Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tribes, Islam, and Democracy

My mother sent me an email the other day, worried about how the events in Tunisia and Egypt might be affecting me here.

Believe me, everyone here is watching the news from North Africa very carefully. I highly recommend Al Jazeera English. They are nowhere near the impartial observers that some claim them to be--the royal family in Qatar funds them and I can guarantee you that every Middle Eastern royal family has some axe or another to grind and nasty bits to cover up--but Al Jazeera has reporters on the ground all over the world who are posting reports in real time.

Where did the Tunisian president run to? Saudi Arabia. Where did Mubarak's cronies and their families slink off to? Dubai. Every single Islamic ruler, whether he is king or president or prime minister, has dirty hands. Every single Islamic country has problems with deep and widespread poverty and unemployment, the latter a particular problem among males in their 20s and 30s. It is certainly easy to lay the blame for all of this on the British and Americans (and other western European powers) who happily carved up the Islamic world in the 20th century. Not only is that finger-pointing too easy, it obscures more important relationships.

There are many other factors that come into play in this part of the world: Sunni versus Shia, water versus oil. I have learned that one of the most important factors is tribe versus...well, versus everything else. In most of the Islamic cultures (Arabic and Central Asian for the most part), tribe trumps all other associations. Inexplicable decisions and behaviors almost always come back to enriching the finances or power of the tribe or protecting it. Islam is a cloak on top of it but the tribal culture was in place long before Islam was "revealed" to Mohammed 1400 years ago.

The wealthy, oil-rich nations such as Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, and Saudi are run by hereditary monarchies, all Sunni. Their hold on power is precarious, dependent on them using their countries' oil wealth to placate the uneducated, unemployed masses (there's quite often a large number of Shias in the masses). They don't do a very good job of placating but these countries do lack the millions of people that live in dire poverty in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Gaza/West Bank, Central Asia, and elsewhere.

Is democracy really the answer? I would suggest that it is a poor fit to the tribal culture, which by definition is an extremely vertical hierarchy. People in power in a democracy will still make the same tribally-driven decisions that they would make in any other form of government, thus degrading the ability of the democracy to function.

Democracy depends strongly on an educated populace. You wouldn't have to argue long to convince me that the populace in the US is more uneducated and ignorant of science, math, geopolitics, even basic civility than ever before in its history, and that as a result our democracy isn't working all that well either. Still, even the uneducated and ignorant in the US more or less embrace the concept of one man, one vote.

Those two concepts, education and one man, one vote, are alien to the tribal cultures. They threaten the tribal culture. Islam only makes things worse by removing all personal responsibility and introducing a bizarre fatalism into its adherents. I've had educated Muslims say to me, in all seriousness, "Who knows what will happen tomorrow? Who knows if the sun will rise?" They even toss these types of comments out when told of a friend's death in a car accident, caused by that friend's own irresponsible actions: God meant for him to die that day. It wouldn't have mattered if he was driving the speed limit or not. So they all drive like maniacs--because in their view, it doesn't matter. God has it all worked out.

Islam is a theoretically a received religion. It does not include the concept of free will or personal revelations from God. From birth, Muslims are indoctrinated to do what they are told and to expect severe punishment if they don't obey (this is not often discussed but most of these tribal cultures are founded on fear; people don't behave because they choose to but because they fear the consequences if they don't). This is the fundamental basis of tribe. If the authority of the tribe was questioned, it would fall because it has no authority other than claiming itself to be the authority. This is in stark contract to democracy. You may not like what others say, but the political system itself does not fail because it is criticized or questioned.

Those in power at the pinnacles of the tribe structure like things just the way they are, thank you very much. Some of them are aware of the inconsistencies and hypocrisies but most truly believe that how things are is exactly how God has determined that they should be.

