Category: Op-Ed

February 11th, 2004 by Jon Aristides

When I wander around the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) today, I can see and experience many things that were unthinkable when I first came here just ten years ago. The first significant change that strikes me is the process of arrival itself. The Immigration Security no longer appears to take pleasure in voyeuristically searching around in your baggage in the hope of discovering a porno magazine. In Riyadh, in the past, I have even seen an airport security officer cut open the lining of a Pakistani traveler’s suitcase in the search for banned or illegal substances. In this instance, none were found and the protesting Pakistani was peremptorily waved on his way, humiliatingly left to replace the scattered items inside his mutilated bag. The Westerner in those days received slightly more considerate treatment–but not by much. A colleague of mind was nearly imprisoned for being found in possession of a Bible.

I think it is certain that within the next ten to twenty years, some fundamental changes will take place in KSA. Whether they will be the same as predicted here, only time will tell. It should be kept in mind, that there is always the possibility that future changes might establish a theologically inclined state in KSA, highly critical of Western culture and foreign policy. On this possibility I do not comment. I feel it is, on the whole, unlikely to happen–and if it does, it is probable that we in the West will only have ourselves to blame for it: either through neglect, or a misreading of the situation that leads to the empowerment of, at present, scattered and weak fundamentalist groups.

Now, it is unusual for customs officers to even bother searching bags at all. Everything is put through an X-ray machine and as long as no suspicious material is seen, the traveler is free to collect his baggage and leave. As simple as that! The religious worker who used to check all DVDs and videos for feisty content, was made redundant in a moment; a forlorn casualty of a new and more modern world view that deems such intrusive practices as insulting and degrading to human dignity. Read more of this article »

Posted in Op-Ed, Saudi Arabia

February 5th, 2004 by David Ferguson

For many, English is just the way the modern world communicates. It is the language to unite countries – be they poor or rich – through a universal standard. Nonetheless, for an estimated 2 million speakers of Esperanto, English is the language of the richest and militarily most powerful countries in the world. It is not neutral; the language’s dominance has allowed English-speaking countries to establish cultural and economic hegemony by exporting their films, books, music, and even commercial services around the world. And if you want to get on in life, work for the United Nations or an international company, then you need to speak good English, preferably studying in an English-speaking country.

“Bush and Blair have become Esperanto’s best friends,” says Probal Dasgupta, professor of linguistics at India’s University of Hyderabad. “Globalization has put a wind in our sails, making it possible for people to have interest in Esperanto as not only a language, but also a social idea.” Ian Fantom, of the British Esperanto-Association agrees: “Esperanto is a public domain planned language, created over a hundred years ago, to help people from different countries and cultures to communicate on equal terms.

Its inventor, Ludwig Zamenhof, disclaimed any copyright for the language.” Fantom says the language belongs to everyone. Zamenhof, from Warsaw, published the grammar and basic vocabulary in 1887. He thus laid the foundation for an easy-to-learn language to promote international understanding and peace. The lexicon derives primarily words used internationally, usually Lating-based, while structures can be formed liberally as in languages like Turkish or Japanese. Read more of this article »

Posted in Belgium, Op-Ed

January 26th, 2004 by Karim El-Koussa

We, humans, grew up in families, where we began our first journey into the world. Later on, when we entered schools, we became indulged in learning. The first classes we took were on the letters of the Alphabet. “A, B, C…” we uttered aloud. These letters are known as the Phonetic Alphabet. The Phonetic letters are a representation of vocal sounds, and are a way of spelling that corresponds to pronunciation. Each country around the world has its own variation of spelling letters.

Without the Alphabet, history would not have been written, and thus all the genesis of mankind would be as mute as death. With it, we could be as wise as the sages of all times. The Phonetic Alphabet made it easier for humanity to evolve and to communicate. Earlier types of alphabets were pictorial, relating to symbols, ideograms, or other representations, like the Egyptian hieroglyphs. In such alphabets, each letter was represented by a picture and not expressed by a vocal sound. Only few pictorial alphabets still remain in use, such as the Chinese Alphabet of almost 40.000 characters.


Strolling on the sandy beach of Gebel (popularly known as Byblos) in Lebanon, I was thinking about all this. The waves of the Mediterranean Sea in front of me, saluted me as I walked.

