Friday, October 29, 2010

beggars with class

Saudi Arabia is fabulously rich as a country. In spite of that, or maybe because of that, you see a lot of beggars at street intersections and near the entrances of supermarkets or grocery stores. Islam discourages begging. But it encourages helping the poor, which is why begging is a profitable business here for foreigners. Foreign organised gangs bring in children from poorer countries and use them to collect alms. The gangsters appropriate a share of their earnings. But there are local beggars as well. According to one report of the Ministry of Social Affairs, 3459 beggars, all of them citizens of the Kingdom, were arrested recently. I could not ascertain the period during which the arrests were made. Most of those arrested were, not surprisingly, divorced or widowed women and physically disadvantaged, the section of society that is most vulnerable and helpless. One hopes the government would do more to provide opportunities and channel private donations (zakat etc.) to keep these people from begging and retain their honour and self-respect.

But there is another class of beggars that I am not sure if the Ministry of Social Welfare is aware of. They don't roam around in the sun or sit on the pavement. They drive around in their cars, sometimes quite expensive ones, accompanied by their family members, looking for prey. They speak a smattering of English and it seems their preys are foreigners who from their appearance seem to have cash to spare. I met one of those in front of the Jarir Bookstore at Khobar Corniche. He slowed down his big US-made car beside me and wanted to talk. At first I thought he would be asking for directions. But no, he was asking for money. He said he was returning from Bahrain to his native Qatif, and he somehow lost all his money and needed some dough to replenish his fuel tank and feed his son (who was seated beside him in the car). Hmm....

A few days later I was accosted by another Saudi guy, this time a muttawa-like, ostensibly religious, person with flowing beard and no black band over his headgear. I was in the parking lot of the HyperPanda at Rakah, approaching my car, and he was in a big SUV accompanied by his children and several abbaya-clad women, apparently his wife or wives and/or daughter(s). After some trivial pleasantries, he came to the point. He was travelling from the holy city of Mecca, and his vehicle broke down and he had to spend all his money in repairs. Now he needed some help to take his family back home or whatever. He lifted his hands heavenwards and promised to pray for me to the Almighty if I helped him in his distress. I offered him some money, against my instincts, and heard him reciting supplications as I turned back and walked towards my car.

photo credit: Omar Chatriwala, Al Jazeera English

Saturday, June 5, 2010

day trip to bahrain

Khobar City in Saudi Arabia is connected to neighbouring Bahrain with a causeway over the shallow coastal waters of the Gulf. The 28 km long King Fahd Causeway connects two peoples who share a common language, religion, culture and customs. However, as soon as one drives out of one country and enters the other, the changes one notices are very strong.

This is what I felt when, a few weeks ago, we made our first trip to Bahrain. It was a day trip, we just visited a few malls, watched a couple of movies, dined in restaurants and came back satisfied and determined to make more trips in future.

The first change you notice as you enter the island dwarfed by neighbouring Saudi Arabia is the discipline on the road. Drivers on the roads of Bahrain are saner and less inspired by car-chase scenes from Hollywood movies. One can drive in Bahrain with a lot more peace of mind.

The second thing that is in stark contrast with Saudi is the greater freedom enjoyed by women. You can see women driving cars, working in shops and offices and moving about without veils or the long black dress called abaya. My wife shed her abaya as soon as we got out of our car, which unsettled our kids. They had become so accustomed to see women in black, it was unnerving for them to see mom without her wraps in a Gulf Arab setting.

Bahrain has a number of movie theatres (cineplexes), something that you won't find in Saudi. We had missed the pleasure of wathcing movies on the big screen for so long that we decided to watch not one but two movies--How to Train Your Dragon (in 3D) and Nanny McPhee. The younger members of the family thoroughly enjoyed both.

There is one more big difference between the larger and the smaller kingdoms, although it is of no significance to me :). Bahrain is not a dry country. There are bars and nightclubs where alcohol is available and consumed, many of the consumers allegedly being nationals of the neighbouring country.

