June 30, 2011

What Does It Mean To Be Ajnabi?

N.B.  Will make more sense when you have read the first one!

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

The (first?) sequel to “What does it mean to be Omani?”. “Ajnabi” is the Arabic word meaning “foreigner”. There are others, but this is the most generic. Feel free to read “Ingleezi”, “Amreeki”, “Mzungu” or any other specific nationality you recognise, or whichever word causes the most amusement/offence/titillation. I do more or less mean Europeans and other “whities” though. Please do not boycott this blog or attempt to identify/prosecute/assassinate the author on the basis of this post alone. Another nationality or ethnicity will be insulted shortly – subject to public demand and my personal whim. And I only tease you because I love you. :)

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means putting your country's flag on your car as if it were a football team, then wondering why other people stare at you.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means spending twenty years in the Middle East but never learning to say as much as “hello” in the local language or finding out what local food is, then complaining that migrants in your country don't speak proper English and eat weird food.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means spending the equivalent of the average income solely on a brand of breakfast cereal that reminds you of home, whereas at home you always bought the cheapest.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means buying a mock-antique local artefact to stand your television on, then watching the local news from your own country obsessively.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means making a point of telling your friends back home that you now live in a house with more bathrooms than people, meaning that you're considered rather wealthy by 99.99 per cent of humanity.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means complaining about the driving standards, boring everyone you meet in the bar with stories of bad driving you saw, then getting into your car with a blood alcohol level that would kill a horse.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means complaining about how nobody can write in proper English, while having failed to achieve a higher education or learn any foreign languages yourself.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means complaining about how awful your country of origin has become, while socialising only with people of the same origin with whom you mostly complain about the country you're in.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means complaining about positive discrimination for locals, yet enjoying the high salary you earn purely by virtue of your nationality and ethnicity, and despite being virtually unemployable in your own country.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means telling your friends/family about how beautiful the place is where you've chosen to camp/picnic/stop to admire the view, while never having camped, picnicked or stopped just to enjoy a view in your life, in the country where you grew up.

What does it meant to be Ajnabi?

It means building a special room or facility to keep your pets in, but making the woman you employ to raise your children sleep on the floor by the washing machine. And insisting she call you by your first names because you're all equal really.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means developing a weird compulsion to eat pork products every day because their sale is restricted, despite having been a vegetarian since the age of thirteen.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means secretly feeling that the gyms at major international hotels should be reserved for white people, despite having been an anti-apartheid activist at college.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means flying with your own national airline and complaining about them every time, then trying the local airline and complaining about them too. Actually it just means complaining. About everything. Until you get home on holiday and brag to your friends and relatives about how fabulous your lifestyle is.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means complaining endlessly about Indians. Then hiring them anyway because it's cheaper and they won't call the police if you swear at them – which you know how to do in English, almost kidding yourself that they don't understand.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means ensuring every part of the bathroom is as clean when you leave as when you went in, but not washing your bottom because that's weird.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means being happy when you get a new car, job or spouse. Then posting pictures on Facebook to make sure all your friends back home know that you have a beautiful new salary/RangeRover/Filipina.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means spending a lot of time in Dubai and talking about it as if it's heaven. Even if you live in Dubai.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means loving the weather and going outside even when it's insanely hot. Just so you can tell your friends back home that it's insanely hot when they are cold.

What does it mean to be Ajnabi?

It means earning the highest salary in the country, but fighting an impoverished Indian to the death over a $1 discount on a portable barbecue.

(Suggestions would be welcome on who to insult next...stay with www.thelinoleumsurfer.com !)

June 29, 2011

What Does It Mean To Be Omani?

"What does it mean to be Omani?", asks The Linoleum Surfer....

This post was inspired by the spectacularly awful advertisement for intensively reared chickens that I heard while listening to the latest low-budget radio station to pollute the airwaves with its unrepentant mediocrity. For “Omani”, feel free to read “Arab” or any other specific nationality you recognise, or whichever word causes the most amusement/offence/titillation. Please do not boycott this blog or attempt to identify/prosecute/assassinate the author on the basis of this post alone. Another nationality or ethnicity will be insulted shortly. And I only tease you because I love you. :)

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means supporting “your team” - a foreign football team whose home city you could not even find on a map. It means paying $400 for a satellite TV subscription to watch them from your sofa, but buying a cheap counterfeit replica shirt. It means waving your flag, but never supporting your local or national team even though they are playing next to your house and tickets are free.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means spending five minutes saying hello, even though the customer who is waiting for you to serve him should really take priority over your making this phone call, and has been standing there since this morning.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means always making sure there is coffee in the house, and tea, but not knowing exactly where the kitchen is (Indonesia?)

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means being unashamedly nationalist in every respect, sticking the Omani flag on your car, house, Facebook page and curriculum vitae, and acting thoroughly superior to everyone else. But only ever buying a product or using a service if it has come from Europe, America or Japan.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means not realising that living in a house with more bathrooms than people means you're considered rather wealthy by 99.99 per cent of humanity.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means complaining about the driving standards of Indians and women, despite having destroyed more than one vehicle within the last twelve months by your own staggeringly foolish incompetence, and having received your own driving licence only through a process of intensive handshaking.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means somehow having a masters degree in business administration that was taught entirely in English, yet not being able to spell either “business” or “administration” without computer assistance.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means asking your friend or relative about anyone you have just met or are about to meet, to establish how you may or may not be related, and whether that person should be permitted to see you with another person or in the place you are about to meet, without adverse consequences for your reputation or theirs.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means complaining about corruption and “wasta”, while emailing your cv to your cousin to see if he can talk to the HR guy where he works and get you a job for which you are not very well qualified and have no relevant experience or skills.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means chatting with your friends/family about how beautiful the place is where you've chosen to camp/picnic/stop to admire the view, while leaving your trash on the ground or throwing it out of the car window.