So the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt are surprising. They represent tribal people fighting the tribal structure, Muslims saying, things should be better (implying that God perhaps had it wrong the day before...?). Could such events happen in Bahrain? Saudi Arabia? Jordan? Iran? Well, the Iranians have tried a couple of times before and not had much success. And the oil-rich Gulf nations keep a tight lid on their people by dribbling out some bread now and then (no circuses here) and keeping a highly visible police and military. (Examples of "bread" would include massive fuel subsidies and large public works projects.) There is always a tipping point in a complex system at which that system will undergo a radical reorganization. But the Gulf nations aren't anywhere close to that point.

Saudi Arabia is the most repressive of the tribal Muslim countries. No "mixing of the sexes" so no public gathering places, libraries, sports facilities, movie theaters. They import a vast army of expats, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians, Philippinos, numbering in the millions, to do their dirty work: construction, sanitation, gardening, driving, cleaning, raising children. There is a huge number of Saudi men and women who are idle--no job, no opportunities, no future. Saudi Arabia has the same elements that led to the riots and changes in Tunisia and Egypt. Except that all of those idle Saudis are not wanting for food, water, gas, appliances, new cars, houses, electricity...the muttering is present here but it is barely a whisper. The imported labor may be unhappy but they are hardly the ones who will effect change in these countries.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

To My Terriers

I know, I know, I owe you at least one more France adventure posts. I won't make lame excuses for failing to deliver. That last post will come, but I felt inspired to write about something else tonight.

I've completed the first two weeks of the latest round of my dog training classes--I'm getting lots of positive emails from the participants and am pleased with their progress so far. (This is my one year anniversary for teaching the classes with Aramco Community Education--I think I'm getting a lot better at this training business.) I'm teaching two sessions of the basic obedience classes, one here in Dhahran on Thursdays and the second in Ras Tanura on Fridays. Both classes are full (I set the limit to 8 dogs per class). And I'm teaching a Rally Obedience class that runs for two hours on Thursdays. That class has 6 dog/handlers enrolled, 7 if you include me and Mimi since she and I take our turn on all of the courses. The Rally class is going really well--some super fun handlers with very good attitudes who are doing amazing things with their dogs. Mimi features prominently in all of these classes as a demo dog, so her weekend schedule is quite busy.

In the Friday RT class, there are two pure-bred salukis, littermate brothers. They are short haired and tan colored. Sadly, the owners named the dogs Barney and Peanut. (Arabic has to be the least melodious language I've ever encountered, and the culture hasn't advanced in 600 years. Nonetheless, I'm surprised the owners couldn't come up with cool Arabic names to suit these beautiful animals. But that's what you get when you let children name dogs.) These seven-month-old pups, whose heads reach up to my hip, are absolutely gorgeous dogs. I plan to study the breed standard because I suspect that although they are not perfect specimens, they are still very nice examples of the breed. In fact, I'd say they are pretty unusual examples.

Both pups are outgoing, friendly, engaged with their people, happy to take treats, and so far doing quite well in the obedience classes. Hardly the characteristics one associates with a saluki.

I've also got a private student, a Saudi guy, who got a saluki from a puppy mill in Dammam. She's had several litters (he doesn't know that but all the signs are there) and she is physically deformed from her puppy mill confinement (feet splayed out because her tendons have stretched and weakened due to lack of exercise; numerous scars on her head, ears, and flanks from dog fights, etc). Faiz named her Lucky because, as he told me, he thought that he was lucky to have picked her. She's a gem of a dog--patient with his kids, tolerates the chickens running around in his yard, and totally trainable. Lucky and Faiz have to be two of my best students so far. I told him that he was lucky to have found such a special dog!

This set of salukis has made me re-evaluate my prejudices against the breed. Sure, there are plenty of horribly dog-aggressive salukis and saluki crosses on camp with horribly clueless owners. But I am starting to understand what makes the breed appealing.

Still, I'll always love the terriers more than other types of dogs. I love my feisty little smooth foxes. I embrace the fact that I have to put up THREE puppy gates in my shitty little 800-square foot apartment to keep my dogs from misbehaving during the day. I love the fact that I can experiment with training a front and finish with Mimi using three totally different methods and she is cool with all three. I love the fact that my dogs destroy most plush toys in seconds. I am happy that my terriers accepted Tsingy into their--and her--new home and treat her like another dog.

