Fuad Ajami, scholar and writer on Middle Eastern affairs, has died. I had the pleasure of hosting him at my home in Riyadh several times. While we had some differences on certain aspects of the politics of the Middle East, he was always courteous and informed, a pleasure to know.

June:23:2014 - 09:35 | Comments Off | Permalink

When I was working in Saudi Arabia, some ten years ago, the Ministry of Education was fighting to have English-language instruction start in the fourth year of primary education… and losing. The Minister was constantly being barraged by complaints that this was just another sneaky way to impose Western values on Saudi schoolchildren.

That battle was eventually won and now the Ministry is seeking to push the starting year down a notch, to the third grade, Saudi Gazette/Okaz report.

English language planned to be taught from third grade
Okaz/Saudi Gazette

JEDDAH – Saudi Minister of Education Prince Khaled Al-Faisal said the ministry is seriously studying the teaching of English language in elementary schools. At present the language is being taught from fourth grade.

He said the ministry realized the deficiency of students in the language.

Commenting on the estimates of UNESCO that global illiteracy will reach 50 percent by the end of 2015, he said the Kingdom has by far overcome these estimates. The percentage of literacy rate in the Kingdom has reached 60.61 percent in 2013.

June:21:2014 - 06:45 | Comments & Trackbacks (1) | Permalink

Saudi Gazette picks up a piece from the Arabic daily Al-Hayat that comments on the way the definition of khulwa has been stretched by certain clerics in a way that would not be understood by the earliest generations of Islam.

Khulwa is the seclusion of two members of the opposite sex in circumstances which would permit them to do forbidden things — sex — without interruption. Some early commentators asserted that it could only be committed within a structure; that it was impossible to do outdoors. Now, according to some clerics, it can happen in offices, in a doctor’s office, within an ATM enclosure, or even in a car being driven by an unrelated male. That, the writer suggests, is using religious law to enforce a very narrow reading of religious law and extend it to situations where it does not actually apply.

What is khulwa?
Hassan Bin Salim | Al-Hayat

Some scholars exaggerate the meaning of khulwa (when someone is caught in the company of an unrelated member of the opposite sex). They impose many restrictions on women in order to prevent them from committing khulwa. For them, a woman who rides in the back of a car with her driver on a public road has committed the forbidden act of khulwa. Similarly, a woman who goes to a male doctor for a medical problem and ends up alone with him in a room without a nurse has committed the forbidden act of khulwa. A woman who happens to be in the same ATM booth with a strange man has also committed the forbidden act of khulwa even though they are both only withdrawing money.

In fact, some scholars have not only warned about the consequences of such acts, they have also applied the term to almost any situation involving men and women. One scholar has recently decreed that any conversation in an Internet chat room between a man and a women is khulwa even if the man who is chatting with the woman is on the other side of the planet. In the scholar’s views, this still qualifies as khulwa.

Al-Hayat daily recently published an article regarding an academic study, conducted by a university researcher, warning about the negative consequences of khulwa involving women and their male drivers. We hear many scholars and researchers warning about the consequences of khulwa but we never hear them provide solutions for women who depend on drivers to get around.

June:21:2014 - 06:40 | Comments Off | Permalink

The linguistics blog Languagehat has an interesting post about the way the Disney Corporation has changed its approach toward localizing the versions of its films intended for non-English-speaking audiences. Commenting on the work done on the latest Disney film “Frozen”, it notes that rather than dubbing the film into Egyptian Arabic, as had been the norm, the film was released to Arab audiences dubbed in Modern Standard Arabic. This has both puzzled and upset many.

The comments to the post offer interesting insights about both language versioning of films and the question of how dialects of Arabic are considered.

Translating Frozen Into Arabic.

Elias Muhanna, an assistant professor of comparative literature at Brown University, has an excellent New Yorker blog post about just what the title says:

One of the forty-one languages in which you can watch “Frozen” is Modern Standard Arabic. This is a departure from precedent. Earlier Disney films (from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to “Pocahontas” to “Tangled”) were dubbed into Egyptian Arabic, the dialect with the largest number of speakers in the region, based in a country with a venerable history of film production. Generations of Arabs grew up watching Egyptian movies, and the Disney musicals capitalized on their familiarity with this particular dialect.

