July 10, 2013

Ramadhan Mubarak - Anyone Hungry?


Yes, my long-dormant alter ego springs back to life for a moment.  For two things.  Firstly, I'd like to say hello and thank you for reading over the last couple of years, and also to explain myself a little.  I've been a bit busy, but also (in sha' Allah) finding some more effective ways to get the things on my mind heard by people who might be able to do something about it.  I can't say much more about that, only that "real me" is trying to do more of what "TLS-me" is, I feel, unable to do.  Anyway, I might still post once in a while, and I'm really grateful to everyone who'e read, commented on and shared anything I've written.  You are good people.

Secondly, a ramble along more traditional lines: I'm wondering why food outlets close during the day in Ramadhan.  Half the adult population of Oman are not Omani, and I would estimate that half of those are not Muslim.  That's hundreds of thousands of people who can't buy a sandwich, for reasons I can't really fathom.  Of course, eating and drinking, or worse, smoking in public might be irritating for those who are fasting.  But as a father who's often cooked for his children while fasting, or been in an environment where he's the only Muslim and happily watched others eating and drinking, I'm wondering: what's the big deal here?  This is not just pandering to non-Muslim readers, but also recognising the reality that for one week of the month, Muslim women don't fast either.  Neither do nursing mothers, small children, pregnant women, ill people, or in some cases, travelers.  So why make a regulation that denies them the perfectly reasonable freedom to go out for coffee or lunch?

It's not as if the average Muslim would or should be offended by watching someone else eat.  As most people in this society live in large extended families, I'm sure the vast majority of fasting Muslims today will have a child, a woman, someone in their house who is not fasting.  So would it really be so awful to drive past a restaurant and see some people having a meal?  In public, perhaps it's inconsiderate (and I hate to smell smoke when fasting, especially), but the blanket regulation of closing food outlets until just before dusk, is silly.  And bad business.  Also, I wonder what tourists (Oman's priority diversified industry, remember) make of it.

Anyway, rant over.  And I have one crumb (literally!) of comfort to any of you who are wishing they could get some lunch.  I don't normally do this, but as I know the owners to be good people and I eat there myself from time to time, I will.  Anyway, it was a message from them that made me think of this:  

Cafe Glacier (that's the one at the back of Zakher Mall in Khuwair, behind "Best Burger"), is open for takeaways during Ramadhan, from 12pm until 3pm every day, for light meals only i.e. soups, salads and sandwiches.  Call up on 98007111 to order, and collect.  Or course, you still need somewhere to go and eat it as you can't stay and eat in.  But I can't do everything for you, now can I?

Oh, and just for completeness, if you are fasting, then you can go just before iftar time, order from the full menu, grab a complimentary laban, water and dates, and pray in the Zakher Mall prayer room while they cook.  So if like me you're not always breaking fast at home, Glacier* are catering for us too and not just the chicks and infidels.  Ramadhan mubarak.  And bon appetit.

*Other restaurants are available.  And I wish they'd ditch that stale old popcorn and give you a cookie with your coffee like normal places.  I do like the food, though.

Edit: just received corrected hours for takeaway/collection: 12-3.  Full eat-in service from 6:30pm to 1am.  And they also said their customers like the popcorn.  No accounting for taste.  I like the pressed coffee.  And the grilled fish.  But not the popcorn.  Just saying.  I'm not doing this again.

October 20, 2012

Enemy of the Arabs...

Just for a change, I'm going to shut up and let someone else do the talking, at least mostly.  I've just read an article that surprised me completely.  Not because I think it's wrong - though some will be offended by his comment about the Palestine situation, the point is still valid even if it's exaggerated - but because the writer takes a stance that is rather unusual.

I don't know much about this writer, but I do know the newspaper very well, and have known at least one of its editors and many of its writers over the years.  The "Arab News" is the English language sister of "Asharq al Awsat" - a Saudi paper with an international distribution.  The Saudi Research and Marketing Group, if I recall the name correctly, is that country's largest print media stable, producing several regional magazines too.  It is owned by Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, formerly Governor of Riyadh, and recently declared Crown Prince and Deputy Prime Minister - unusually ahead of his older brother Naif, who had been lined up for the role.

Anyway, I won't bother getting into Saudi politics, for now at least.  Suffice to say that this article's appearance under the indirect (or who knows?) auspices of the Saudi heir-apparent, is something very thought-provoking.  But I will leave you to make your own minds up. I don't think this needs any commentary from me.  Read it for yourselves. "Arab Spring and the Israeli Enemy", by Abdulateef al Mulhim

October 09, 2012

When Everyone is Wrong: the War on Truth

I think I might have made reference before to a Beirut-based British journalist called Robert Fisk.  He writes for the British daily newspaper "The Independent", among others.  Over the years, I've considered him a bit or a left wing reactionary.  Also, I have to say I've also seen him lately as an increasingly rambling old man who's spent too much team with secular Arab "intellectuals", to the point that he's started writing quintessentially Arab op-eds, that leave you wondering "so what is your point, then?"  If you've ever had the dubious pleasure of reading a self-consciously "high-brow" editorial think-piece by a prominent Egyptian, you'll know what I mean (sorry Egyptians, but YOU know what I mean too!)

But he's back to journalism at the moment, and has been in Syria.  A couple of months ago, I asked readers what they'd like me to write about, and one of the few specific requests was for a viewpoint on what's happening in Syria.  I've been meaning to do so for ages, but either too busy or sometimes just too angry, to try to write something coherent.  However, reading Mr Fisk's article a few weeks ago reminded me.  And another one yesterday finally brought me to the keyboard.  So it's back to "ramblings that take three hours to read", as Mr Mutt put it!

Amidst all the undoubtedly awful, ill-conceived, ill-disciplined and excessive reactions that the Syrian Government has made since the insurgency began, they have finally done something sensible for their own international image: they've taken an overt critic of "the Assad regime" (his words not that long ago, and those of most Western media these days) and put him alongside Syrian army soldiers.  The "critic" in question, is Robert Fisk.  A man who has openly condemned Bashar as a "dictator", and made no equivocation over his support for any and all forces for "democracy" and freedom of speech around the region.  As the region in question is one where shooting oneself in the foot, in public, twice, is the public relations default for most governments, this is quite some progress from the Syrians. 

So back to the point: in this article, Fisk describes being allowed to wander alone with ordinary Syrian soldiers, as well as talk to their more on-message senior officers.  He was also allowed to speak alone to foreign terrorist prisoners.  If you're only ever heard about the "war" or "revolution" from Sky News, Fox, or indeed the increasingly sectarian mainstream Arab media, you might find reading this a surprise.  In short, this is one of the first major news editorials to say credibly, and first hand, that not every Syrian wants to have a sectarian civil war, and that much of it really is being fueled from outside.