I am not at all surprised at how well the terriers have adjusted to this new place--the heat is bad enough but the dust and salt compound the insult. The smooth foxes take it all in stride.

This post is dedicated to Harry, my little old man (12 1/2 years old) who is now starting to stumble over curbs (does he just not see them as well or is he getting a bit forgetful about the concept of curbs?), who tolerates Mimi with an infinite patience that he never had in his youth, who brings me his favorite babies over and over again hoping to entice me to play, who loves his belly rubs, who is getting very gray indeed, and who curls up next to me each and every night.

And it is dedicated to Mimi, my vivacious little terror, who absolutely and utterly ignores every dog in every class because for her, it's all about training with me (many thanks go to the trainers who helped me get her to that place), who steals toys from Harry with impunity, who plays with the cat, who despite more than 5 years of training still has no recall, who tries to eat every loose bit of flotsam she can find inside and outside the house, who goes berserk over the sight of every feral cat we encounter, and who curls up with me each and every night.

Here's to Harry and Mimi, whose follow the afternoon sun like plants. To Mimi, who sits on the dining table looking out the window each afternoon waiting for me to get home from work (she apparently anticipates Upul's lunchtime arrival every day as well). To Harry who may miss flyball but has the class not to complain about it.

Here's to the terriers. Tough, feisty, fearless. Guardy, stubborn, and quick to bite first, ask questions later. Full of life and bounce. As ready to go for a jaunt in the jebels as they are to curl up on the couch and take a nap.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Catching Up

The next round of dog training classes begin next weekend--I realized this is my last weekend to finish the France posts and get caught up on recent news. 

Happy dogs chewing on beef bones. The beds were due for a wash so I thought I'd let the dogs chew on their bones in the sun in comfort. 

The biggest news of all is that I got a new car. Yes, the Tata and I had to part ways. It was always a junky little car and I finally decided I couldn't deal with it any longer. It was a good car that got me through my first year here but I wanted a car that was heavier, safer, and more reliable. I think that the Tata is a lemon: it is starting to have some serious transmission problems, the springs/shocks in the rear are going, it sometimes fails to start, especially in the summer; the electric window motors are failing (the driver's window is permanently cracked open now), the tires need aligning--even though the car is only a year old (this may not be the case; I had no way to verify the age of the car when I bought it), any of these would not necessarily be a crisis if I had access to a mechanic that could work on it. But I can't just hop in the car and take it to a garage. I did have Mohammed my private driver take it to the dealer to look into the tire alignment and they said, everything is fine. Well, I'm not stupid and everything is not fine. So I'm dumping the crappy little car.

I bought a 2010 pale green Honda CRV. The dealer happened to have one in their warehouse so I was able to get the car in a week. The Saudi government is currently denying registration applications of women who want to purchase cars (they do this every so often; no reason except that some Wahhabi imam got a bee in his bonnet about the matter and whined to the king; this despite the fact that the Quran says fuck all about women owning cars, or driving for that matter) but I paid a bit under the table and the dealer got my istmarrah (car registration) taken care of via "the tunnel" as he calls it. 

 The dealer tossed in floor mats, the spiffy Honda window shades, and a fire extinguisher.

In fact, the entire purchase experience was a little odd. I of course couldn't test drive any car I was interested in. Here, cars don't have stickers in the windows listing the prices. There isn't a lot with cars lined up for you to view. Reputable dealers have showrooms with one of each model. You have to make your selection of color and such based on options listed in a catalog. And I had to pay cash. I had to have my own manager and a supervisor in the Aramco Treasury department initial a personal check, which I carted off to the bank next to the commissary. They cheerfully handed me a pile of cash and a small brown envelope to put it in. I felt like I was involved in running drugs or something. I then carried that bag of cash to the car dealer that very night--it may be "funny money" but it was still a big wad of cash to be carrying around. And all the toing and froing involved taxis and my private driver, which required an additional layer of scheduling.