Monday, April 19, 2010

rain drops keep falling on the eastern province

Last week we had light-to-moderate drizzles several times over three or four consecutive days. I guess this is an unusual time of the year for precipitation around here. But it was a welcome relief, especially for us from the wetter part of South Asia who are accustomed to, and appreciate, the beauty of dark, overcast skies and heavy showers. The drizzles here were even accompanied with flashes of lightning! The sound of rain drops and the smell of wet earth added to the sensuous quality of the downpour. I couldn't help being nostalgic. Back home, however, the weather wasn't that pleasant. There were reports in the local press of a cyclone (wrong, it was in fact a nor'wester) that wreaked havoc in West Bengal, India, and to a lesser extent in Bangladesh.

Photo Credit: Ian Britton,

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

access to the service of the prospects for DSL

I am used to bad English. I've been to many places in Asia, and seen samples of weird English everywhere. They can be confusing; sometimes they are funny, sometimes outrageously so. Some people have the hobby of collecting samples of funny English and have published books or created Websites based on real life Engrish.

Examples of bad English can be found in Saudi Arabia too, but perhaps they are not as numerous as in China or Japan, the Meccas for Engrish-hunters. English is certainly not a fashion statement here. The credit for the weirdest English that I have come across in the Kingdom goes to the Saudi ISP and Telecom giant STC. Their Website promises you "access to the service of the prospects for DSL", an offer that I have happily accepted. See more details in the screenshot below (click on the image to enlarge it).

Saturday, February 20, 2010

jurassic night at scitech

There is a nice science museum at Khobar Corniche. Like most important landmarks in the Kingdom, it's named after a royal figure: Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Science and Technology Center (aka Scitech). The 35,000 square ft. facility is a nice, modern building housing an IMAX theatre and a number of galleries. Currently it's hosting an exhibition on dinosaurs, so I took the kids for a visit last evening. They were thrilled to see the big moving and roaring monsters and the replica of a T. Rex skeleton. The permanent exhibits were also interesting, most of them interactive with bilingual explanations and descriptions. My younger son, the more adventurous of the two, and I posed with a live snake, about a meter-and-a-half long, for a photograph. It's a nice place to spend an evening with the family. The gift shop and cafeteria were disappointing, though.

A bonus attraction last night was a street performance in front of the Museum by a Saudi dance troupe.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

saudi hospitality

My mother-in-law is visiting us and a few weeks ago we went to Mecca and Medina with her to visit the holy sites and perform umrah. We went by bus through one of the many umrah tour operators. It's a lot cheaper by bus, and you can view the landscape during the daytime. The downside is it's very tiring if you're travellling from the Eastern province. The journey to Mecca takes about 10 hours from Dammam.

The spiritual association and splendour of the holy sites would move anybody emotionally. You feel like you are a part of the humanity surrounding you. The physical structures instils inspiration, but the openness and the brightness does not make you feel like you are entrapped in an enclosure. What was disturbing is the towering structures abutting and dwarfing the holy site in Mecca. I hear that one of them (under construction) is going to be the world's tallest hotel building.

On our way back, the bus developed some mechanical problem, and we were stranded at a wayside service station while a team of mechanics were trying to fix the problem. We were in the middle of nowhere and were worried about how long we might need to remain there before the bus could move again. Meanwhile, I noticed a rustic-looking Saudi, who had driven in to refuel his battered, ancient station wagon, was talking to one of the passengers or our bus. The way they were talking and shaking hands seemed to me like they had known each other for ages. Though I am sure that cannot be true. About half an hour later, the Saudi reappeared with his car and parked right beside our bus. Then he handed over a bag of dates to one of the pilgrims standing near his car and asked him to distribute them among all the passengers. We thanked him profusely. I took one of the dates, which was, in significance if not in taste, one of the best dates that I ever had in my life.

After four hours or frantic efforts by the mechanics, we were back on the road and the driver rushed us to Dammam to reach there almost in time. Unfortunately, he received a speeding ticket on the way.

