Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Discrimination at KAUST

Personal Freedoms

I value my personal freedoms, and as a privileged member of the KAUST community I do have lots of freedoms. I am free to go to the restaurants, the market, the library, or the gym any time I want to during business hours. I am also free to come and go from the KAUST compound any time I like. Really, I am free to do almost whatever I please (within reason), except to spend time with the Filipino and Bangladeshi guys who work service jobs at KAUST. This irks me. I don't care about adding one more privilege to the mountain I already have, but I do care for these men and women who have no privileges at all.

The Story of the Rich Man and the Poor Man

There is an old story about injustice - perhaps you know it - about a rich man who owned many sheep and cattle and a poor man who had nothing except for one little female lamb. The poor man raised her, and she grew up with him and his sons. She shared his food, drank from his cup, and even slept in his arms.

One day a traveler came to the rich man's house, but instead of taking one of his own animals, the rich man took the lamb which belonged to the poor man and slaughtered her for his guest.

The Little Lamb

At KAUST, there used to be a weekly basketball game between students and recreation staff. The recreation staff members enjoyed this game so much that they rearranged their work schedules to participate... it was the one night a week they could have fun and get some much needed exercise after standing or sitting at their job all day.

Four weeks ago, a terrible thing happened. The students left campus for spring vacation, but many of the employees came for basketball anyway. On that unfortunate day, KAUST-Aramco manager who oversees Saudi Oger recreation was watching. He was furious. The employees had violated one of recreation's unwritten rules: no workers are ever allowed to use the community's sports or service facilities. When it was discovered that most of them were Filipino employees, there was talk of firing them all and deporting them back to their home country, but there was also one Lebanese employee amongst the transgressors, and management couldn't fire and deport an Arab.

The Filipinos and company were given a final warning and suspended without pay for 3-5 days. Now there are no more games between students and staff, no more exercise for the employees, nothing to break up the daily monotony of their lives between working at KAUST and busing to the work camp. Now their little lamb is gone.

The Meeting

I arranged a meeting with the manager thinking that it was just a misunderstanding, but the injustice and prejudice against foreign workers runs deep here. The manager told me that my Filipino friends are dangerous people and that if they are given half a chance they will lie, cheat, steal, and otherwise endanger the entire community. They are not allowed to use the facilities, not just because of crowding during peak hours, he said, but because they are not welcome at KAUST when they are not working. They have no rights to relationships or recreation inside the KAUST community, he said, because these might be an inconvenience to me. That is just the way Saudi Oger employees are controlled.

"What do they do after work then?" I asked.

"I don't know, it is not my concern," was his response

Apartheid at KAUST

At KAUST, there are more than 4,000 permanent contracted employees to serve only 1,000 residents. Most of these men and women are from Bangladesh and from the Philippines. They are bussed in every morning of every day from their work camps in Thuwal or Jeddah to wipe our windows, polish our floors, sweep our houses, wipe our toilet seats, and sit behind desks handing out tennis rackets and bowling shoes. Each employee works 10-12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, and is "not well paid," according the the manager.

There are four Filipino and Bangladeshi workers for every one KAUST student, professor, and staff member. Whenever one of the contracted workers greets me with a smile and a wave, he makes me both happy and sad. Happy because those gestures are genuine, but sad because as long as Saudi Oger's rules remain unchanged, this is the only interaction we will ever have. They are nameless persons without freedoms brought here for our convenience. Having contracted workers in this way is kind of like owning slaves, Arab News says, and it makes me sick to my stomach. It is difficult for me to live in a community which systematically separates and excludes so many people who work here.

Business Incentives

Why does KAUST need 4,000 services staff for 1,000 KAUST students, professors, and employees? We don't, but perverse business incentives have made the system what it is today.

Filipinos and Bangladeshis will work for almost nothing because the economic situation in their home countries is so difficult. Contractors like Saudi Oger negotiate contracts with clients like KAUST based on the number of employed workers and total work hours. If a company makes more money for providing more workers who are "not well paid," then the business incentive for Saudi Oger is to bring as many workers as possible. Unfortunately, having so many underpaid, overworked, and under-respected employees means that there has to be some extra rules to control the crowds.

The Problems

To keep control, passports are confiscated, walled compounds with crowded bunkhouses are constructed for sleeping and eating, and contracted employees are only allowed to be at work or to be at the compound. No fun, no other human interaction.

Though this apartheid may be acceptable in other parts of the KSA, it makes many of the foreign visitors at KAUST feel uneasy. We need a better model.

A Suggestion

Quality over quantity might be a better philosophy of hiring. What if we had 800 or fewer contracted workers instead of 4,000? Fewer employees means easier care and control, and maybe the salaries and standard of living could be raised a little bit too. Instead of busing thousands of workers in and out of the KAUST compound every day, perhaps a few hundred economy apartments could be provided for these skilled employees. With a better standard of living, better salary, better treatment than the average worker in Saudi Arabia, and membership in the KAUST community, there would be far less incentive for the imagined lying, cheating, and stealing which the manager is trying to prevent.

With fewer workers, maybe a few cash registers at the supermarket would remain unmanned, maybe a maid might not be available to clean my house within ten minutes of calling housekeeping, and maybe some of the windows on campus would remain smudged longer before being wiped, but increased trust and respect between people might be worth a few dirty windows. The janitor and I could shop in the same supermarket, use the same public bathrooms, send our children to the same school, and maybe even play a little basketball together. Does that sound too radical?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wedding After-Party

After the wedding we went out for a few hours of Sheesha and talked and laughed late into the night about the evening's events and antics. One of my friend smoked the largest "hubbly-bubbly" I have ever seen; I called it the kilo-sheesha (in red).