Pile of cash. Yes, those are two stacks of 500 riyal notes.

But the end result is a new car.

I pulled the Iranian gebbeh carpet out of the Tata, cleaned it, and put it in the new Honda. Nothing but the best for my dogs. The rear seats are completely folded up--plenty of room for dog training class gear and Mimi.

Note: As I was finishing up this post, I got a call from the Honda manager who sold me the car. He was making sure that I got a chance to drive it around today and that I was happy with it. Now that is service!

I tested the first bottle of my own red whine today. Here it is, unlabeled, anonymous (I put do put code and date stickers on the bottles to keep track of things). It has only been in the bottle for 3 months so really is still too young to drink. But I wanted to know if my first efforts were worth saving. If it was awful, I was going to pour it out and start over.

 KDA's own red whine.

I let the wine yeast run its course, then decanted everything into a new container which I let sit for a couple of weeks. Then I bottled it. That was back in October. But the liquid going into the bottles smelled absolutely horrible. And it tasted vile too. I asked around and apparently it does get pretty stinky in those early stages. Patience is the key--I should have let it sit in the second container longer. And it needs to sit in the bottles longer too. To my surprise, it has a high alcohol content, nearing the upper range of what the yeast will tolerate (probably 15-16%) which makes it rather stiff indeed. But for a first effort, it isn't bad.
My friend G in SLC sent us a thoughtful christmas box stuffed full of dog toys. I thought it would be fun to film the dogs playing with their new toys for the first time. Towards the end you'll see Mimi steal a toy from Harry, who rather casually turns around and starts playing with the toy she just dropped. They do this toy switch thing fairly often and it always surprises me. I would expect more typical terrier reactions such as one dog trying to kill the other who took the toy.

But these two terriers seem to have found a harmonious center to their relationship. They frequently curl up to sleep touching each other (not curled together but legs and such will be in contact). They eat within feet of each other. One will honor the other when I have a clicker training session. They actually seem to like being together. None of these behaviors are typical for fox terriers. DSL thinks it is because there are only two of them. There is less competition therefore they are less anxious about the little things. There is probably truth in what she says.

Anyway, I hope you like this video of my happy dogs.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Adventures Part 8: France -- Navigation and Language

Readers Note: All photos in this post were taken by DSL. I swiped them from her Flickr stream, which you can find here. She takes much better (and many more) pictures than I do, apparently.

"Bonjour, Gendarmerie!"

Navigation established itself as a theme of our trip from the day that I met DSL at the Frankfurt Airport and we picked up the rental car (a very nice Renault Scenic diesel). I had a giant, spiral-bound A-to-Z road atlas for France, a couple of regional maps, and of course, XMotion GPS software on my iPad. Both of us know how to read maps. I thought we were adequately armed with navigation information.

The regional map of Burgundy wasn't very helpful. DSL's caption for this was "This is what happens when maps don't work. You should have seen KDA an hour earlier." Smartass. The stupid map stayed like that for the rest of the trip.

Still, we managed to get lost every single day. Sometimes it was just a missed turn or exit, resolved by circling around and trying again. But there were some larger navigation mishaps such as the night we tried to find the hovel for the first time.

Our first night in the hovel.

The drive from Trier to south-central France took far longer than I had planned. It should have taken a total of 10 hours divided between two easy driving days. Instead, we were on the road for almost 8 hours the first day and nearly 12 hours the second.

Before we leave Germany, I thought I put up some photos since I didn't take many myself and the previous blog post was a bit light on images.

Me and my mother, Judy.

Trier at night. The Christmas Market hadn't opened yet but they were setting up.

Um. Words fail me.

KDA in Bernkassel-Kues, Germany. Pretty pastel paint on the buildings.

My mother and her husband Dave, Trier, Germany.

The Porta Negra at night, part of the original Roman wall and fortifications around the town. Our hotel in Trier was a stone's throw from this gate.

We managed to navigate out of Trier using some crappy printed Google maps, and find our way to Metz, France, and then to the Orange store in downtown Metz, all due to the excellent navigation skills of DSL (she did direct me towards an oncoming bus the day we arrived in Trier but we'll let that one go...). In the Metz Orange store, I purchased a microSIM for my iPad so we could use the Orange 3G network to get to the maps for the GPS software.

The cathedral in Metz. Metz turned out to have a very pretty old town center. That entire northeast corner of France is certainly worth spending more time in.

In the next day and a half, we managed to navigate out of Metz, south through Burgundy, and west to Limoges. By the time we arrived in Limoges, we were approaching 9 hours on the road for that second day. It was dark, cold, and we were both tired. I was navigating.

To be honest, I thought I knew where the house was--the address was in Saint-Laurent-sur-Gorre which was relatively easy to find on the map. It is a small village located a few kilometers southwest of Limoges. And in fact we made it to that little village without too much trauma.

This is a view of the entire "main drag" in Saint-Laurent-sur-Gorre.

And that's where luck, maps, and technology all failed us. Not because we had bad luck or bad technology. But for technology to work best, you do have to have a reasonably good idea of where you are supposed to end up. As it turns out, that is the one critical bit of information that we did not have.

This is the speck called La Cote. It's so small it doesn't have any stores. Not even a tabac shop. View is north from the end of the street where the hovel is located.

From Saint-Laurent-sur-Gorre, I had to revert to the instructions emailed to me by the ditzy absentee owner. And let me just put it all on the table: that woman couldn't navigate her way out of a wet paper bag. Words like "north" or "west" are not in her vocabulary. Tidbits such as "go 2 km down this road" were apparently just too much information for her to provide. Even comments such as "turn left at the sign for La Cote" were far too complex. She mentioned "landmarks" that had no signs and never mentioned the numerous signs that were actually there. Here are her directions exactly as she emailed them to me:
Continue to Saint Laurent going through the town on the main road. As you follow the road round you will see a Fire Station on your left and a School on your right. Continue up the hill past the gendarmerie and take the next turn on your left. This road leads you out of the village. Continue until you come to a crossroads and turn left. Carry on and take the second turning on your left (there is a house at this junction), our house is first on left down this lane leading you into a courtyard with a barn to the left or facing you as you drive in and our house is on the right hand side of the same courtyard.
DSL and I spent TWO HOURS driving in circles looking for the hovel. In the dark. After hours and hours of driving already. You can imagine how frustrated and tired we were. Main road? All roads were two-lane or smaller. Note the bit about "this road leads you out of the village"? We took every single road leading out of the village at least twice (there were about half a dozen of them). Was a "crossroads" a four-way intersection or just a turn left or right off the main road? Any of these were possible. We never figured out where the fire station was. We think we identified the location of the school during our second week passing to and fro through the village.

In fact, out of that entire paragraph of gibberish, the only landmark we could find was the gendarmerie. We would pick a road, drive kilometers out of St-L-sur-G, testing all possible turnings to see if they fit the "model", give up, and return to the gendarmerie.

In desperation, after two hours of this, I called the owner. Her directions on the phone were even more frustratingly vague. In the end, she called up some English guy she knew who lived in the area. He met us at the gendarmerie and we followed him back to the hovel.

This is an amazingly beautiful picture of the hovel taken after we returned from one of our day trips (more on those in another post). This was the only evening it didn't rain or snow.

As a result of that first traumatic evening, every single day as we drove through St-Laurent-sur-Gorre, we would sing out "Bonjour, Gendarmerie!" as we passed our one and only landmark.

We snapped this on our way out. This is the only picture in this post that I can claim.

We got lost at least two more times returning to the house in subsequent days.

The hovel is on the left. Another nice picture despite the grey skies. The owner should hire DSL to make publicity shots for her ad.

Another amazing shot of the back of the hovel. This was the only evening it did not rain or snow during our 11 days there.