Photo credit:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

don't lose your stc sim card!

I had posted my experience with obtaining an STC sim card, which was bad enough, but, apparently the experience of losing one and trying to replace it is even worse. Our expatguru relates his harrowing experience.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

prejudice in saudi arabia?

I have been asked by a reader if the tribulations I have faced in various government and commercial officials have anything to do with my being a South Asian. In other words, whether they were manifestations of the alleged prejudice Saudis hold against Asians.

This is a bit difficult to tell, because it is always hard to guess what's happening in a person's mind. Unless someone acts in a blatantly prejudiced manner, or utters something explicit to that effect, I would prefer to give him or her the benefit of doubt. In the incidents that I have mentioned in my blog, I guess only the bank clerk who refused to entertain my application for opening an account may have acted in a prejudiced manner. May be, because I am from Bangladesh, he was worried that he was dealling with an imposter with doctored documents.

Otherswise, I think my problems have more to do with ignorance of the system, lack of wasta and inability to communicate in Arabic.

I have mentioned in an entry about the maltreatment and indignities Bangladeshi workers endure in Saudi Arabia. The same can be said about other South Asian workers here and in other Gulf countries. But this has more to do with what they do than where they are from. Menial workers in South Asia often receive the same kind of treatment from the more affluent sections of their society. Nonetheless, this is prejudice, no doubt.

Saudis come in all sorts of facial features and complexions. This is probably because, in the past, people from different parts of the world came to this region and became assimilated into its society. Slaves were brought in from Africa and Europe. Muslim from East, South and Central Asia had arrived on pilgramage and never went back. They all became part of Saudi society. Islam is an egalitarian religion that strictly forbids discrimination based on class or race. I'm sure there is prejudice (and racism) in Saudi society, but my guess is it is relatively rarer than, or on par with that in many other societies. This my guess only, I have to admit that my knowldege of Saudi society is too poor to form an informed opinion in this regard.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

kind-hearted bangladeshis

Saudi Arabia is probably home to the largest number of non-emmigrant Bangladeshis outside Bangladesh. It is estimated that close to 2 million Bangladeshis reside in this country. The vast majority of them work in the lowest rungs of job hierarchy. Cleaners, sweepers, construction workers and so on. Many of them have spent a lot of money to come here, only to find that the pay promised is not what is actually paid. There are Bangladeshi workers who earn 300-400 rials a month, which is not enough for their own survival, let alone feed their families back home. Consequently, they have to resort to moonlighting, doing odd jobs. Some work at homes cleaning, cooking, washing cars etc. This is not legally allowed, so there are arrests every now and then.

They face a lot of indignities in their life. As menial workers they are often abused verbally and discriminated against. However, my family and I have often been touched and moved by their kindness and generosity. There is one petrol pump attendant who would always buy a bagful of snacks and drinks for my children whenever I go to fill my tank. There was another supermarket worker, whose job was to stuff shopping bags with the items bought by the customer, who would do the same. Saying no to them is futile. The alternative is to avoid the places when they are on duty. At one intersection, while waiting for the signal to turn green, my wife asked for a rose from a street hawker selling flowers. She asked about its price, in Bengali, and realising that we were from Bangladesh, the guy left saying we didn't need to pay. There are many other examples that I can cite. The kindness shown by these people motivates us to reciprocate the favours.

Photo credit:Construction Week Online

Saturday, October 24, 2009

no more deshi doctors

The Saudi Gazette recently reported that the Ministry of Health will no longer recruit doctors from Bangladesh, citing low qualifications and poor training as the reasons. I am not sure if it is true, but I have heard that the pay of Bangladeshi doctors had been lowered some time in the past. If that is true, I am not surprised about the dearth of good doctors willing to come to Saudi. It may sound surprising, but good doctors in Bangladesh (thousands of them) earn much, much more than their compatriots do in the Kingdom. So why should they forsake the comfort of living in their own country if there is no lure of lucre?

Photo credit: