minutes by bus.  It's fully furnished, clean and the heating works.  It also has an area by the gate where I can keep my bicycle under cover.

Cycling in this city is the best way to get around and there are bikes everywhere.  You're more likely to get run over by a bike in Oxford than anything else. 

Cycling is not permitted in Saudi, not for women anyway - we might break something that should only be broken on your wedding night.  You'd think with this rational the 'no riding rule' wouldn't apply to married (or divorced) women in Saudi, but it does.  

I guess there is a real risk the abaya could get caught up in the chain causing mere female to fall off the bike, though I'm fairly certain this rational is not number one in the Religious Rule Book under B for Bicycle.  Number one rational for the 'no bike riding' rule (as mentioned above) is likely closely followed by rule number two - the extremely dangerous risk of flashing an ankle while peddling. 

Such warped thinking makes me really appreciate being here in the UK.  Once I realised cycling was a way of life in Oxford I decided I was getting a bike, pronto, because I love cycling.   The bike I purchased is a secondhand Oxford classic - which means it's old, rusty and rattly and I probably paid too much for it.  But it goes like a bomb. 

My Oxford classic.

Heading out most days, riding in the chill Oxford air, meandering around streets just to see what's down there is my idea of a fab way to pass the time in my current location in the UK.

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