Modern Standard Arabic is very similar to Classical Arabic, the centuries-old lingua franca of the medieval Islamic world. Today, it is the language of officialdom, high culture, books, newscasts, and political sermonizing. Most television shows, films, and advertisements are in colloquial Arabic, and the past several years have seen further incursions of the dialects into areas traditionally reserved for the literary language.

June:07:2014 - 06:28 | Comments & Trackbacks (8) | Permalink

Once again, Saudi media dangle the possibility of public cinemas in Saudi Arabia before an eager audience. I think that this is so far down the “must do” list and is such a contentious issue, that the investor is just wasting his time.

Al Arabiya TV has the story:

Cinemas to open in Saudi Arabia?

An investor has officially requested a license from the Saudi General Commission of Audiovisual Media to establish cinemas in the country, a local business website reported Tuesday.

The commission did not object to the idea in principle, and asked the investor to submit a study of the planned project, Maaal reported.

Cinemas are forbidden in Saudi Arabia.

If the commission thinks the investment is feasible, it could ask higher authorities to clear the way for movie theaters nationwide, sources reportedly said.

June:06:2014 - 08:25 | Comments Off | Permalink

The Washington Post reports on a flap that is stirring in Saudi Arabia over the naming of Prince Muqrin as Deputy Crown Prince. Tongues, including those of the sons of older princes who were skipped over, are wagging; fingers are being pointed; conspiracy theories are infesting the social media.

Frankly, I’m a bit surprised. This isn’t the first time princes have been skipped over. Sometimes, it’s been at their own request. At others, it’s been because they were not deemed suitable or capable of being King. Nor is it the first time that a Second Deputy Prime Minister — who was Deputy Crown Prince in all but name — has been selected.

With the aging of King Abdullah, the question of succession does become more urgent, but I believe he has settled matters through his creation of the Allegiance Council, formed to deal with exactly those issues. If it turns out that he was mistaken and that the Council has no authority, then there will be squabbling over who rises to power. And that will lead to a repetition of what happened with the Second Saudi State. If it happens again, though, there will be no chance for a future Abdulaziz to slip out of exile to regain the throne. Instead, the Saudi royal family with be dispersed — along with their bank accounts — to countries far and wide. What happens to the country left behind them will be something for future analysts and historians to discuss.

Appointment of deputy heir to throne stirs controversy in Saudi Arabia
Liz Sly

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — When Saudi Arabia’s elderly king took the unusual step of naming a deputy heir, the move initially was welcomed as a sign of continuity in a country that soon will confront major questions over the future of its leadership.

But in subsequent weeks, the announcement has stirred a rare outburst of dissent, revealing previously unacknowledged strains within the royal family and casting into doubt prospects for a smooth transition from King Abdullah’s rule.

The king’s youngest brother, Muqrin, who was named deputy crown prince on the eve of President Obama’s visit in March, appears to be popular among ordinary people, who say he is not corrupt. He also is well-regarded by foreign diplomats, who describe him as likable and smart.

But behind closed doors, royal tongues have been wagging about the manner in which Muqrin was chosen, the validity of his newly created title and his pedigree as the son of a Yemeni concubine who was never formally married to his father.

May:27:2014 - 08:33 | Comments Off | Permalink

The online ‘Science Digest’ runs a story on a report out of the German Heimholtz Center for Ocean Research that confirms that the Red Sea is actually an ocean in the process of being born. Due to some differences that had been seen in the Red Sea, it was thought that it may have been the result of a unique geological process. The report says not. While there are some differences, the Red Sea is part of the Rift Valley complex and new ocean floor is being created at its depths. The process is slowed, however, by the movement of ‘salt glaciers’, salt laid down millions of years ago when parts of Africa were under water and while the Saudi peninsula was still attached to Africa.