Having applied, or been invited, to spend time in Syria as a well-known liberal foreign journalist, it's refreshing to hear a first-hand story put in such a balanced way.  Contrast quickly with some kevlar-wearing half-wit from Sky talking about "snipers" and "massacres" and "the Free Syrian Army", and it's easy to spot the difference between news that comes through a single interpreter (provided by an insurgent group), and news that comes from long-standing experience in the region, at least a basic understanding of Arabic, and talking to both sides.

I suspect the Syrians also chose Fisk to have this privileged access because of his anti-war articles about Iraq, and his generally hostile attitude to GCC "dictatorships", especially Saudi Arabia.  But their wisdom was in choosing a credible and openly cynical "Middle East expert" of many years' standing, who would neither be afraid to contradict the prevailing line, nor deviate from his contention that he didn't like the Syrian Government either.

So when Fisk saw elderly Syrian civilians coming out and hugging the army when they entered Aleppo, he wrote about it, and although he's second-guessed all the lines he's been given from Syrian generals etc., they've been smart enough to let him have unguarded conversations with ordinary soldiers, foreign jihadis recently arrested, and members of the public who have sympathies either way or neither.  Even though Fisk says he thinks the prisoners have been mistreated on arrest and quotes them saying so, and even though he's condemning the tactics of the Syrian army in Aleppo, in fact, because he's doing those things...his message that the Syrian goverment is correct in saying they're fighting a forieng-sponsored terrorists insurgency, at least to a point, is at last getting out. I hope it goes further, and with such credibility, as I've been ranting on about the same for a long time.

To me, this all looks too much like the Libya situation all over again: some genuine popular discontent, much of it based on rivalries and grievances with sectarian, regional, economic, and all sorts of other angles, directed against the government in protests -some peaceful, some not.  All of this inspired, of course, by the domino effect of the "Arab Spring".  The Syrian government react harshly, as usual, and just as Libya and others did.  But then, just like in Libya, and for what insane reason I still can't grasp entirely, the "West" not only jump on the bandwagon, but start sponsoring self-proclaimed opposition groups outside Syria.  They also encourage others to fund and arm insurgents (again just like in Libya), and end up backing Al Qaida against a sovereign (and secular) government.  Of course, we've seen brought home only last month how grateful extremist groups are a year later  for support from the "West".  As we now know, prior to the protests about the notorious internet movie - that just provided serendipitous cover on the day- a group planned the storming of the US Consulate in Benghazi, and the assassination of the visiting US Ambassador.

But still the war-mongering and "enemy of my enemy is my friend" fallacy, rumble on.  Thankfully, unlike with Libya, Russia and China have stood in the way of air strikes on the Syrian Government and military infrastructure.  No doubt they are well aware of how the Libyan experiment turned out so far - even though that is a super wealthy country that could theoretically spend its way out of social problems.  Russia also has a strategic base in Syria that might be at risk, but that's to over-simplify the point, I think.  Not only are China and Russia increasingly confident in this global economic turmoil, but are well aware that neither the American nor British public have any mind to see a war that involves spending more billions, and possibly having familiar pink faces dying in the sand.  And perhaps they can also see that this escapade has no good outcome among the variables.

So, unable to bomb another "dictator" directly, the process of equipping, training, inciting and cheerleading the armed terrorist insurgency in Syria continues.  The Saudis and Qataris provide the money and guns, and encourage the terrorists to go over there.  The Al Qaida types who were in Libya and Tunisia etc, now have a new place to go and shoot at people.  Desperate and despondent suicide bombers are recruited from Palestine, and mind-mangled Salafi converts from Turkey and anywhere else, are invited to the party.  Then alongside them, in an alliance that is so bizarre it's almost funny, British, American and French special forces (and Turkish, of course), provide intelligence, training and "non-lethal" equipment (actual guns come from Saudi, as I mentioned - "plausible deniability" is the term, I think), to anyone who's willing to shoot a Syrian policeman in the name of "freedom".

So, for the love of God, why?  Well, of course Iran has a good relationship with Syria.  Syria is run by non- Sunnis.  Iran is also already running the show in Iraq, through skilled manipulation of its Shia-majority politics.  Whereas Turkey is in NATO, and Sunni.  The GCC countries, aligned firmly with the West, are also run by Sunnis (one notable exception, of course!), and in at least two cases, Sunnis who are trying to control internal strife that they blame on Shia, and Iran.

Therefore, the "revolution" in Syria is a chance for both the West, and the Gulfie Salafis who believe they are already fighting Iran in Bahrain, and to a degree in Saudi Arabia, to knock over an Iranian ally.  The goal seems to be, then, to replace Bashar's minority Alawite govermnent,  with a Sunni who will be a Saudi ally against Iranian influence.

But of course, they're all idiots.  Even if this so-called "opposition" won, which it can't because it's not one force any more than the Libyan one was, and even if there emerged a new Sunni/Salafi led government hostile to Iran, such a government would not stay a Western ally for long.  It would be far more interested in fighting to liberate the Golan from Israel, than in fighting from a distance with Iran.  With Syria's own territory, and a newly-repaired common cause with the Palestinians against Israel that would be inevitable, there would be another great irony: just as Iran supports the Salafi-influenced Hamas in Palestine, a reparation, re-arming and re-calibrating of Iranian relations with the "new Syria", would happen quicker than you can say "f*ck Israel".

The fact is, in typically Middle Eastern fashion, that for all their rivalries and proxy wars, Saudi Arabia and Iran and their various acolytes, also have common cause from time to time.  If anything, Bashar with his "talk tough but do nothing" policy on Israel, is exactly the kind of secular stability that Israel and indeed the West, would wish for from a strategic point of view.  But a newly theocratic "jihadist" regime in Damascus is going to have to live up to its warlike credentials.  And that will mean less stability, a rapid cooling of relations with the West, a subsequent detachment of the GCC from their sectarian bedmates in fear of the terrorist hydra growing new heads, and ultimately, the headlong rush of the new Syrian government back into bed with Iran.  Not just a state that supports Hamas, but a state that becomes Hamas - secular causes of liberation from the Occupier, Sunni-Salafi religious labels, and money and support from Shia Iran.  No wonder nobody in Washington ever seems to understand what the hell is going on.

But they should.  In Libya now, there is an ex Al Qaida detainee in charge of the armed forces, such as they are, with most armed men who aren't AQ-affiliated cadres, still belonging to their local or tribal militia rather than under any government control.  There is still no prime minister or cabinet, because nobody will agree to be told what to do by a member of another faction.  The former ruler was buggered with a stick and then murdered in the street on live television, and his son is still being held by the Misrata militia rather than handed over to either a Libyan court or the ICJ, because they want to be paid $12 million "expenses" for him. The East of the country is trying to take over the oil export infrastructure and secede, raising the spectre again of civil war.  And in the mean time, as I mentioned, of course they murdered the US Ambassador to remind everyone whose friends are whose, and whose aren't.

So it's been a disaster, because all that talk of freedom and justice has just made Libya into a fragmented, unstable, terrorist-funding mess.  Yet now the idea of exporting that to Syria seems to be popular because western leaders still don't get it, and because both they and the Saudis, are more interested in poking Iran in the eye than in what actually happens to Syria.  It's pathetic, and it's criminal.  Starting civil wars deliberately, to my mind, is a far bigger crime than invading Iraq was supposed to be: at least at that point, the goal was supposed to be to make Iraq better, deal with a (overblown, as it turned out) threat, and do so by putting their own troops on the line to die, while asking the UN to ensure a better system for the future.  Of course, the justifications turned out to be empty - a shallow fabrication by cynical Iraqi exiles, designed to encourage eager and ignorant intelligence officials to rubber stamp a war that would deliver those same exiles into power and prestige.   The Iraqi "regime change" was a disaster too, but at least there were some good intentions initially - however misguided.

The only intentions here, though, are to break something.  Not to deal with a threat (phantom or real), not to liberate or re-construct, not even with some vague notion of "regional stability".  Just, like Libya, a simple convenient bogeyman.  In the case, a bogeyman who is also Iran's little friend.  Attacking Iran directly is to messy a prospect.  But undermining an Iranian ally is just fun.

So that's why i'm glad to hear an independent voice suggest that for all Syria's lies and infamies, not everything the Syrian Government says is a lie, and not all it does is infamous.  The world needs to know that the image of a cohesive and popular opposition ready to "liberate" the Syrian people, is a nonsense fabricated by the same kind of people who formed the Iraqi "opposition", and sold fanciful tales of WMD to the CIA.  The reality is that thousands of men in Syria are taking arms from the Gulf, training from the West, facilitation from Turkey, and shooting at the Government for any reason they like.  Some have been wronged, some have a cause, some are religious extremists, and some just want to fight.  Some of them are even Syrian.  But what this civil war isn't, is good versus bad.  

It's wrong from every possible angle.  Ask the confused, terrified people who hugged the familiar figures of government soldiers as they rolled into Aleppo.  Civil war might be exciting to watch, and support one team over another, in another country.  But imagine that the protesters in your country last year were being armed by, say, Russia or China.  That militiamen from other countries had come to fight for "your freedom" and were camping with their guns in your children's primary school or church, hoping to draw the police and army into a street battle.  Ask yourself how much you'd love to see that, however much you hate your government.

Yesterday, Mr Fisk wrote about another nonsense, the canard that Syria is now a mighty aggressor attacking poor old Turkey.  I love Turkey, actually, and its people.  But it's a highly-militarised country, once said to have the largest standing army in NATO, and several times the size of Syria, also richer and more powerful in every possible way.  Syrian soldiers might have been stupid to fire at insurgents over the border, and risking civilian lives is evil.  But so is peddling the myth that some murderous drooling beast in Damascus, some Disney-cartoon villain, is sitting stroking his beard and cackling, perhaps in a turban and curly slippers, plotting with his evil henchmen on how to murder some babies.  Turkey is smuggling arms and armed men into Syria to commit acts of terrorism.  That is a bad thing.  Read this for an interesting allegory.

So there's another epic rant over for now, and thanks for reading this far.  I'm not an apologist for despotism, Syria, Iran, or even Robert bloody Fisk.  But having seen a little of one, I maintain that War is Always the Greater Evil, and this one is no exception.

October 04, 2012

Short-Term Idiot Storage

Dear Readers,

Sorry it's been a while again; I'm still here.  I'm just a little busy in the life of my air-breathing alter ego, and TLS has not been able get much attention.  Anyway, I will get to the point:

Most of you will have noticed around town, the placement of some parking spaces, often (though sadly, not always) extra-wide, and clearly signed with a special symbol.  They are placed close to public buildings and leisure facilities. These idiot storage bays are originally designed to facilitate the easy entrance of people with physical disabilities, to said buildings.  However, the short-term idiot storage role is ever more popular.  The inability of people to walk more than ten yards to a mall, then several miles around it, is not unique to Oman (or, indeed, to Omanis), but it is a phenomenon that can be well-demonstrated here, at least.  In desperate circumstances, unable to find a space immediately adjacent to the building's door, the more self-important idiots often take the short -term storage option for their vehicles, in the disabled parking space.

Now, I've written before about the criminally insane lack of traffic education, regulation and enforcement in Oman and around the region.  I'm not alone in that observation, and thought-provoking pieces have appeared recently from two of my favourite co-bloggers, Oman's own Susan al Shahri, and my personal heroine, the extraordinary Saudi writer, Sabria Jawhar.  But today I thought I'd home in on this specific issue.  Firstly, because it epitomises the culture of self-important, amoral, cretinous, narrow-minded, utter dickishness that pervades the road-user experience (and others), in Oman.  But also because it's an issue about which someone has tried to do something, and I'd like to offer some support.


I stumbled upon this link from a friend of my real self, on Facebook.  It seems someone is encouraging the public to post pictures of disabled parking-space abusers, and as you'll see when you visit the site, I've found  quite a few recently, and shared.  The thing is, it's not hard to remember seeing someone parked in a disabled space.  But it's not something we always think about.  However, keeping your phone on the passenger seat and going for a little drive, it's amazing how many you see in a single day without even trying.  I've clocked six, from a couple of brief excursions, just in one day.  Essentially that means that most of the disabled parking bays I saw on a given day, were made unavailable to the intended user.

Perhaps it's better that this anonymous Facebook user and his/her public page, are not "naming and shaming" the car owners.  The page owner deleted my suggestion that people do just that.  Probably worried, and rightly, that writing someone's name on the internet without their permission, and in an accusatory context, might bring about some terrible attempt at retribution.  Still, it frustrates me a little, because if enough of us post these pictures, sooner or later we will all recognise a car that belongs to someone we know.

So that brings me neatly to my alternative suggestion: instead of posting the names of the owners of cars you recognise, just tell someone they know.  A relative.  A mutual friend.  Just nonchalantly.  Something like "Hey, Abu Shamandar, did you see Abu Koosa's car on the internet?  No?  You know, that site where they post pictures of people who steal the disabled parking bay.  Yeah, seriously, his car's posted up there, I mean, how embarrassing.  I didn't want to mention it to him; I mean, someone will have told him, right?"

That way no "private" information is shared.  No litigation is likely to result, and nobody will be assassinated on the way to the supermarket (I hope).  BUT we live where we live.  Imagine it's your car.  Imagine, just that one time, you were in a hurry.  You didn't want to, but you were late.  And you'd only be just two minutes, right?  Maybe you even left the engine running and the hazard lights on, right?  But it would have been a real pain to park on the other side of the building and walk/use the steps/get hot/whatever, right?  And then the next thing you know, your father/brother/uncle/cousin-you-never-liked-because-he's-smug-and-loves-showing-you-up, suddenly shows you a picture of your car on Facebook.  In a disabled space.  Posted by a complete stranger, who's telling the world that this car must be driven by an "a-hole".  Imagine that happened.

Family councils could be convened.  Stern words spoken.  What if it wasn't even your car, and the owner was getting the bad reputation?  Your dad!  Your WIFE!  Oh man.  Definitely going to pay for this one.  That's got to be better than a fine of OR7 any day.

The person who's started "No Disability - No Parking" has mentioned that there does not seem to be much interest from the ROP in going after these people, so clearly this campaign needs to take off a bit.  And it seems to me that getting as many up there as possible, forwarding this to all your friends, snapping away (when safe to do so of course...ahem!) and posting as often as you can, will help.  Most of all, when you finally see a car you know, say something.  All innocent-like.  "Uncle, I saw your car on Facebook...".  This is a society where you don't need to name.  Shame can find its own way, with a little help.

Now, please do visit the page (yes I know that's the third time I've linked to it, I'm making a point!), link to it from your own site, Tweet it, Facebook-share it, read it, and contribute to it.  In the last few days I've come up with a veritable rogues' gallery all by myself.  Imagine if you all did it too?

But in the mean time, some music.  OK, not music.  Some of idiot-parking's greatest hits, including disabled-bay-theft/idiot storage, but with some other fun driving habits too.  Yes, it's outside the main area of discussion, but let's look at some other symptoms of the illness, shall we?

1. The disabled bay "ultimate dick-move".  This ass-hat, has not only taken the disabled spot outside SABCO.  He's taken both disabled spots.  Because, hey, fuck disabled people, I've got a TRUCK!  Contender for the annual "Raisin Balls Award"(that I've just invented) for the most un-manly act of social ugliness .  Tip: no need.  There is no need to explain to anyone why this is a really, really revolting act of assholery.

2.  Caught in the act.  You can run, but you'd better be quicker than this.  Almost escaping the gimlet eye of The Linoleum Surfer.  But I got you. Tip: the disabled person who came to park in this spot doesn't know if you're going to be "only five minutes".  And even if he did, what's he supposed to do?  Wait in the middle of the road to check?  No, he has to drive away, unable to get out of his car.  You idiot.

3.  The "beta blocker".  Someone so selfish, so stupid, so utterly devoid of any sense of self-awareness or moral responsibility, they both block the busy road through the Qurm shopping area and block some poor guy's car.  But hey, his car is cheap, and yours is a fancy one.  It says so on the badge.  Pity I missed the full registration as I passed, but hey, someone knows this car...Tip: when you spend a lot of money on ostentatious displays like this, you choose to draw attention to yourself.  So would you rather that attention be drawn to your being a good human being, or to your being a dick?  Think about it.

4.  Is it true that all Porsche owners have small private parts?  Oh, no.  Maybe it's just this guy.   Yes, it's everybody's favourite: the "doubler".  The guy who takes two spaces because he thinks his car is worth double the car park average, and therefore he's entitled to be able to walk around it with his arms held out.  Maybe muttering "I'm the Pimp-King" to himself as he does so.  Of course, to the rest of us, he's a dick.  Somebody tell him, please.  Pity it's too blurry to see the registration, I should have got that.  
Oh, wait.  I did.  Tip: see 3.  And by the way, taking two spaces doesn't stop your car getting scratched.  Heck, when I park next to a "doubler", I try to make a point of bashing the door of my steam punk spaceship off his paintwork.  And vomiting through his sunroof (try it kids, it's fun!)

5.  The budget "doubler".  Hey, what if you want to be a dick but don't have a Porsche?  Well that's OK, because if you behave badly enough, you can even be a self-important jerk in....er....a Skoda...Tip: see above, plus, don't draw attention to yourself if people are also going to laugh at you.

There, that was fun, wasn't it?  So get joining in on those pictures of idiot-self-storage/disabled-bay-stealers, and make sure to forward the fun to your friends.  And in the mean time, one more to keep you thinking.  Alas, I really didn't get the number of this one - I was clearly trembling too much at the horror of it:

Speeding, no lights (that's my headlight reflecting), and followed a few hundred metres later, by an unnecessary and illegal u-turn.  Which involved stopping the traffic on green, as the turn had to take place from the middle lane.  Why?  Because it's a big articulated truck carrying fifty tons of gasoline!!!!  In stealth mode!  Drive carefully, I love you all!


August 06, 2012

Foot In Mouth Disease

While I wait for your suggestions (please, preferably on Facebook where it's easier to track them), I thought I'd get to writing something anyway.  And, as Eid approaches, my thought naturally turned to edible farm animals.

Actually, it wasn't the thought of Eid, it was this article from "Al Arabiya" that a friend shared with me earlier this evening.  For non Arabic-readers, I should explain that there now appears to be some kind of international ban on imports of Omani beef and lamb.  I don't know how big Oman's meat exports are, but even if small, I'm sure that the principle is itself disturbing.  The reason?  Apparently, there is an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the Sultanate.

For those who don't know, foot and mouth is a viral infection in cattle and sheep that causes flu-like symptoms and painful ulceration in the mouths and feet of those animals.  It is very, very infectious, and can survive for quite a while outside the body i.e. be passed around other than by direct contact between animals.  Apparently it's also transmitted sexually, especially in cattle.  There's probably a joke about that somewhere, but I'm not sure I can be bothered.

Two important points, though.  1.  It cannot be caught by humans.  2.  It CAN be passed around by humans, e.g. on their clothing or shoes as they move between one farm and another, for example, or from an area of recent infection to a livestock market.  Both of these things are important because they beg the question: why is nobody talking about this?

Even the more intrepid of Oman's media organs seem to have ignored the subject completely.  Way back in March, a major outbreak was reported in the Omani print media, and a few weeks later, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Wealth even announced participation in a seminar on the subject.  But that particular outbreak was in Egypt. Not Oman.  Fine to talk about the neighbours' diseases.  But not your own.

I actually grew up in a rural area, and had friends who were farmers.  From early childhood I remember scares about this disease, and how seriously the farming community took it.  The thing is though, that the disease itself is not particularly terrible.  It is just very easy to spread.  So the seemingly default position of government bodies in Oman to shut the door on any bad news, is not just embarrassing when others are reporting it, but dangerous.  

Firstly, word will get around anyway, and in the absence of information, people will be worried.  There is nothing more unnerving than knowing you are not being told the truth.  I can understand that the Ministry or whoever, does not want a "food scare", especially in the run up to Eid when a whole fresh local sheep or two is the staple order for many people.  But in this modern information age, that food scare is inevitable as the story gets out, and worse because it will not be accompanied by the simple piece of information that eating the sheep won't hurt you anyway.  That has to make any potential food scare worse.  People will inevitably hear about this outbreak, but they might not hear that it's OK to go ahead and eat their local Omani lamb.  They really should.

And secondly, without any information, how can the public take any precautions?  As I said, the main worry about foot and mouth disease is that it is easily transmitted by people between farms and livestock populations.  If you don't announce this publicly, educate people about staying away from farms so as not to spread infection, introduce hygiene measures, and perhaps ban the movement of livestock for a period, how can you control the spread of the disease?  Rather like the crime reports that are never published until the criminal is caught (and, if foreign, his picture published in the paper), the culture of secrecy and stifling bad news, is damaging.  If there is a spate of burglaries in Al Khoudh, people should be warned to lock their doors, and appeals for witnesses made.  And now, by the same token, if there is a need for measures to prevent the spread of an economically-damaging disease, people need to know what precautions to take.

There was a notorious non-Omani figure advising on information policy in Oman in the seventies and eighties, who played no small part, as I understand it, in encouraging and protecting the culture of saying nothing.  But when most people didn't even have a telephone at the time, let alone 24-hour news from around the world in any language on their mobiles, that might have been easier to manage.  Now, it's just a bit shameful, and the object of justified ridicule.

I don't know the statistics or details - only that the proper international authorities on these matters seem to have reported this outbreak before anyone in Oman has.  But there is another angle on this: it's always amusing to see how the most stifled news organisations in the GCC delight in reporting the misfortunes of their neighbours: Saudis or Emiratis writing about problems in Oman, but ignoring the global headlines in their own dominions for fear of a kick in the groin from Inspector Al Knacker.  And in this case, I wonder if Oman hasn't been singled out unfairly?  Having lived in this region a long time, I've been aware of endemic foot and mouth disease in Saudi Arabia and Jordan to name but two countries.  It's always there.  Generally, the small size of most farms and the practice of slaughtering on the premises in many cases, limits the spread and the recurrence of epidemics.  But as the food industry (sadly) trends further towards the "modern" model of large scale industrial farming and centralised processing, the incidence of these outbreaks is bound to increase.

So, when you do eventually hear this topic discussed elsewhere, please bear these things in mind: do buy whatever you want from the butcher; you can still eat everything.  Don't visit farms or slaughterhouses or such places if you can avoid it, and if you do, change your clothes and clean your shoes with disinfectant before you go to another one.  And thirdly, whatever happens, don't worry: you've been living with foot and mouth on and off in this region for your whole life.  It's just that nobody ever told you.

Feel better now? *cough*


The Foot has, apparently, been removed from the Mouth at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Wealth.  A statement has been issued as well as messages to the public asserting the that Omani meat is perfectly safe to eat.  Quite right too.  There's still no information to the public about how to minimise the spread of foot and mouth disease, unfortunately, but we're in the right direction.  Maybe next the Saudis will admit that foot and mouth is all over the region, including in the "Magic Kingdom", and stop pointing the finger.

(P.S.  Thank you Fatima for sharing the statement)

To Blog, Or Not To Blog...

My dear readers, peace be upon you all, and blessings in the holy month of Ramadhan.  It's me.  The Linoleum Surfer.  I'm still here.

As I've just mentioned on Facebook, it's been months since I logged into this account, and seeing the sweet messages from some of you asking for more posts, or just enquiring about my personal welfare, is really quite touching.  Hints at some mysterious conspiracy have appeared in comments I see, but I am happy to say that I have not been abducted and silenced by some mysterious and censorious agency!  My blog colleague Mr Mutt is closer to the truth - "you lazy Surfer"!  Fact is I've been very busy with other things, both personal and professional (although not, as Sami mentioned on Facebook, getting married - all in due course!).

But, to be honest, I'd also become a little disillusioned with the whole process.  Much as my ego enjoys provoking debate, spouting my sometimes obnoxious opinions to any audience prepared to hear them, and generally enjoying my freedom of speech, I had been starting to feel a slight loss of purpose.  Perhaps that's overstating the case, that I had any purpose in the first place other than self-expression.  "Direction" might be a better word.

Those who have read many of my previous posts, will have noticed that I have veered from politics to social comment, to cod philosophy, to religion, to satire, to anything else that might have popped into my head.  Some of you seem to like that diversity, but I've sometimes wondered if I make any sense at all, writing one day about some hideous tragedy like a civil war, and the next day indulging in a bit of cheap racial stereotyping in the name of humour.  Not that I'm against a bit of cheap racial stereotyping or indeed any other kind of humour - it's a fundamental element of my most treasured human relationships.  I just can't help but wonder if this digressions into lighter fare undermines more important things.  Of course, all good humour has some social or philosophical relevance too, but where to draw the line is my question to myself.

One way or another, literally hundreds of people have expressed a liking for this mish-mash of writing (and thank you, really, I'm flattered), many of those have commented and debated here, and perhaps thousands have read at least an article or two.  So something works.  That, on a personal level is gratifying, and why I am back to answer some requests I've received to write again.

But what to write?  That's really the question.  There are times when I've felt so angry and frustrated at something going on in the world - the hypocrisy for example, of leaders calling for peace in Syria while supplying arms to sectarian militias in the hope of starting a war - that I've been sickened to write about anything more trivial.  Knowing that there might be more people interested in an installment of "What Does It Mean To Be..." (Indian and Filipino were in my mind next, perhaps...), than in the shameless war-mongering bullshit of international leaders, left me feeling rather flat.

Still, here I am, and perhaps I need to get over myself.  There's always room for a bit of light and shade, and if people want to read this or that to fill their coffee breaks, I should be glad anyone wants to read what I write at all!  So on that note, I'd welcome your feedback, please:  what would you like me to write about, either as specific subjects or, better still, what kind of previous articles or sketches or whatever, have you valued?

Whatever it is, thank you for your support, and for wanting this back.  Love you too,


P.S.  I've just noticed that in around eight months of not writing anything, I've had many more page views than my initial six months of writing regularly.  Maybe I should stay quiet and become the Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson of the blogosphere - no better career move than ceasing to be, it seems!

December 07, 2011

In Memory of Reason

A recent discussion with my blog-buddy Mimi coinciding with her comedy death threat (well, I thought it was funny, that's just me), had me thinking about the state of the global Islamic community (the "Umma").  Not just in the more grotesque stereotypes of some non-Muslims, but in hard fact.  I am a Muslim.  And there are some ugly truths that we need to face up to about ourselves.  Now Mimi is a very unusual and indeed difficult woman. But she is just a woman.  One little person, with some thoughts in her head that might be good or bad.  Why is it that so many people feel threatened by an expression of unorthodox opinion, or even just a question?

I address this mainly to my coreligionists.  But as many, maybe a majority of readers, aren't, I should give a brief explanation of Islamic history for those who don't know.  My fellow Muslims must forgive me, please, if I over-simplify or use non-standard descriptions.  This is an illustration of context, not a spiritual guide.  So, infidels, please pay attention: yesterday was 'Ashura.  The tenth day of the month of Muharram in the Hijri calendar.  It is a special day.  To explain why, we need to go back to the death of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).  On his death, it was decided that someone should succeed him as leader of the Faithful, the "khaleefa", in English "caliph", or successor.  Someone to act as the focal point and guide for the still vulnerable Muslim people.  

There was, in short, a disagreement.  Abu Bakr, the oldest friend, mentor and father in law, was chosen. Ali, the younger but equally dear friend, first cousin and son in law, was not.  Some felt this decision incorrect, and became known as "Shi'at Ali", or "Ali's Partisans", the origins of the people we know today as "Shi'a" or "Shi-ites".  There was no conflict as such, and the decision was nevertheless respected.  As were the subsequent decisions to appoint Omar (something of a controversial figure, to put it mildly, in Shi'a thinking),  then Othman (under whose authority the Qur'An was finally collected into a single written book agreed by all who had heard it first hand, that exists in original copy to this day).  Finally, Ali became the fourth "khalifa".  This appointment saw the first open conflict among the Muslims, and a rival sought to establish himself.  After the death of Ali by assassination (another story), things got messy.  The Shi'a supported an hereditary system for the caliphate, through the sons of Ali, who were also of course the grandsons and only descendants of Mohammed (pbuh).  But the other faction had established itself too.  Wars began.

So, now you're up to speed with the basics, back to 'Ashura.  On this day in history, Hussain, the son of Ali and supported as his successor by the Shi'a, was attacked by an opposing force near Kerbala in Iraq.  Most of their own supporters were defected or deceived into abandoning Hussain's camp, and vastly outnumbered,  Hussain and his cohort were slaughtered.  Ashura (derived from the Arabic word for ten, because of the date), is a day of mourning and regret, when Shia feel sorrow for the deaths of the Imam, and that his followers were not there to save him.  It is common among Shia to wear black, to have commemorative and funereal gatherings, and even to inflict physical chastisement on themselves as atonement for the failure of their forebears to protect their leader.  Although many died in the battle of Kerbala, it is the name of Hussain that is the central reference of Ashura.  He was believed to have fought bravely to the last, before being killed and his body defiled and decapitated.  "Oh Hussain!" is a cry you will hear from mourners on Ashura.

There you go, Ashura 1.1.  Apologies in particular to Shia friends who would like to say more about the significance of this day, but that's another conversation.  I need to explain why I'm talking about it at all.  Now the heathens are up to speed, I'd like to turn attention back to the brothers and sisters and ask, in the nicest possible way: what the hell is wrong with you people, really?

There's a new trend that seems to have established itself in several countries, of blowing up Shia as a special Ashura gift.  The first incidences of sectarian bombings of which I was ever aware, were from Pakistan, Karachi in particular.  I don't know when that started, or who started it, but it seems in my memory to be a pretty old tradition of sectarian hatred compared to the more headline-grabbing atrocities in Iraq over recent years, and now also exported to Afghanistan.  In some cases, particularly the latter two, there seems to be a political hand behind it - countries fighting by proxy with other people's sons.  Not naming any names (OK, it's Iran and Saudi Arabia), the war of sectarian ideal through influence, mosque-building, missionaries and propaganda, has grown into actual sectarian conflict.  

I wouldn't say that Saudi Arabia supports blowing up worshippers in Mazar-e-Sharif, Karachi or Baghdad, but there is certainly a role for which they have to answer, in creating and fostering an ideology of sectarian loathing.  And politically, both countries pick their teams, fund and arm them.  Before 2001, the Iranians had the Northern Alliance (and many Shia among them), and the Saudis had the Taliban.  After 2001, exporting extremism became gradually less fashionable in Saudi or Pakistani politics, but it's pretty hard to put an ideology back in the box when so many heavily-armed and lightly-brained individuals are already enjoying it.

The problem is, though, that it's not just politicians, kings, arms dealers and insecure would-be Islamic popes who make sectarian and ideological murder a reality.  It's the permissive environment in which they are allowed to operate.  It's you and me.  It's the emails on the one hand from my friend K, about freeing the Shia from oppression and murdering whatevers in Bahrain, and the others from my friend A, ridiculing the Ashura commemoration and praising the very people demonised by the others.  Sectarianism too easily becomes a badge, a party, a national allegiance, and a declaration of enmity.  When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I remember in one town of mixed Sunni/Shia population, that some people would not drink from a public water fountain after a Shia had used it.  That someone would rather go without water really says it all: the supernatural evil that one man can attribute to another for no good reason other than a point of view, is simply extraordinary.

Sunni on Shia and vice versa.  Muslim on non-Muslim.  Muslim on Jew on Christian and any inversion or combination you can imagine.  Everyone on Hindu, Hindu on everyone.  The ridiculing, de-humanising, derisive and visceral loathing inflicted by one man on another by reason solely of a difference in ideas.  A look through comments on this blog and others to which it links, will give plenty of examples.  And take my word for it, English language blogs contain a lot less sectarian speech in general than the Arabic ones.  The specialism in the English language blogs and forums, with their wider spread of nationalities and religions, is the atheist egomaniac: there is no religious viewpoint as intolerant and belittling of others, as the atheist.  In his own way, he's the mirror image of the smug, grinning extremist seen in every major religion - so self-affirming and patronising that he sees others barely above animals, mentally and spiritually deficient.  Every religion has them.  And atheism is very much a religion.  But Muslims, yes, we have those un-reflecting, unmerciful, intolerant, arrogant and judgmental maniacs, in spades.

So, in light of all of the above, it was a deliciously sour irony to my mind that someone should threaten to "strike [Mimi] down in the name of Allah" for a spiritual "reward", on the day of Ashura, and for a new wave of sectarian bombings to occur.  Although a day of mourning for Shia, and a day of fasting (for more obscure reasons) for some Sunna, it seems to me that there are still plenty around who will commemorate a day when we remember a tragic civil war among the Muslims, by calling for the murder of some Muslims, or worse, actually carrying it out.  I have to say that even in some Shia gatherings to mark the day, the mood seems to move easily from mourning, to some kind of expression of sectarian hatred, a call for retribution, a perpetuation of a sense of persecution and injustice.  The persecution and injustice is real for some of course, but that applies across all sects and religions.  Might not the occasion of Ashura, whatever one's sect, be a suitable occasion for all to join  together in saying "never again"?

I keep asking myself why new thought is considered so threatening, or why diversity of opinion even within traditional schools of Islam more than a millennium old, still seems to cause so much ill-feeling.  On the first point, I was invited the other day to sign something called "The Amman Message".  On the face of it, this is just the kind of message of unity and understanding that I would support: acceptance and even celebration of different views within Islam, respect for non-Muslims, a code against violence, etc.  But I didn't sign up.  Here's why: it has three main points.  The first says that Islam has eight major schools of jurisprudence (four Sunni, two Shi'a, Ibadhi, and Thahiri) that should be respected, plus the "true" Sufi tradition and Salafi tradition.  It doesn't define what is true and what is not in either of the latter, but I guess the later points are supposed to make this self-evident (e.g. non-violence etc).  None of these groups should ever declare the other to be apostate, or imply that they are not "real" Muslims.  The second point says that this diversity of opinion is a good thing, and as long as all believe in God, the Qur'An, the Prophet (pbuh), the angels, Judgement Day and the five pillars (attestation, prayer, fasting, charity and Haj), they are all Muslims.  Differing ideas beyond that are unimportant.

But the reason I couldn't sign up to it, is the third point.    It says that only those who are "qualified" within one of those eight schools of jurisprudence (I'm not sure where the two "traditions" mentioned, fall into this, but there are overlaps anyway), are entitled to speak for their religion.  It mentions specifically the authority to issue a "fatwa" which, as I have previously explained, is a formal ruling or opinion on religious interpretation (not a death sentence on Salman Rushdie).  But the implication is nevertheless clear: unless one "adheres" to one of these structured bodies of jurisprudence and is recognised by the established "scholars" within it, it is unacceptable to voice an opinion in public.  I have written more than once about how these "scholars" and the like have created churches and clerical titles for themselves and that I believe that to be un-Islamic.  But this issue is broader.  This declaration says you take orders from these guys, or you shut up.  That makes me very uncomfortable.  In a way, the third point also undermines the first: the first point is set out to emphasise inclusivity, saying that all the schools and traditions, despite their differences, should recognise each other as equally valid in Islam.  And yet in the context of this third point, that becomes not an expression of inclusion, but exclusion.  Conform, or be outside the "real" Islam.

The goals of the Amman Message are easy to understand and to accept.  They set out, clearly, to oppose sectarianism, and to stop the Bin Ladens of this world calling themselves leaders of the faithful and such like (the title of a caliph), and issuing religious edicts as new laws and obligations to pressure Muslims into support.  The Amman Message sets out to oppose and undermine extremism and violence against different sects, religions and so on.  That's a good thing.  Even better is that the Message itself (by the way "Message" or "Risaala" in this context, has very strong connotations of prophecy) is co-authored by the most respected religious leaders of all these sects and schools.  Even the Saudis are in there, which explains the care not to exclude the Salafi movement, even though they try hard to qualify its ideals.  The Iranians are not, but then much as they would like the world to think otherwise, the Iranian theologians are not the top trumps in Shi'ism: that title goes to Ayatullah Ali Al Sistani, in Iraq.  And he's a signatory.

The problem is that by trying to separate mainstream Islam from violent extremism, they also establish yet another declaration of intolerance towards debate and discussion.  There is no acceptance of reformist or revisionist thought, no real acknowledgement other than in name (the undefined "real") of Sufi thought, which is extremely varied, and no acceptance at all of the idea that a new or alternative perspective could be considered valid.  While trying to say "those who condemn other Muslims are not Muslims", they do the same themselves: "If you're not one of us, you're not a Muslim".  Full circle.  A movement for peace and against terrorism, in the name of inclusion and tolerance, sets out limits of tolerance and inclusion.  That's why it does not have  my signature.  One more reason is the hilarious dialogue box, asking "are you a [religious scholar]?" I resisted the temptation to tick "yes".  I mean, I've read a lot about religion and I try to learn more all the time.  So who's to say?  The problem is, I know what they mean, even if they shouldn't.

The fear of terrorism and intolerance seems to fuel intolerance itself, just as the fear of injustice, or anger at violent tragedy, seems to fuel the injustice and violent tragedy brought about by terrorists.  The fact that this declaration didn't happen until 2004 - when the Iraqi sectarian conflict was just getting started, and three years into the foreign intervention in Afghanistan post 9/11 - says a lot about how seriously as a whole, Muslims really take extremism.  Where was this declaration during the bombings of Karachi in the nineties, or prior to the attacks on New York and Washington in the many years that Al Qaida had already been active?  Where was the opposition to the Taliban's openly sectarian Salafist rule, or the sectarian hate speech coming from every quarter, be it Iranian radio broadcasts, amateur internet campaigns, or so-called scholars declaring others to be apostate?  Did it really have to be American worries about Iraqi internal cohesion under occupation, that stimulated the Umma to come up with such a campaign?

Here's an interesting thing to share: I came across the Amman Message when I was searching for details of a certain "scholar" who had been in trouble with the law for plotting to establish a theocracy in his country by overthrowing its government.  He was the signatory on behalf of one of these main schools.  Now that he's pardoned and no doubt, reformed, I'm sure he's just the guy to talk about tolerance.  The other angle on this is that, in 2011, I'm reading this message after an internet search in English about one of the signatories.  Why haven't I heard reference to this more often before?  As it happens, I was aware of it, but I can't recall any references to it in religious debate in Oman, Iraq or anywhere else I've been in the last seven years.  Nor even  on an internet forum.  Every major "scholar" from every major sect, and nobody thinks it's worth a reference? 

This seems to be another irony, that the very people who shout down unorthodox views, have their own very specific views of what orthodoxy must be.  As a Sufi scholar once put it "the ways to the truth are as many and varied as the souls on Earth".  I think he's probably right, although I'm not sure if the Amman Message's "true Sufism" includes him, so best to be careful.  There can't be any single document on the planet that's a more orthodox, plain-words expression of scholarly agreement than the Amman Message, but it doesn't seem to have hit much resonance among the masses.  Is it just that it's human nature to be individual and maintain a unique perspective?  We all feel the need to belong, certainly, but can we really be homogenised into one, consistent viewpoint?  Perhaps, in that respect, the Amman Message is just as futile as the extremists are self-defeating.  "Fighting for peace" is an oxymoron, perhaps in the metaphorical campaigning sense, as well as the literal one.

But holding a billion unique views is one thing, fighting over them another.  Why do we Muslims seem to go from zero to infamy in seconds?  Naturally, the statistical incidence of Muslims who are terrorists is extremely low.  Even the most high-handed, right-wing internet sniper in the Omani blogosphere will have to admit that, for all the things wrong with Omani society, he's probably met a lot of Muslims here, and none of them have murdered him for being a kaffir even if they did cut the queue in the petrol station.  I go back, though, to that question of permissive environment.  Most Muslims are not terrorists, but as I've mentioned before, I think far too many of us are passively accepting of an extremist ideology.

The stereotype of a violent Arab Muslim is inaccurate.  Most Muslims are not violent, and indeed, most Muslims are not Arabs.  Three quarters of Muslims are from the Indian Sub-Continent.  The largest single Muslim country is Indonesia.  India has more Muslims than the entire Arab world.  With that in mind, perhaps it's worth remembering, then, that most Muslims are poor.  Most live in countries struggling with corruption, social injustice, poverty and despair.  Not because, as the Evil Bobs of this world would have it, Islam makes people corrupt and unjust, but because those places have been that was for centuries.  It's arguable, I think, that poverty in Asia, the caste system in India, and the Islamic doctrine of equality between races and peoples and helping the poor, are the reasons that Islam has taken hold so firmly in many developing countries.  But, as with any perfect idea in the hands of man, it still relies on man for its implementation, and as is often the case, man falls short.

So that explains why the Amman Message is an unknown reference for most Muslims: most Muslims have never used the internet.  Most down own a television.  Many can't read, and most certainly don't buy a newspaper.  In such an environment, taking authority and guidance from a man of status is the default.  The "scholar" is the only man who can read.  The leader.  The respected pillar of the community.  I would argue that even when a community begins to prosper through development or migration, becomes literate and self-sustaining, those traditions remain.  Extremism is easy to sell to a hungry man.  It is also easy to sell to a man whose cultural traditions are of obedience to the paternalistic figure with the loudest voice and the longest beard, even though he may now have access to other voices.