On the waters that float to the shore with eternal sailors and travellers, expeditionary and trading ships used to dock. Every bright new day they would head to a different corner of the world. I looked around but there weren’t any ships of this kind. Only small fishing boats and others belonging to private owners could be seen. But they, surely, have the blood of their Ancestors running in their veins. Read more of this article »

Posted in Lebanon, Op-Ed

January 21st, 2004 by Funso Ogunnowo

In the beginning, all the wisdom in the world belonged to the clumsiest and slowest of all animals. The Tortoise. But this favored animal was so unwilling to share his wisdom with mankind that he decided to hide all the wisdom he possessed away. ‘I will find a gourd and put all the wisdom inside and keep it in a place where no one knows, except myself,’ he thought. So, he got the gourd, put all his wisdom inside, sealed the opening and proceeded to look for the tallest tree around.

On his way, he met several animals that noticed the unusually large gourd the tortoise was struggling with and offered to help him. But the tortoise ignored all of them and continued on his mission. When he finally found the tree most suited for his plans, he un-slung the gourd and proceeded to climb the tree. But he had a problem; he found out that he was unable to climb up the tree with his gourd. Just then an old goat came ambling by and noticed the fumbling tortoise, and also inquired what was going on but the insolent tortoise rudely told him to mind his own business.

After several attempts, he finally hit on the right method to get himself and the gourd up the tree. He succeeded until he got halfway up when he lost his grip and fell. All the tortoise got for his troubles was a broken neck. The gourd was smashed to a thousand pieces on the ground and all the wisdom inside were scattered to the four winds of the earth. Read more of this article »

Posted in Nigeria, Op-Ed

January 1st, 2004 by Jon Aristides

On arrival in Saudi Arabia, more than ten years ago now, I was amazed at how different everything was to my preconceptions. I had been fed the usual line that Saudi was a staunch ally and supporter of the West and that life was easy and comfortable there. How very wrong these ideas proved themselves to be! A particular incident crystallized the reality for me.

I was quickly shipped out to Ras Tanura: a major ARAMCO training complex (but a small and boring little town) and in the evenings I used to walk into the center, buy a few things– and maybe get a take-away meal. On this occasion, I noticed that everyone in the pizza shop was rushing around, as if desperately trying to beat some deadline. They just about managed to prepare my pizza and take my money before closing for the sunset prayer. All this was very new to me, so I thought the best thing to do was take a quiet walk on a hopefully deserted beach while I ate my pizza. As the sunset and I munched away, I noticed a crouching presence right in front of me. Suddenly he sprang up and started shouting and gesticulating wildly at me. Even though I was new to the country, it was fairly clear that he was objecting to my consumption of pizza in his presence while he was praying. I tried to utter a few conciliatory words, but he suddenly barked out a few words in egregious English.

“You must pay fine of one hundred riyals.”I shook my head incredulously and informed the man that I didn’t have one hundred riyals with me (not actually true!). Read more of this article »

Posted in Op-Ed, Saudi Arabia

January 1st, 2004 by Remko Caprio

The Netherlands is a country known for its religious, ideological and ethnical tolerance. But what is perhaps less known is that it is also a country religiously divided into a northern part dominated by a culture of Calvinism and a southern part, which is predominantly Catholic. Today, when people speak of ‘below the rivers’ they refer to the Catholic provinces and when they talk about ‘above the rivers’ they are pointing to the Calvinist provinces north of the geographical border of the rivers Maas, Waal and Rhine, which roughly run parallel to this historical and cultural border.

When the Netherlands declared independence from Spain in 1579 by the Union of Utrecht and were recognized by the peace agreement with Spain by the signing of the Treaty of Munster in 1648, ‘the Low Lands’ (as the Netherlands is literally translated), did not include the southern provinces. Only with the defeat of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna in 1815 were these provinces included, and not until 1831 when Belgium gained independence were the borders constituted that comprise the Netherlands as we know it. Culturally though, the southern provinces and especially the province of Limburg (the hind leg of the Dutch lion) where I grew up belonged to the Catholic sphere of influence. Even in present day the Netherlands, it makes a huge difference in attitude and perspective on life if you are from above or from below the rivers. Read more of this article »

Posted in Netherlands, Op-Ed

December 18th, 2003 by Jay Henning

A few decades ago, we lived in the province of Kwazulu Natal,a lush and tropical part of South Africa. Many of our friends still live there; one couple was stopped a while back by a (black) man they did not recognise. He however knew they were friends of my mother. They did not recognise him because he had been a teenager when they last met, and now looked very different in his late thirties. A large and proud Zulu man, with very dark skin and close-cropped peppercorn hair, he cut an imposing figure.

This man, Charles, called my mother here in the Western Cape, and when she went to KZN for a holiday she contacted him and they met up. He told her his story. She relayed it to me, and now I am passing it on to you.