Terrain map Red Sea

The Red Sea: An ocean like all others, after all

The Red Sea has turned out to be an ideal study object for marine geologists. There they can observe the formation of an ocean in its early phase. However, the Red Sea seemed to go through a different birthing process than the other oceans. Now, scientists have been able to show that salt glaciers have distorted the previous models.

May:07:2014 - 08:45 | Comments Off | Permalink

Alternate History is a form of fiction in which some past event happened differently than it did, leading to various types of changes in the present. Usually, the stories (or films or games) are based on one critical event or factor.

Al Arabiya TV reports on one thing which, had it happened, would have lead to considerable changes and remarkable ones at that.

During WWI, a Russian Jewish doctor, M.L. Rothstein, proposed to the British government, that he raise a force of 120,000 Jewish troops who would, with assistance from the Triple Entente powers, wrestle Hasa from the Ottoman Turks, then allied with the Triple Alliance.

Hasa, of course, is in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. It was, at the time of the proposal, actually part of Saudi lands. King Abdulaziz had seized it from Turkish control in 1913. The Eastern Province, of course, is where most of Saudi Arabia’s natural wealth is to be found.

Lord Balfour — author of the notorious Balfour Declaration that was one of the origins of contemporary Israel — turned down the offer.

A Jewish state in Saudi Arabia? New British document reveals 1917 idea
Kamal Kobeisi | Al Arabiya News

A Jewish state in Saudi Arabia? One Paris-based Russian Jew threw this unorthodox proposal on the table in 1917, according to a recently revealed official British document.

The strategy, which proposed an army of 120,000 Jewish soldiers invading the Gulf, was one man’s solution to carve out land for a Jewish homeland.

Only two months before the Balfour Declaration was dated, a man named Dr. M. L Rothstein tried to sway then British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to create a Jewish state in modern day Saudi Arabia.

April:07:2014 - 06:22 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

The Washington Post reports that Abdulrahman Alharbi, a Saudi student who was injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, is suing American conservative commentator Glenn Beck for defamation. Beck, a little crazy, somewhat bigoted, a rather conspiratorial in his thinking, claimed that Alharbi played a role in the bombing and was an “Al-Qaeda coordinator” behind it, the “money man”. The FBI thought differently, however, and saw Alharbi as an unlucky, but innocent victim of the bombs.

Glenn Beck sued for defamation after calling victim
of Boston Marathon bombings the ‘money man’ behind attack
Terrence McCoy

On a mid-April day last year, Glenn Beck was in a full lather. Less than one week had passed since a pair of bombs had exploded at the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring hundreds more. The FBI had just identified the Tsarnaev brothers as primary suspects behind the attack. But to Beck, cloaked in a gray button-down and a sheen of indignation, this wasn’t enough.

In attendance at the marathon had been a 20-year-old Saudi Arabian student named Abdulrahman Alharbi. He was on a full ride to study at the nearby New England School of English. He’d been injured at the marathon, later questioned by police and ultimately cleared of wrongdoing.

Beck, however, had suspicions. The radio host urged the U.S. government to release information on Alharbi or Beck would “expose” him. “Let me send this message very clear,” said Beck, who left Fox News in 2011. ”We know who this Saudi national is…. We know who this man is and, listen to me carefully, we know he is a very bad, bad, bad man.”

April:03:2014 - 07:50 | Comments Off | Permalink

An interesting book review in the Times Literary Supplment (TLS) of the book Reading Darwin in Arabic.

The book reports how Darwin’s theories of evolution and human descent made their way to and were received by Arabs in the late 19th and 20th C. There are some surprises, particularly in the favorable reception of not Darwin, but the derivative and erroneous “social Darwinism” as promulgated by Herbert Spencer. Lamarkism was favorably received as well, though it, too, is largely wrong, modified only by current understandings of epigenetics.

It’s interesting, too, that the theory of evolution was generally accepted without rancor, but has now become a hot-button issue in the region, much like among Christian fundamentalists who prefer to follow a theory of ‘Creationism’.

Darwin in Arabia

Marwa Elshakry
448pp. University of Chicago Press.