But even if all of that is true, what about the rest of us?  What about the ones who lazily pick a side in whatever conflict is spooned up in the TV news?  What about the educated, well-fed, historically prosperous Muslims who use their Facebook pages to ask their friends for a gesture of sectarian loyalty?  Look at where it leads.  Look at what it really represents.  Whether it's Ashura or any other day, whether there's a bomb in Kadhimiya or a death threat to a blogger talking about definitions of marriage and sex, take a moment to think about it.  We are the ones with the freedom, the information, the choice, and with it the responsibility.  So I ask again, in the nicest possible way:  what the hell is wrong with you people?

Did you like this piece?  If you did, please consider sharing it with a friend: Tweet, Stumble, Tumble, +1 or anything else you can think of with the links below and on the sidebar.  Maybe just click that Facebook button right underneath this line, and share on your wall or a friend's?  Just once?  Pretty please?  Thanks for reading, and thanks for spreading the word. - TLS

December 03, 2011

So About That Opera House....

I'll keep this brief (yeah, I know I've said this before, but...), but I have two big issues about this apparently raging controversy:

The first one is, as I feel Dhofari Gucci might be too polite to say, who cares what he thinks?  I, like DG, have every respect for Ahmed Al Khalili as a man who has dedicated his life, no doubt with great effort and conviction, to seeking truth and helping guide the people to a more moral existence.  May God reward him.  I have shaken his hand a couple of times here and there, and he strikes me as a rather gentle and modest man - something I've noticed about great man of religion from other faiths too, over the years.  

But nevertheless, is his opinion really so important?  I have written before about how I have great cynicism towards those who set themselves up as "muftis", "sheikhs", "scholars" and so forth - not because I doubt the effort and learning of one who makes this his life's work, but because of the implied role it gives them in society.  There is no occupation or social status of "mufti" or "scholar" mentioned in the Holy Qur'An, nor even in the most widely accepted traditions of the Prophet (pbuh).  A "sheikh" is either the elder of a tribe, or the man chosen to lead them in war.  Islam, I believe, dislikes titles.  On the contrary, it is a basic tenet of Islam that we have no priests, popes, vicars, gurus, lamas or similar such creations acting as intermediaries between us as individual Muslims, and God.  So even when a man makes himself (or worse, society makes him) into a respected full-time student of matters spiritual, does that really give him the right to speak as if his views or understanding are incontrovertible fact?

I lay the blame for this not at the person of "Sheikh" Ahmed, but more at the society (and I mean the Umma more generally, not Oman specifically), that has created such roles.  The very fact that a man has to ask on behalf of his mother (let's not look at that too closely either), and is prepared to make a decision apparently based solely on this one man's reply, is to me indefensible from a theological standpoint.  There are many people one might ask for an advice or an opinion, but relying on one, however clear his heart or great his library, is simply creating an Islamic church with doctrinal dogma growing beyond what we believe to be the world of God.  Listening to someone else's opinion, and treating it as an inherent part of religious understanding, is a mistake in my view.  Is music forbidden?  Personally, I doubt it, and there are many schools of thought on the matter, or at least on where the boundaries lie, but that's not the issue: the issue is that making one man responsible for everyone's view, is elevating him to a status that I believe to be itself forbidden, unequivocally, by the religion we claim to share.

There will be different views on all of the above of course, and I mean no personal insult to the individual or to anyone else.  But here's the second thing: why have an opera house at all?

I don't mean in respect of whether it's OK to have music venues, bars or other such non-traditional facilities built with the country's wealth as a matter of principle based on their content.  That will always be debatable, and let's debate it.  But I  mean the specific issue of building a big, expensive, eye-catching project that is not empirically a priority for the under-educated, under-paid, under-employed, under-served Omani majority.  A few comments on other blogs and forums have put the view that the opera house was a waste of money, and although not mentioned in the original discussion, they are nevertheless questions that have been raised by many.

When I wrote a few days ago about things that Oman should be proud of in marking National Day, I had meant to include this project.  Not because of the way the project worked (over a year late, inadequate access, signage and parking, and a budget to make your eyes water), but because of what it represents.

Of course on one level, it represents the personal passion of Sultan Qaboos for classical art forms.  In that respect, Oman has an opera house for the same reason as it has a symphony orchestra, the same reason Oman FM has always set aside time for classical music, the reason Oman now has a dedicated classical radio station, and that both the Al Bustan and a certain royal palace, have full-scale pipe organs.  His Majesty spent a formative part of his education in a music-loving house, and learned to understand and to love the richness and beauty of various classical forms of music.  It is a passion he wishes to share with his people and encourage among them, no doubt in his mind a representation of higher civilisation, a badge of intellect and social maturity to which the nation should be helped to aspire.  It seems to me that His Majesty has a rather different view on the morality of music than Ahmed Al Khalili.  Whoever is right, I am happy at least that neither view is repressed out of insincere conformity.

But to me, the Royal Opera House of Oman represents something beyond that.  When a government or a leader sets a budget, and looks at all the priorities for a nation, there is something beyond paying the bills, maximising the provision of services and planning for infrastructure requirements or even national defence.  There is the question of self-respect, community pride.  A question of representing all the progress and aspirations of a nation in something tangible.  Some leaders build big statues of themselves, or monuments to some past revolution.  Some take a more utilitarian approach, with a new park or planting a forest.  In a way, perhaps an opera house is a statue of Sultan Qaboos as it represents so directly and personally his own vision of what cultural progress means.  But it is open.  Just as the parks and corniches are.  Even if the performances are expensive, they vary, and a tour or just a view from the road as you drive by, is for everyone.  This is no mere vanity project, it is an invitation.

It reminds me in a way of the Beijing Olympics - that event mired in all sorts of controversy, inside and outside China (and at least an opera house was built without evicting anyone!).  But it was a statement.  In building that remarkable Bird's Nest, that extraordinary performance to open the Games, and of course the massive investment in China's own athletic performance, a country announced itself confident and come of age.  It was a tonic to the nation, an item of pride and self-esteem.  "We can invite the best of the World to come to us, and appreciate the joy and tradition of these games".  So said China with its Olympic Games.  So says Oman at the opera or the ballet.

Instead of complaining at the cost, or debating whether this or that form of entertainment is traditional or religiously compliant, I think perhaps Oman needs a different view of what this building is about.  Yes, there are many things this country needs, and more urgently than to hear Andrea Bocelli.  But just as someone struggling with a budget needs, once in a while, to pick up a tub of that expensive ice cream after a hard day, or take his wife out on their anniversary, financial priorities are not always solely about paying the bills.  They are also about embracing life, about just occasionally, saying "let's treat ourselves" to something a little out of the ordinary.  The daily grind, the pressures and stresses of making a living, will always be there.  But everyone needs to have something special on their birthday.  Oman got something beautiful, and beauty is a gift from God.