Charles is a Zulu from KZN, and when he was young he lived with his mother in a shack in a township. She was working but there was not enough money with her small wages, so when he started high school he looked for some kind of job to help put bread on the table. It was at this stage that he started working for us as a garden boy. Read more of this article »

Posted in Op-Ed, South Africa

December 10th, 2003 by Karim El-Koussa

Summer came again, as it does every year for so many years now. I packed my suitcases and drove out of boring Zgharta, our winter village, and headed toward the mountains. On each turn along the ascending road, a mysterious mountain of pyramid shape always caught my sight and imagination. On top of the mountain rose the Cathedral of Saydet al-Hosn, a new church overshadowing a small old one.

It was like a mysterious power mesmerized my eyes and pulled me up along the road. Time seemed to loose its ticking until I passed the pyramid shaped mountain and reached my home in Ehden. Within a few days, Ehden was crowded with people inhabiting their summer homes. And the road directly up to the Cathedral of Saydet al-Hosn swelled with cars. Crowds of pedestrians took short cuts off the road to walk directly up the sacred mountain.

A weird phenomenon captivated our souls and opened up our minds, as we approached the Cathedral. The air changed, allowing a more subtle breathing as it entered our realms and elevated our spirits. We were like pilgrims; we still are now, generation after generation, performing the same rites, over and over again, summer after summer, while the passing moments on the peak of that mountain are eternal. Read more of this article »

Posted in Lebanon, Op-Ed

November 28th, 2003 by Jon Aristides

I was going to entitle this article “Islam and the Arabian Mind,” but it would have been a little predictable and over generalized. I think that in order to appreciate the ways in which religion permeates every aspect of life in the Middle East, the concept of “Inshaallah” is a good place to start.

I have spent around ten years on the Arabian peninsula, working a long way from home, and I think it has taken me this long to understand the Arabic concept of “Inshaallah” and the fatalistic concept of life and death that prevails in that desert kingdom. About a year ago, a Saudi I knew well died in a car crash. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was precipitated out of the back seat of a car his friend was driving head first through the windscreen. The others in the car survived because they had been wearing seat belts. However, on offering condolences, I heard the same point of view repeated time and time again. “There was nothing anyone could have done. ‘Inshaallah.’ It was God’s will: his time had come.” Of course, this totally ignored the fact that the victim had decided not to take a basic safety precaution.

First, what does “Inshaallah” mean? The usual translation given is “God Willing.” However, “Inshaallah” goes a lot further than that. It includes the idea that we are all at the mercy of God or Allah in every moment of our lives. “Will the plane come on time?” “Yes…Inshaallah.” “Will I get the money tomorrow?” “Of course…Inshaallah.” Read more of this article »

Posted in Op-Ed, Saudi Arabia

November 6th, 2003 by Remko Caprio

It wasn’t until I moved to the US that I started drinking coffee regularly and became what they call in the Netherlands a ‘koffieleut’, which translates literally into ‘coffee socialite.’ Although the average European drinks more coffee per year than the average American, the cultural importance and its effects on the average European seems to me smaller than that on the average American. After all, coffee is a cultural obsession in the United States.

Chains with thousands of branches like Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks dominate US daily street life. Especially in the morning (90% of coffee consumed in the US is in the morning), millions of white foamy cups with boldly imprinted pink and orange logos bob across the streets in morning rush hour and on the train. Coffee drive-ins are a saving grace for the rushing army of helmeted and tattooed construction workers. During lunch break, men and women in savvy business suits duck into coffee shops. Students chill out from early afternoon till late evening on comfy couches at coffee lounges around campus. Police officers clutch coffee cups while guarding road construction sites on the highway. In short, coffee drinkers in the United States can be found just about anywhere you go.

This mass-psychotic ritual causes Americans to associate Europe above all with cars that oddly do not contain cup holders (to an American this is like selling a car without tires), or with the unbelievably petite cups of coffee European restaurants serve, so small that my father-in-law had to always order two cups of coffee. It is my strongest conviction that the easily agitated and obsessed nature of the ‘New Englander’ can be blamed on the monster-size cups of coffee they consume. Not without reason is the word ‘coffee’ derived from the Arab ‘qahwa’ meaning ‘that which prevents sleep.’ Arabs have cooked coffee beans in boiling water since as far back as the 9th century and drank the stimulating extract as an alternative to the Muslims’ forbidden alcohol. Read more of this article »

Posted in Op-Ed, USA