The title Reading Darwin in Arabic notwithstanding, most of the men discussed in this book did not read Charles Darwin in Arabic. Instead they read Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Ernst Haeckel, Herbert Spencer, Thomas Huxley, Gustave Le Bon, Henri Bergson and George Bernard Shaw in European or Arabic versions. They also read popularizing accounts of various aspects of Darwinism in the scientific and literary journal al-Muqtataf (“The Digest”, 1876–1952). The notion of evolution that Arab readers took away from their reading was often heavily infected by Lamarckism and by the social Darwinism of Spencer. Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published in 1859, but Isma‘il Mazhar’s translation of the first five chapters of Darwin’s book into Arabic only appeared in 1918.

For a long time, the reception of Darwinism was bedevilled by the need to find either neologisms or new twists to old words. As Marwa Elshakry points out, there was at first no specific word in Arabic for “species”, distinct from “variety” or “kind”. “Natural selection” might appear in Arabic with the sense “nature’s elect”. When Hasan Husayn published a translation of Haeckel, he found no word for evolution and so he invented one. Tawra means to advance or develop further. Extrapolating from this verbal root, he created altatawwur, to mean “evolution”. Darwiniya entered the Arabic language. Even ‘ilm, the word for “knowledge” acquired the new meaning, “science”. With the rise of scientific materialism came agnosticism, al-la’adriya, a compound word, literally “the-not-knowing”.

March:09:2014 - 07:55 | Comments Off | Permalink

Writing in Asharq Alawsat, Amir Taheri reviews Lawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson. The book demythologizes Lawrence of Arabia, noting what he actually did and did not do. There’s far less to the story than the myth (and David Lean’s 1962 film) lead one to believe.

The book also addresses, Taheri tells us, the facts behind two other famous myths, the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration.

The Deconstruction of a Hero
Amir Taheri

Lawrence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making
of the Modern Middle East

By Scott Anderson

The narrative goes something like this: The British sent one of their spies, T.E. Lawrence, to incite the Arabs to revolt against the Ottomans. Thus the British seized control of the Middle East, which they then carved into pieces in a deal with the French known as the Sykes–Picot Agreement. On the margins of the main events, the British also issued the Balfour Declaration, which gave Palestine to the Jews who created Israel.

The crucial point in that narrative is to obtain a proper understanding of its central personage: Lawrence.

If you thought you knew all you needed to know about “Lawrence of Arabia,” if only thanks to David Lean’s epic film, think again. Scott Anderson’s magisterial new book retells the story in a way that challenges some aspects of the Lawrence myth.

March:07:2014 - 08:48 | Comments Off | Permalink

Not only are Saudis Electricty Gluttons, they’re profligate in their use of water. They consume water at twice the global rate, according to a Canadian professor at King Saud University, as reported in Arab News.

This is bad news for the country and society. Most of Saudi Arabia’s drinking water comes from desalination plants. Those plants burn fuel — primarily petroleum products — and what’s being burnt to power the plants cannot be sold on the market. It’s a double-whammy.

What’s amazing, the professor says, is that until the oil boom, Saudis were very, very careful to conserve water. When it had to be found in springs or shallow, hand-dug wells, people knew how to conserve it and did so. Now, when it appears to be free, running from the taps, and is nearly free because of government subsidies, there seems to be no shame at all in wasting it.

KSA water consumption rate twice the world average

A professor at King Saud University (KSU) says that water consumption in Saudi Arabia is higher than in countries blessed with rechargeable aquifers and replenishable resources.

Mirza Barjees Baig, a Canadian professor at KSU’s department of agricultural extension and rural society, told Arab News that the average water consumption in the Kingdom is double the world average.

“Demand for water by households is growing at the rate 7.5 percent annually. This increasing demand seems roughly three times the population growth rate in the Kingdom,” Baig said, adding that the situation is alarming.

According to him, water consumption (by households) exceeds eight million cubic meters per day, and it is an unprecedented record ever for Saudi Arabia. On average, the daily per capita consumption of water in the Kingdom is about 265 liters, he noted.

February:28:2014 - 09:20 | Comments Off | Permalink
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