What does it meant to be Omani?

It means building a special room or facility to keep your pets in, but making the woman you employ to raise your children sleep on the floor by the washing machine.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means assuming your sister is a blissfully innocent and virginal angel and promising murder to anyone who suggests otherwise, while spending most of the day trying to persuade other people's sisters to go for a “drive” with you.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means never parking your car more than ten metres from the entrance, even if it means using the disabled space or blocking the road. And then going into the gym to run on a treadmill.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means spending a fortune on “natural” and “pure” honey from an obscure Yemeni mountain, then accompanying the same meal with a chemically flavoured beverage such as “Sun Top”.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means complaining endlessly about Indians. Then hiring them anyway because it's cheaper and they won't call the police if you swear at them – which you know how to do in Hindi as well as several other regional Indian dialects.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means ensuring every dirty part of your body is washed after you use the bathroom, while leaving every part of the bathroom dirty.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means being happy when you get a new car, job or spouse. Unless your neighbour got one too, in which case all the pleasure is lost, and you have to start thinking immediately about an addition or replacement.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means being proud and protective of your national dress, but never wearing it when you travel. Even just to Dubai. Correction: especially in Dubai.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means wrapping two scarves around your entire head and face because it's cold, while wearing only flip-flops on your feet and no underwear.

What does it mean to be Omani?

It means never buying anything that is good value because it's too cheap, and thinking that nothing is worth having unless you can't afford it.

(If you're smiling, you're probably about to be offended; if you're offended, you're probably about to be smiling...stay with http://www.thelinoleumsurfer.com !)

June 26, 2011

The Cult of the Dishdasha

My good friend, Abu Tharthara, and I had a fascinating discussion recently about the role of national dress in Omani society.  At his request, I am writing about it - many of these thoughts are his, some are mine.

For those who don't know, the "dishdasha" is the ankle-length, closed shirt or gown worn by most men from Oman.  Equivalents are all over the Arabian peninsula, where you might find versions called "thobe" or "kandoora", and in North Africa and elsewhere, with "jalabiya" being the common terminology.  Although they all have different names and styles, they represent the same thing: a national cultural tradition.

There is a difference though between how Arab countries use their national dress.  In North Africa and the Levant, even Iraq, the traditional style is usually confined to the older generation or the working classes.  It represents tradition, but frequently also poverty and backwardness.  In Egypt for example, the educated, the government office workers and businessmen, the politicians and the professionals, wear a suit.  Men of religion are the exception - even important ones might wear traditional dress, but often with a tailored jacket over the top.

So really, what Abu Tharthara was complaining about, was the role of the dishdasha/thobe/kandoora etc., in the Gulf.

Here's a question: is it illegal for a non-Omani to wear Omani national dress?  I have been wearing Omani national dress (albeit very occasionally) for about ten years, and I still don't know the answer.  If it's not illegal, then many people certainly assume it is.  And yet as a non-Omani, I've never been criticised for wearing it - on the contrary, people seem to like it.  They don't much like tourists wearing the kumma (little African-style hat that Omani men wear) on the back of their heads over their dreadlocks, with jeans and a t-shirt.  Or worse, some kind of dishdasha over their bermuda shorts and running shoes.  But then again, I've never heard of anyone arrested for that either.  Informed answers would be welcome - illegal or not?  And if not, why do so many think it is?  And if it is, why do I not get arrested in a room full of policeman who know I'm a foreigner wearing the Omani "full monty"?

How people react to the dishdasha is the interesting thing though.  Abu Tharthara is Omani, but most of the time wears "western" clothes.  He finds it more practical for work, and has just been used to it for a long time.  But he still wears dishdasha for formal meetings and certain social occasions.  His perspective is perhaps a rare one: as an Omani who is not dressed as an Omani, he feels he is treated less well.  When people assume he's foreign, he feels he is relegated immediately in terms of social respect.  In my experience, he might well be right.

When you're standing in a short queue in a petrol station to buy a bottle of water, most people would think twice about pushing right past you and everyone else, and expecting to be served first.  Especially if, like Abu Tharthara and I are, you're a pretty large, confident, man of age.  But put a small, weak, timid young man in dishdasha, and his countryman Abu Tharthara in jeans and a polo shirt, and the little goblin is suddenly a VIP. Never mind anyone else, he's the "citizen", everyone else should wait for him.  It's an extraordinary thing.  Yet, conversely, put the foreigner The Linoleum Surfer in dishdasha, and nobody will mess with him.  The queue is observed, waiters look nervous, even in traffic, nobody wants to risk upsetting that big mussar'd head!  Perhaps I'm imagining it; it's rare enough I dress that way.  But Abu Tharthara isn't imagining it.  Every day when people think he's a foreigner, he gets the shitheel treatment.  When he wears his national uniform, he doesn't.

What started this whole conversation was the subject of Abu Tharthara's son's school uniform.  Now he's a certain age, Ibn Tharthara is required to comply with a strange kind of uniform apartheid.  The Omani nationals must wear dishdasha at all times.  The non-Omanis must wear a complete school uniform with shirt and trousers.  The Omanis must wear sandals.  The non-Omanis must wear shoes and socks.  At play time, Bin Tharthara wants to run around and jump and wrestle and play.  Not so easy in dishdasha.  He wants to wear shoes and shorts like he's always done - much better for a small boy's games.  But he can't.  It is a fixed rule - he is Omani, and he has to look like one.

Apart from perhaps being a less practical clothing choice for little boys, the imposition of the dishdasha at school for Omani citizens only, sends a very strong statement that all are not the same.  National, foreigner.  Dishdasha, uniform.  Kumma, bare head.  Above, below.  I visited a school a while back and couldn't help noticing that the boys in shorts were all playing together, and the boys in dishdasha were completely separated, talking in their own group.  Do small boys do this naturally?  I don't think so.  Most of the non-Omani boys were also Arabs or mixed too, so language wasn't the issue (and they were at the same school after all).  Maybe it was the more restrictive clothing on the Omani boys that kept them out of the game?  Or maybe, just maybe, they had somehow internalised the subliminal message that all boys are not the same.  Not equal.  And not really to mix.

Naturally not all people keep themselves in tight little national communities.  I am not Omani.  Most of my friends, actually almost all my friends, are.  Most of my friends have nice manners, don't jump the queue (except in traffic maybe...hopeless cause?), and generally treat others with respect.  So who are all those other guys?  That little gnome who pushes in front of me at the petrol station as if I don't exist, yet would wet his wizaar if I raised a hand to him.  The man who double parks behind the cheapest-looking car he can see, and goes shopping - safe in the assumption that the driver is Indian, not influential, and won't get him towed.  The man who shouts across the room in the airport, over the heads of all the foreigners, expecting someone to come to him or wave him across to the first class counter.

I don't know how the cult of the dishdasha impacts on the manners of the individual, but something is.  When I first came to this country, people were just more polite.  My friends tell me that when they were younger, people were even polite on the road.  Even over the last few years, I've noticed that it's rare now for anyone to invite a woman to jump to the front of the queue in a bank (and how shamed they look when I do it instead!).  I've noticed this culture of selfishness get worse.  Shameless queue-jumping, littering, swearing at other people like waiters or shop assistants.  As long as they're not Omani.

The strange thing about the dishdasha, thobe or kandoora as we know it now, is that it's new.  Go back to previous eras as late as the seventies and find a picture of a group of Omanis (Saudis, Qataris, whoever), and that uniform just doesn't really exist.  Just as women in the GCC have adopted the black abaya and shaila as a public uniform, the men have done the same.  Dishdasha/thobe.  Mussar/kumma/shammagh/ghutra.  Sure, with national variations, and even tiny variations within a country to be distinctive.  But basically uniforms nevertheless.  Maybe it began with the generation of khaleejis who first ran ministries or joined international companies.  They wanted a smart uniform like the international-standard suit.  But they also wanted to be different.  Distinctively home-grown.  Maybe there's nothing wrong with that, apart from the loss of individuality and sartorial variety.  Keeping traditions is nice.  But is that all this is about?  Or is it just a visible reminder, a badge, a VIP pass, that says the others are on a level below?

Abu Tharthara's recommendation is that everyone be compelled to wear national dress at least one day a week at work, and also be free to wear it whenever they like.  It's an interesting idea.  But I'd start by ending the separation of children, and let them wear what they like.  Maybe they would grow up believing they are all the same.  That's certainly the message I try to send to mine.


June 18, 2011

Housemaids Declared Human!

No kidding.  Someone on the Facebook page requested that I write a piece on migrant workers.  I guess there is plenty to cover there, from desperate construction workers committing suicide, to sexual abuse of domestic staff, child labour, women trafficked into prostitution etc.  The list could go on.  We all know about the Indian man who threw himself off the Burj Khalifa a while back.  My friend Baba Sanfoor told me just the other day about a case here in Oman of a Moroccan hairdresser who someone had attempted to force into prostitution as soon as she arrived.  A police officer I was talking to just recently had his own tales, many and varied.  And I remember a few years ago discovering that the contract cleaners where I worked had all had their (OR30/$80 per month) contracts terminated, to be re-employed at OR20/$54 instead.  A sad situation, and one of many.

So let's not kid ourselves: human trafficking is a serious problem in the GCC.  Most people don't even know what constitutes "trafficking", but a good definition is here, described by the UN and covering all the main areas.  If you can't be bothered to read it all, then the essence is this: if someone has been tricked, deceived, lied to about what they will be doing or how much they will get for it, or where they will be working, or if they have been pressured in any way to accept something they didn't want to do, then they have been "trafficked".  

The construction worker who thinks he's getting $100 and only gets $50, or who thinks he's working in a city and is put in a remote location.  The person who is told on arrival that he owes extra "fees" for having been placed in a job.  The girl who is told she's working in a shop or a salon and on arrival finds she's asked to be a prostitute.  The people who find themselves in any situation where they are threatened with demands for money or compliance, while their passports are withheld or they are prevented from leaving by some other means, or threatened in any way - with false legal claims, debt collectors going to their families, or just not being paid what they were expecting.  Those are the people we're talking about, and I imagine every one of us, all we khaleeji-residents and khaleej-citizens, we all have a story or two.  A couple of mine you've already heard.

If you were to read the international press on this subject, you'd pretty soon get the idea that the GCC countries are a hotbed of trafficking, slavery, sexual assault and every kind of human rights abuse.  Which is offensive if you come from one of these countries, or even if you don't but have somehow been absorbed to a degree into its society and come to love it as your own.  The most upsetting thing about those accusations is that basically they're true to some degree or other.  Like most countries of the world, this stuff happens.  Unlike a lot of those countries though, the GCC has neither the excuse that most cases are discovered and dealt with, or that it is just too poor and lawless to tackle the problem.  

