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October 11, 2004

Arabia 1425

Posted by William G. Ridgeway

William G. Ridgeway will be sending regular Letters from Arabia to the Social Affairs Unit.

The Islamic year here is 1425, and some critics might say that this is about right in terms of the region's political and social development. On the face of it, the similarities between the Middle East now and the Middle Ages then are striking: the political dominance of religion and its iron grip on public consciousness; absolute rule by the Monarch; purist crusades against corrupt civilisations; the subjugation of women; the importance of family ties, particularly in the feting and securing of power. This looks like 1425 in anybody's language.

But these are Middle Ages like no other. Go to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Jeddah and you are greeted not by 15th century society, but by modernity at its brashest and most intoxicating: forests of multicoloured skyscrapers, streams of glistening Japanese cars, the constant roar of construction work and airliners. And then there are the shopping malls - lots of them - not just your drab European retail outlets, but vast marble cathedrals to consumerism. There is a common expat moan over here, "not another bloody mall", but still they go up, bigger, brasher, better than before. The more malls, the more shoppers. The more shoppers, the more malls. Arabia at the moment is a feeding frenzy of shops, shopping and shoppers.

They buy food. They buy clothes. They buy cars. Most of all, however, they love to buy technology. Arabians are obsessed with high-tech, and embrace each new wave with gusto. Satellite Navigation? 3G? Broadband? Hotspots? Got them all. Want to develop a website? Ahmed is a whiz. Arabians have rapidly evolved into CyberArabs, and they love it. Your average urbanite now likes nothing more than to while away the time surfing the Net. Many Arabians speak English and routinely click into western sites – the kinds of sites that criticise them for living in the Middle Ages. The younger generation click into chat-rooms and discuss the issues of the day with Americans, Brits, Greeks. For those on the move there are Internet Cafes – lots of them, where young Arabs chat, download music and send the odd lewd email.

Then there are the satellite dishes. Driving through poor areas in the Interior, one notices that even the humblest mud shack has a satellite dish on top of it. Ten year ago conservative commentators saw dishes on council houses as symptomatic of Britain's moral and cultural decline. Here, as then, conservative expats complain that villages are being spoiled by these modern atrocities. In a way, they are right: they spoil the illusion that this is indeed 1425, that these are the Middle Ages. Uncle Abdullah, on the other hand, can't wait to get his hands on a remote control. Indeed, Uncle Abdullah can't wait to abandon his quaint little hut altogether. Throughout Arabia, many like him have done just this, and the region is peppered with what look like abandoned medieval villages. Upon inquiry, one usually finds that they were abandoned as soon as the new estate was built, in 1992.

The hubris of western views on Arab societies was recently brought home forcefully when my wife and I went for a trip to an area renowned for its isolation and conservatism. It truly fitted the Middle Ages archetype: oases; donkeys; burqa'd women; mud houses; the lot. As we rolled our 4x4 down a steep dust path, we happened to pass an old man walking along with a huge bale of vegetation balanced on his head. How quaint. After some debate, we reversed the car and inquired if he would like a lift. "Aiwa", he said, so we bundled the bale into the boot, and set off down the hill to a mud-brick village set behind a hillock. It seemed like the most isolated spot on earth.

As the old man recovered the bundle from the back of the car he asked us if we would like to come to his house for coffee. It is rude to refuse such offers, so we gladly accepted. The man led us through narrow, winding alleys where we were greeted by giggling children and baying goats - a perfect traditional scene. Eventually we arrived at a dark door and were invited to enter:

We sat down in a traditional meeting room, the majlis. Our arrival sparked some confusion, but it soon became apparent to all and sundry that we had helped old Grandpa Salem. Food was prepared with lots of giggling, whispering and shouting. Meanwhile, at the end of the long room, satellite television news discussed David Beckham while Arab stock prices scrolled along the bottom of the screen.

A young man sat down and offered us a tray of dates. In perfect English he told us that he worked in the city and drove up to this, the old family home, every couple of weeks. As we were talking, others came and went - men and women. No segregation here. The young man's mobile went off. He apologised and answered it, "As salamu alaikum". As he began chatting, a Carmenesque woman of about twenty entered the room, and smiled at us knowingly. She also spoke good English, having just finished a tech degree at Alexandria University. From the kitchen, a mobile beeped loudly four times. After a while, in came Said, a genial, middle-aged man who also lived in the city. He had visited England several times for training courses, and bemoaned the present state of Arab-western relations.

At the end of a pleasantly hectic visit, we all stood up and exchanged mobile numbers. "Give me a ring anytime", said Said. "You're always welcome here". Mobiles in hand, we waved goodbye to the assembled as the television blared out something about Turkey's accession to the EU.

As we walked back to the car, we noticed Grandpa Salem and his grandson walking towards another car . . . a large Ford Explorer. My wife turned to me: "That old man had a three mile walk down the hill. You'd think his grandson would have given him a lift." I agreed, but as we drove off back up the hill, we began to realise something. Of course, his grandson would have helped him, had he wanted help; but Old Grandpa Salem had never really wanted a lift at all. He had chosen to walk that three miles with a bale on his head. It was his daily workout. In accepting our lift, he was just being polite. To have refused would have seemed rude.

The man struggling under the bale of animal feed was thus not a quaint, untouched remnant of the Middle Ages, but a man very much of the 21st century. He chose to walk down that hill, just as an elderly man in Islington would choose to walk instead of taking a bus. From our time with him in the majlis, it was apparent that he was just as informed about world events as, say, a plumber from Skelmersdale. Perhaps more so. He knew about other cultures. He knew about politics. He certainly knew about the Internet. It was unthinkable that his granddaughter, the tech graduate from Alexandria University, would be content without a daily fix of Google and Odigo.

By the time we reached the top of the hill we thus felt like the stupid westerners we were, and chuckled at our encounter with Arabian postmodernity.

The next day, as we were driving along a particularly remote valley, we passed another old man walking along with aid of a stick. My wife turned to me: "He's probably off to the cyber café", she said.
© retained by author 2004

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