Still, once we got in the groove, the iPad proved to be an invaluable tool. Orange has astonishing cell coverage across France, even in the country, and we used the GPS software on the iPad every day to make day trips to all sorts of amazing places in south-central France.

Even in the hovel, we could get to the Orange 3G network and check email. Both of us had our iPads with books and other entertainment loaded up. The biggest problem in the hovel was finding a working outlet to recharge the things. Lack of reliable internet connectivity, just like the lack of hot water, would have driven us out of the hovel much sooner.

Wine at hand, fire to the right, covered with down-filled duvet, reading an ebook on the iPad. Despite the fact that the kitchen and our bedrooms were colder than the inside of the refrigerator, this wasn't too bad.

"Ou sont les toilettes?"

I've been taking French classes through Community Education here at Aramco. DSL started the Pimsleur taped language program and I followed her example as soon as I realized to my dismay that the third French class wasn't offered last fall like I had hoped. I knew going into to this trip that my French was extremely limited. Still, I hoped that enthusiasm would help me past the rough spots.

And in fact, it did. I attempted to speak French in every conversation that I had during my stay there. Mispronounced, halting (I speak two or three words at a time then pause so I sound like I have either a speech impediment or a learning disability), limited to present tense or only one type of past tense, with only a few dozen verbs at my ready disposal (I know more but in the heat of the moment I'd revert to using just a few reliable ones)--the French people we interacted with were for the most part amused and quite pleasant about it all.

Limousin countryside. Nothing to do with language, just a pretty picture.

When I had interactions involving more than just a sentence or two, like talking to the B&B owners in Cour Cheverny over breakfast each morning, I found that the French were never shy about correcting my mistakes. And I was extremely careful to repeat the correction back to them to make sure I had it right. They'd beam and nod their head and we'd continue stumbling along.

Overall, I'd say the first immersion experience was a success. 

Baked chicken. Yum!

One of the secrets is context. If you sit down in a restaurant and the waiter comes up and starts babbling away in French, first, be flattered that he didn't peg you as a tourist the moment you walked in, or that he's at least polite enough to know that you are a tourist but will pretend otherwise for the moment. And second, you can assume he is talking about what you want to eat and drink. So I'd listen for a handful of familiar words and take a stab at a reply.

We spread wood out around the living room each morning in the hopes that it would dry a little by evening.

And the other secret is planning. I'd actually plan out what I wanted to say before I opened my mouth. This helped a lot during adventures such as negotiating with a neighbor down the lane from the hovel to buy a new allotment of firewood. He spoke not a word of English--just a country boy, really. Afterwards, DSL said, why didn't you stand there talking to him longer? He seemed to want to chat more. (I agree that he found us rather amusing.) But I was just so relieved to have actually accomplished the transaction that I figured, better stop while things were going so well.

Fruits of another successful language adventure: the box of firestarters I purchased next to the motor oil which we had used the night before.

I spoke French during the entire transaction to purchase an Orange SIM card for my phone in Blois. And DSL and I had a riotous time in the Marche de Noel in Aixe-sur-Vienne chatting to the various vendors. The honey seller in particular got quite a kick out of my poor, ragged French. But he really stumped me when he asked me if I liked Obama. Since I couldn't make any reasonable reply (I can handle concrete conversations about buying sausages or wine but not ones about philosophical topics), I asked him in return his opinion of Sarkozy (he wasn't very impressed with him).

Baked pasta layered with goat cheese and homemade tomato sauce cooked up with fresh basil, garlic, and onions. Yum!

Now I'm going to tease DSL a bit because she hardly spoke French at all during our three weeks galivanting around. In fact, one of the only complete sentences I heard her utter was when she asked a waitress where the toilets were.

This self-portrait of DSL just cracks me up. So serious! She put this caption on it: "Took this photo to prove I was there." Hovel is the second house back along the lane.

Such innocence. On our drive from Trier to Limousin. We had no idea what was in store for us.