We know it goes on.  We even know it goes on a lot.  We have the means to deal with it.  But we also know that it frequently goes unpunished. There is a long way to go, in information, access to legal redress, and some really nasty cultural attitudes to nationals of other countries who many see as beneath them - fellow humans, fellow Muslims even in many cases, dehumanised by their lack of education and the colour of their passport.  So it's all pretty awful then, right?

Well yes and no.  The thing is, while the international media delight in images of indentured servants carrying fat sheikhs around on Cadillac-shaped litters, with chained slave girls peeling their grapes, the GCC has actually been doing something about it.  Sure, there are still some big questions about minimum wages, working practices and actually getting more prosecutions initiated, and concluded.  But not many people report that GCC countries have been getting a lot more serious about anti-trafficking measures of late.

One of the main issues has always been information.  How do you get the message across to a man from Kerala who hasn't even attended primary school and can barely write his own name, that he has rights?  A lack of education doesn't make him stupid, and even if it did, the most simple-minded soul knows that if someone promises him something and he gets something less, he's been robbed.  What he doesn't know, as an illiterate man unable to read, or even to interact directly with his employers as he has no understanding of English or Arabic, is what to do about it.  In this area, there have been some good moves.  The anti-trafficking regulations adopted in Oman were translated into sixteen languages.  Every embassy was informed, and asked to disseminate leaflets and verbal guidance to their communities.  It doesn't necessarily help every labourer isolated by illiteracy and language, but it's a start.

My friend from the Royal Oman Police told me about the efforts they had made to distribute all this information, and to make their own employees properly aware.  He felt that some embassies simply didn't want the workload of helping all their mistreated nationals to file cases against their employers.  Maybe so, and maybe the Government should take some more of that burden.  But either way, the portrayal in some media of Gulf countries indifferent to trafficking is grossly unfair.  Certainly here in Oman, there is increasing awareness and practical effort.

There is one more ray of sunshine in this picture as of yesterday, and that is the reason I've made this post now.  On 16 June 2011, the annual conference of the International Labour Organisation, adopted the Convention on Domestic workers, with an accompanying recommendation that it be legally binding upon the signatories.  Great news.  This means that like other workers, the much-abused housemaid, cook, driver or live-in gardener, has become a human being whose job should be treated like anyone else's.  Fixed working hours (would any of us accept being asked to work at any time of day or night on the whim of our employer, and for no extra money?)  At least 24 continuous hours of rest every week (i.e. a day off - again, who wouldn't insist on at least that?)  And of course the usual things, like being paid what they are supposed to be paid, and not being exploited by agents who demand from them impossible fees to be recovered from their salaries.

I think most of us feel some sympathy for construction workers out in the sun doing hard manual labour for little reward.  But the housemaid seems to have a strange place in the public consciousness.  A friend of mine described quite recently how he had "given his maid" to someone else for a while.  As if she were his car, or a set of screwdrivers.  I am trying to imagine my reaction to being moved out of my house one day and sent to a completely new place of work, without a word of consultation.  Another friend I had once described to me how his maid had "escaped" while they were on holiday.  To which I wondered why she wasn't able to leave his employment any time she wished?  As for fixed working hours, a regular and uninterrupted day off, proper accommodation and the freedom to use it as they please...these are distant dreams, surely?  Things on which you or I would insist absolutely.  And now they are about to be the law - for everyone.

The thing about the housemaid "escaping" is almost funny, as if she were a caged hamster and somehow making a break for freedom based on some primitive desire that needed to be constrained for her own good. Some western governments have been so horrified at the practice of keeping maids locked in the house, unable to leave without permission, that they have instituted special visa and asylum guidance, designed specifically to facilitate the "escape" of housemaids from their GCC employers.  

So with that in mind, you would imagine that the ILO's latest convention would have been championed by those same countries.  But you would be wrong, at least partly: the favourite destination for housemaids to escape their abusive employers is the UK. Surprisingly though, the UK is one of the few countries to abstain on this new convention and its legally-binding status.  Why?  I couldn't tell you, but I imagine it's to do with  one political party's eternal mantra of a "flexible labour market", and the unpopularity in the more right-wing quarters of this, that larger ruling party, of anything that could be called a "devolution of sovereignty" to international organisations.  If this were European legislation, I supposed it could have been even worse.

But the plus side is this:  every one of the GCC countries has voted in favour of the Convention.  Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are all parties to it.  After initial reservations on its binding status, they have all agreed.  Workers' rights, days off, fixed hours etc., are to become the legal right of housemaids just like the rest of us.  Yes, it might take a generation of re-education, both for domestic workers and for their employers.  I have no doubt either that the will to implement and enforce the new rules might well be frustratingly weak from the governments of the GCC, and that enforcement might be piecemeal and even incompetent.  But never mind that.  There was an opportunity to take an important step in the right direction, and for once it's the freedom-loving West that's lagging a little behind, and the GCC with the moral high ground.  I hope they use it well.

June 14, 2011

Alien Religion Invades Europe!

I was wondering lately at the neurotic fuss of several European countries (and let's include America in Europe too, as it's kind of true in this context, and might also be amusingly irritating), about the alleged threat of "Islamification".  According to the myriad tabloid articles, political speeches, blogs etc. on the subject, European culture is under attack from an alien force called Islam.  This phenomenon is simply not compatible with European culture.  Because Europe (and America) is Christian.