Friday, April 16, 2010

الف مبروك يا عريس! / A Saudi (Jeddawi) Wedding

One thousand congratulations to my friend who was just married! Last night, I had what may have been a once-in-a-lifetime chance to attend a Jeddah-style Saudi wedding. Pictured above are the groom (Arees) his father and grandfather as they began the festivities.

All of my Saudi friends insisted that Jeddawi (people form Jeddah) weddings were more fun than other weddings because they are so lively (at least on the men's side, I have no idea what the women were doing the whole time.) In this picture, the father (left), son (right), and two grandfathers (I think...) are dancing with swords. The old man in white looks was having a great time!

In Jeddah, as in all of Saudi Arabia and much of the Middle East, the culture of keeping men and women separated extends even to weddings. The men danced and celebrated with the groom from 9:00 pm to midnight while the women, unseen by us, were celebrating in kind in another large room. Rumor has it that when the men are away they take off their Abayas and wear the most beautiful and colorful dresses, but I cannot confirm this from my personal experience.

I don't know what the meaning of this tradition is, but it seemed important so I took a snapshot. Again, more smiling and more dancing.

The food was excellent of course! Lamb and rice is typical Saudi style and the tender, juicy meat was cooked to perfection. Notice that there are only three spoons at a table sitting eight people. Use your hands, silly American!

After the meal, the water stopped running in the bathrooms for a while (local pressure drop), leaving dozens of guests standing around awkwardly with rice dripping from their fingers. We were in Jeddah!

The band, pictured here, also doubled as a pep squad to keep everyone excited and involved in the festivities. I got pulled into the dancing more than once - they wanted to be sure that I, an obvious foreigner, felt completely included in the celebration.

I have never danced with men before, and I still have some natural American tenancies to shy away from these kind of things. But, in the interest of heightening my cultural awareness, making new friends, and having loads of fun, I overcame these cultural barriers. Shookran shebab!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Palestine: Bethlehem

After visiting Hebron (El Khalil), I caught a taxi to Bethlehem to see the famous Church of the Nativity and spend the night before returning to Amman. The old church was beautiful to see.

I talked with both Christian and Muslim Arabs while wandering and reflecting in the church. Bethlehem is a place where people can live side-by-side in mutual respect without the religious tension which is felt in some other Middle-Eastern countries. This peaceful co-existence is further evidenced by the sunset-framed silhouette of a mosque's minaret across from the church.

After meeting the priest of the church, one of my new friends insisted that I had to cross the street and meet his Imam too. : )

After a full day's travel, I spent much of the night conversing, eating, smoking sheesha, and meeting the extended families of my Palestinian friends. Their hospitality was unbeatable - as a guest, I was welcomed warmly and treated to the best they had to offer.

But even in this peaceful suburb, the consequences of conflict and political unrest still loomed. Before leaving town the following morning, my friend insisted that I see where his little brother's final resting place lay - his life cut short by a bullet during a fight between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians some years ago.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Koran's Easter Story

Yesterday was Easter, the most important of the Christian holidays. Though Islam and Christianity differ about other details of Jesus' life and mission, we agree on these important points: (1) he is not dead (2) his is with God in heaven. These are the Koran verses which describe the Easter we celebrated yesterday. n
سُوۡرَةُ مَریَم
وَٱلسَّلَـٰمُ عَلَىَّ يَوۡمَ وُلِدتُّ وَيَوۡمَ أَمُوتُ وَيَوۡمَ أُبۡعَثُ حَيًّ۬ا (٣٣) ذَٲلِكَ عِيسَى ٱبۡنُ مَرۡيَمَ‌ۚ قَوۡلَ ٱلۡحَقِّ ٱلَّذِى فِيهِ يَمۡتَرُونَ (٣٤)
"Peace on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive!" (33) Such was Jesus, son of Mary: (this is) a statement of the truth concerning which they doubt. (34)
سُوۡرَةُ آل عِمرَان
إِذۡ قَالَ ٱللَّهُ يَـٰعِيسَىٰٓ إِنِّى مُتَوَفِّيكَ وَرَافِعُكَ إِلَىَّ وَمُطَهِّرُكَ مِنَ ٱلَّذِينَ ڪَفَرُواْ وَجَاعِلُ ٱلَّذِينَ ٱتَّبَعُوكَ فَوۡقَ ٱلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوٓاْ إِلَىٰ يَوۡمِ ٱلۡقِيَـٰمَةِ‌ۖ ثُمَّ إِلَىَّ مَرۡجِعُڪُمۡ فَأَحۡڪُمُ بَيۡنَكُمۡ فِيمَا كُنتُمۡ فِيهِ تَخۡتَلِفُونَ (٥٥)
Behold! Allah said: "O Jesus! I will take thee (blogger's note: muatwafeek means literally "to die" but is translated "to take") and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject Faith, to the Day of Resurrection; then shall ye all return unto Me, and I will judge between you of the matters wherein ye dispute. (55)

Jesus is alive, and he has shown us the way to heaven, this is why we celebrate this Easter!

The full story can be found here in English or Arabic.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday Reflections

This is Good Friday, the Friday before Christianity's most important Holiday, Easter. Good Friday was actually the darkest and most terrifying period which the early followers of Jesus ever experienced.

There were no heroes that day. The disciples acted clueless and cowardly, the Roman guards were horribly cruel, the governor was contemptibly corrupt, the religious leaders unbelievably evil, and at the end of that terrible day Jesus lay buried in a tomb.

So why do Christians call it Good Friday... ? Because amazingly, death is not the end of Jesus' story.

If you are interested, the full story can be read here.