The thing is, it wasn't always so.  I'm wondering what gossip surrounded the arrival of Christianity among, say, the Celts of the British Isles?  Did a proto-blogger called Brenn of Kernow circulate the word that the whole cultural make-up of the nation was being undermined by immigrants?  So what to do about it?  Perhaps organise a Celtic Defence League to fight the unfamiliar invasion?  Did they have pitched battles with gangs of bearded monks and Roman sympathisers?  Were there mass protests at the re-branding of the winter solstice festival as a birthday for Jesus?  And did early, idealistic peacemakers attempt a movement for interfaith dialogue between priests and druids?  Only to be condemned as appeasers and have mead jugs smashed on their heads?

That all sounds very familiar, and maybe something like that happened.  But if it did, it was all a very long time ago.  And that seems to be what Europe is forgetting now.  It was so long ago that people in Europe think they were always Christian.  People in America think they were always Christian, and American too, despite having only been there a few hundred years - less time than Spain was Muslim.  But Europe rolled over to Christianity so long ago, it's just become an assumption.  Some don't even have to practice any Christian rites, or even believe in God, to consider themselves somehow Christian.  

The British (Europe's least Christian nation in terms of actual practice, yet with an official Christian state religion), actually sing a song about Jesus visiting England.  "What if he did", it goes.  Not actually claiming it as fact, but asking the question and speculating about what it would have been like.  But why?  Purely to create some tenuous association, some ownership.  To make Jesus just a bit English.  Maybe  on some sub-conscious level  they could imagine he played cricket and lived in Surrey. The song's actually called "Jerusalem".  Not about Jerusalem though.  It asks, rhetorically, if Jesus came along and built Jerusalem in England.  To which the answer is obviously "no".  This is a very popular nationalist song, and of course everyone knows Jesus didn't move Jerusalem to the home counties really.  They just like to sing it and pretend on some level that he did, and retain some ownership of the whole Christianity thing.  And deep down, some of them really believe that Jesus was probably from Guildford. Probably.  

But if he had turned up in England with his asylum claim, he would have been a dark, beardy, Aramaic-speaking immigrant with a new religion to promote.  And demanding to be declared king, change the law and overthrow the unbelievers.   I wonder how that would go down now?  We will never know.  But what we do know is that even without Jesus landing at Dover, the peoples of Europe, and especially the Roman Empire, saw this new religion as incompatible with their culture, and a threat.  They had a happily multi-cultural pagan society, with many different deities and religions, all bumbling along happily together.  Then along came these beardy dress-wearing zealots from the Middle East saying that all the other gods were offensive to them and only theirs should be recognised.  They cancelled traditional celebrations, made everyone fast and pray, and destroyed any artifacts of what had gone before.  Before you knew it, the Emperor of Rome was conceding that perhaps this religion should be adopted as the new official one, and the others were gradually wiped out.

So maybe Europe should put Islam into a bit of context.  It's certainly not new to the West.  It recognises Christianity as a proper religion to be respected (which is more than Christianity ever did for anyone else), and has a lot in common with Christian teachings. Make peace, feed the poor, pray, fast, that kind of thing.  Of course there's that whole hejab and beardiness angle that some seem to think looks strange. But then I challenge you: go into any church, especially a Catholic one because they like pictures the most. Find one picture of Mary without hejab.  Come to think of it, if you go to a church in Greece or Italy, you'll barely find a mature woman in the congregation without one. Women covering their hair outdoors is so much part of European culture that many of the older generation of Christians still do.  So do nuns, for that matter.  And i'm pretty sure the last picture of Jesus I saw, even though he had mysteriously European skin tone, showed a man with a full beard.

The main problem with Islam as a cultural force in the West, then, doesn't seem to be that it's incompatible with Christianity.  On the contrary, it's making a much more gentle arrival, is much more tolerant of existing religious traditions, and much more similar in beliefs to the established Christian tradition than Christianity was to the beliefs that preceded it.  The problem with Islam in the West is that the West no longer believes in Christianity either.  Politics, humanism, secular fundamentalism are the drivers of European society and the truly sacred principles of Europe.  The badge of Christianity is simply one of convenience.  In reality, Muslims and Christians should be side by side, asking why the governments of the European societies they share, are no longer reflecting their common belief in God.

So get over yourselves "Christian" Europe.  This isn't an invasion.  It's just an upgrade. :)

June 10, 2011

Save the Clitoris!

I told you this was serious.

For those who have led very sheltered lives, the unmarried men (and less enlightened married ones), no, this has nothing to do with nature conservation.  Well, perhaps it does.  Women, by nature, are born with a certain arrangement of pleasure organs.  Seriously, for anyone not sure of the geography of the female body, you might like to acquaint yourself properly before we begin.  By virtue of Wikipedia, you can read up on what it's for and even look at a map to find out where it lives.  This is a clitoris.  

So why does this remarkable God-given instrument of pleasure need saving?  Every girl is born with one.  There should be a perfect number available - one girl, one clitoris.  But that is not so.  Because in many parts of the world, their own mothers cut them off, or allow someone else to do so.  That's right.  Along with various other bits, to a greater or lesser degree, this bodily organ gets cut.  Off baby girls, or even older ones.  Cut right off.  Yes, you might well wince.  There are names, categories and types.  But all come under the category of what is known variously as "female circumcision", "female genital mutilation" or "female genital cutting".  We'll use one of the most common abbreviations: FGM.  Again, off in Wiki-world, you can have a look at what actually gets removed.  

Yesterday, I was updating a Linoleum Surfer groupie known as Abu Haider.  Abu Haider was surprised when I told him of the subject of this coming piece.  "Female circumcision?", he said.  "But what's that got to do with Oman?".  Now Abu Haider is a man of the world.  Well-travelled, a successful businessman, a reformed womaniser and now happily married, respectable, and a loving husband and father.  When I told him that an estimated 20% of Omani women have important parts of their genitalia cut off, his jaw literally dropped.  I am not exaggerating.  Abu Haider, not an easy man to reduce to silence by the way, simply stood in the middle of the road with his mouth wide open.  He was stunned.  The thing is, FGM is not a normal topic of conversation, and certainly not for men.  Also, in Abu Haider's particular community, the practice is alien.  They don't do it.  So in his mind, neither did anyone else.  He was simply shocked to discover that so many others do.  

And there are a lot of them.  Some have brought the tradition from Africa (Kenya for example, where it is inflicted on an estimated 50% of girls at least).  Some have carried it out within tribal or "qu7i" if you'll pardon the term, groups, for generations.  Families of sheikhs even.  A friend of mine in fact, who is the daughter of one such prominent tribal figure who lives in the Eastern region, told me that as a child she and her sisters would run and hide when a certain elderly woman was sighted in the village.  They never knew why until they were older, but that lady was the genital-cutter.  Those are the few then: some from East Africa, some from certain tribes or families who probably don't know where the practice originated.  And it's not just an obscure village custom.  In cities, among PhD holders and the urban elite, it happens too.

But if they are the few, then spare a thought for the many.  I have mentioned a few times my esteemed blog-colleague Mimi, writer of the Shy Rebellious Arab Girl blog.  Mimi is a keen writer, and has covered this subject several times (please do read her charmingly frank thoughts).   A couple of days ago, I commended Mimi on the Facebook page  for again raising this issue.  The venerable Susan Al Shahri chipped in to say that she was also writing an article for the Muscat Daily on the subject - something of a first.  That excellent, eye-opening article is shared here.  Another reader, Nadia of Dhofari Gucci fame, added her voice saying "let's start a revolution".  So why do these woman all feel so strongly?  Because they are all Dhofari women.   Dhofari women alone make up about 15% of Oman's women.  And among Dhofari women, the practice of cutting the genitals of baby girls is basically universal.  

With this one small contribution, I'd like to add my voice to that of the women, and say yes indeed, let's start a revolution to save the clitoris!  Because as a man who may well marry an Omani woman, I have very strong feelings on the subject.  This is for two reasons: firstly, because I like the idea of the woman with whom I am sharing intimate love, to enjoy it.  She will enjoy it more if she retains the pleasure equipment with which she was born.  And the second reason is that I have daughters myself.  The idea of allowing anyone to cut off parts of their little bodies is simply horrifying to me.  This piece of writing, then, is addressed mainly to my brother men in Oman, the GCC, the Arab world: don't you want your wives to enjoy their lives with you?

So why?  Why the hell would anyone actually do this to their daughter, or allow it to be done?  Mostly, ironically, the practice is perpetuated by women.  Men might not even know about it, or that it is done to their daughters.  And even if they do, with their ignorance of the female body, and the misleading terminology of "female circumcision" (ختان المرءة)  or "طهارة" ("making clean"), they might somehow consider it equivalent to the hygienic circumcision of boys: the simple removal of a piece of ordinary thick skin, that covers the glans or head of the penis.  

But, gentleman, that's not it.  You see (I hope you're sitting comfortably), the clitoris is very, very similar to a penis.  And the visible part of it is exactly equivalent to the glans or head of your penis.  that nerve-packed, sensitive, pleasure-centre of a head.  Complete with a little hood of skin over it called the "prepuce".  And guess what boys?  They don't cut back that little piece of skin like they do for a boy.  They cut the glans - the whole visible thing - right off.  So when you think of "female circumcision" applied to you, don't think of how you were circumcised.  Imagine the doctor slipped, and cut the head of your penis right off.  Sure, it would still be functional.  But would you feel the same about it?  About having had the sensitive part of your dick cut off?  That's right.

That is what happened to 20% of Omani women.  Although the percentages are lower, it happens all over the Gulf region to a greater or lesser degree.  In Yemen it happens even more.  In Iraq, it is reportedly up to 60% within the Kurdish community.  In other parts of the Arab World, like Egypt and Sudan where it probably originated, the percentage is more like 70%.  And what they do is simply unbelievable (look up "type three" in the Wiki article linked above - but not if you're of a sensitive disposition).

You will see from the background picture on this page, that I have some old books written by travelers in Arabia many years ago.  One of them writes a detailed description of the brutal circumcision rituals carried out on boys in some tribes.  In one account, a bedouin boy having just reached puberty, had the skin of his entire penis, scrotum, lower abdomen and upper thighs peeled off.  The massive area of exposed flesh was then cauterised over a smoking fire.  This was around 150 years ago.  Such extraordinary tortures have been long-forgotten: wiped out by education, enlightenment and urbanisation.  So why are women still having their sexual organs cut off?

Let's face it, no parent - male or female - wants to harm their child.  Africans, Dhofaris, this tribe or that tribe, in whatever country, are not barbarians or monsters.  We are all men and women who love our baby boys and girls with all our hearts.  We want what's best for them.  So we have to wonder, what is it that makes anyone think such a violent act against their daughter could be in her interest?  Well, looking into this, there seem to be a few common reasons.  One is simply that "everyone does it so it must be right".  And if everyone does it, not doing it makes a bit of a statement.  What if your daughter is the only one not "done"?  Will this cause her social exclusion, or trouble finding a husband?  Then there's two, the argument that it protects a girl's virtue by making her less likely to seek sex out of marriage.  Three, in some cases, people are led to believe that it enhances fertility.  And finally four, perhaps the most sensitive issue, some people think it is a religious duty.  These are all reasons that can be very persuasive to parents.  So it's time to shoot some big holes in them.

1.  If a social group, or potential husband, are seeking a woman who is genitally-mutilated, educate them.  It's as simple as that.  And if a man is not willing to be educated and consider his and his wife's well-being in a serious, unprejudiced way, then he's not fit to marry your daughter.  Could it really be that simple?  I think so.

2.  Although the most extreme forms of FGM can physically prevent sexual intercourse, they do not make any difference to sexual desire.  A woman's hormones are unaffected (unlike, say, a man losing his testicles - a woman's hormone factories are inside, beyond the old witch's reach), so her sexual urge is perfectly normal.  What she might suffer instead is pain or psychological problems that make her married sex life an unpleasant ordeal for her.  Who wants his wife to find sex with him an unpleasant ordeal?!  Some women find that they can still stimulate the sub-cutaneous (under the skin) part of the clitoris, which is equivalent to the shaft of the male penis (erectile tissue too - did you know women kind of get erections, boys?).  This is despite having had the glans or head removed completely.  So a mutilated girl can still fancy boys, quite possibly still masturbate and almost certainly still want to.  Bit of a waste of time then, wasn't it?

3.  FGM does not increase fertility.  Even in its lesser forms, the build up of scar tissue, damage to the urinary tract and destruction of important tissues around the area, can make birth problematic.  Also, because the procedure is often unclean, infection is likely and that can cause infertility.  Add the high likelihood of the woman not enjoying sex as much as she might have, or even finding it unpleasant, and you're not doing much for her breeding potential.

4.  We all know that different sects and schools of jurisprudence exist in Islam.  None (let me repeat that, NONE) of the main seats of Islamic learning, none of the four Sunni schools, neither the Ja'fari school, nor the Ibadhi school, consider female genital cutting to be obligatory.  Not in any way.  The problem is that two of them - the Sunni-Hanbali school led in effect by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, and the Ibadhi school led by the Grand Mufti of Oman, consider it "mustahhab" or "commendable".  Most Dhofaris are Sunni, and most seek religious guidance from Saudi-trained scholars.  Most of the rest of Oman are Ibadhis, or also Sunni.  Therefore, most Omanis might have heard some suggestion that doing this is a good idea.  Shia are a much smaller minority (like TLS-fan Abu Haider above), and don't do this.

Why the difference then, and what to do about it?  Well, the first thing is to reiterate that it is NOT required.  But how to tackle this "commendable" thing from two sources?  The fatwa in each case (a fatwa, for any infidels reading, is a scholarly religious opinion by the way, not a death sentence on Salman Rushdie...).  Anyone who calls himself a mufti can issue a fatwa (a mufti, in Arabic grammar, is a "fatwa-maker" - the words are from the same root).  What makes it a proper fatwa is people's choosing to follow it.  Most Muslims choose to follow one school of Islamic jurisprudence, or even a particular individual within it.  The Grand Mufti is a very respected individual - for good reason that he knows a lot - and so many people follow his words carefully.  And as described above, although none of those schools enforce this practice, two suggest it is commendable.  Why?

The origin of this fatwa is a single hadith (a report of something the Prophet, peace be upon him, has said).  This particular hadith is agreed by all scholars to be weak i.e. there is a doubt over its provenance.  Even the two leading schools that support FGM, personified in the Saudi and Omani Grand Muftis, would agree on that point.  The trouble is that it's the only hadith in existence that discusses the subject at all.  It says that Um 'Atiyah asked about carrying out the practice, and was told "When you circumcise then do not cut severely, since that is better for her and more pleasing to the husband.".  Some argue that as this hadith is not considered "true" (صحيح), it is best ignored altogether.  But other scholars argue that this hadith requires a small circumcision, such as removing part of the prepuce - a very literal equivalent to male circumcision, i.e. leaving the clitoral glans unharmed, and should be taken as a recommendation in itself.  The Saudi and Omani scholars are in the latter category, although neither go into detail as to the nature of the procedure.

But whichever way you look at it, whichever scholar you respect or follow, what is happening in Oman and basically all the countries of the Arabian Peninsula and most of North Africa, is wrong.  Religiously wrong.  Because even in the Dhofari tradition, they are still cutting off every girl's clitoris - not just a piece of skin; i.e. not a mere circumcision.  And there is no fatwa, from pretty much anyone of note, calling for that.  

Fortunately, some big name scholars have stepped up and taken an interest in the anti-FGM campaign.  Their voices need to be heard, and I would like to relay some of them here.  In 2006, a German NGO called "Target" organised a conference of Muslim scholars in Egypt (where the practice is both severe and widespread), and achieved something extraodinary.  I can't find a list of those who attended, but they got the Sheikh of Al Azhar - the late Ahmed Tantawi (الله يرحمه), the Grand Mufti of Egypt (the largest Arab country) - Professor Ali Gom'a, and probably the most famous Muslim scholar in the Arab world and beyond - Yousef Qaradhawi.  These scholars and the others attending reached a unanimous verdict:  not just that FGM was not compulsory.  Not just that it was not recommended.  But that FGM is haram.  A grave and terrible sin.

One of the interesting things about this is that Yousef Qaradhawi admitted that he had previously believed the practice to be commendable.  But on learning about the damage done to a woman's body and her ability to enjoy married life and bear children in the normal, desirable way of Islam, he changed his mind completely.  He explained his reasons, and used the most strident language in declaring FGM forbidden.

There you go then.  FGM.  What it is, why it's important to anyone even in what we like to think of as the enlightened Islamic world; why FGM is still practiced, and why all four of those common reasons are wrong.  This is a message that has to be shared, please.  Think about it:  20% of Oman alone is over 200,000 babies, girls and women who have been cut.  Whichever country you're from, this is happening right on your doorstep.  As a woman, you need to think about your daughter.  And as a man, you need to think also of your sister and your wife.  There are four excuses given, and four good reasons above why they are just wrong.

Along with sisters Mimi, Susan and Nadia I'm writing about this to do my little bit to help.  So can you.  Mimi is setting up a Facebook page "Stop FGM in Oman" - keep an eye on it, support it if you can.  And you can share this article on your Facebook page, forum, email, or anywhere else you can think of.  Don't worry about copyright, permission, credits or whatever.  Just take this in its entirety and pass it on.  Pass it on especially to your male friends - we're the ones most ignorant about this, and the ones who can demand its end.  We can let women know that we don't require it; even more, that it offends and disgusts us.  We demand our women as God made them.

And/or please read and forward, these:

- Mimi's previous blog posts on the subject, first, second, third.

- Target's website (English and عربي)

And if you're of the "Electric Mufti" mindset, you might be interested in forwarding these fatawa in their full and original texts:

- Resolution of the 2006 Cairo Conference on FGM, signed by Prof. Ali Gom'a (English, عربي - original)

- Fatwa by Yousef Qaradhawi issued in Doha, 2009, in English or عربي (pdf of the original)

It's a subject that can easily make you squeamish, but the reality would make you more so.  So please pass this on.  The Facebook/Twitter share buttons are just below the end of the post.  There is a "StumbleUpon" share button to the right at the top of the page, just between the Google follow and Facebook boxes.  Use them however you can.   

Thank you.

June 09, 2011

Footnote on the Radio Wars: Al Wisaal 96.5 الوصال

Just a quickie (yes I know I'm supposed to be writing about something serious now, I'm getting around to it, OK?!), but I want to add something to my comment over the last couple of days about the new (not bad) radio station.  The build up is here, here and here.  Anyway, I listened to day two, and...

- Still found the morning show on Merge FM a bit dull and ponderous.  Is this as good as it gets?  I do like the music though.

- And I still like Rumaitha, she's got presence and potential; keep going!

- And the afternoon lady's nice, with another refreshingly eclectic selection of music (just one thing - of course you have your 'A' playlist, but mix up the order between shows!)

- I just found out who "Sami" is; the guy scheduled for an Omani talent (can't remember what it was called?) show on Friday.  I know him I think. I'm looking forward to see how he shapes up as a DJ - he's certainly a confident type.

Here's a thing though: I didn't listen to the Arabic language sister station before, although it's been around for ages.  This morning while bored with the Merge breakfast show, I tuned in to الوصال ("Al Wisaal"), and liked it.  The music is fun, and the presenter's totally smooth, charming and charismatic.  Where did they get her from?!  Any chance Madiha can do a show in English on Merge too?  If Merge FM is supposed to be "the English language station for the Arab youth", perhaps the Arab youth is better off tuning into 96.5 until lunchtime!  Al Wisaal is cool.* But 104.8 doesn't seem to have much interest in talking to Arab youth.  Until the Arab youth start presenting.  Might I suggest a co-presenter for the morning show?  Might liven it up a bit too...

*One negative point on Al Wisaal, and it's not unique by any means in the Omani media.  Sponsors and advertisers are the lifeblood of a commercial station, and Bank Muscat are clearly client number one at Wisaal 96.5.  But making the presenter read all that crap about staff development verbatim was a bit embarrassing, as well as crushingly boring for us.  Free PR tip:  If you want to waffle on about how many people you've trained, at least send a guest in to the show to talk about it live for a couple of minutes.  Making the presenter read a press release is a bit humiliating.  Especially as she was so good.

June 07, 2011

Clarification Regarding "Bribes"

I would like to be perfectly clear following comments on the post below, that the word "bribe" is used therein purely as a rhetorical flourish in the vein of satire, and is not intended to insinuate any criminal or immoral activity on the part of any person.  Commercial advertising is a normal, natural, legal and in many ways admirable business practice.

Readers will note that after intense bidding, an advertisement is now to be found on this page, for the almost famous Gebhards and their much-envied wet fish empire.  Nobody gives you cod like the Gebhards. Take it from me.  

However, in the spirit of fair play, I would like to make clear that despite my close personal connection to the Gebhard brothers and their late father, advertising opportunities on this page are available on a purely commercial basis.  The highest bidder (really, really high) will be able to displace the Gebhards at but a day's notice.  Bids would be particularly welcome from manufacturers of carbonated soft drinks and/or major international producers or dealers of controlled substances or anti-personnel mines.

Thank you very much.

Shock Exclusive: Merge FM Launch Fails to be Awful

As previously promised, I have to give some feedback on Muscat's new English-language radio station - Merge FM.  This is particularly important as they have already bribed premium Omani blogsters SytheNadia and Mimi with money and shiny things.  The aforementioned are therefore not really in a position to comment.  To be fair, Sythe has permitted me to to post some fairly snide comments next to his advertisements, and Mimi has graced MurjEffem's first advertisement with a post about FGM (more on that subject later by the way), demonstrating typically splendid integrity.  Still, you can't trust the payroll vote, can you?  An independent voice is needed.  One untainted by financial incentive (however bribe-friendly he might be in priniciple).  Enter The Linoleum Surfer.

So, there I was, up at seven a.m. which is basically night time for me, to listen to the fat Evertonian on whose milky shoulders the hopes of the station rest.  And alas, I was a bit disappointed.  I had hoped, after all this build up, to say that it was all terrible. Ill-conceived.  Shambolic.  And it wasn't.  I promised to call it like it is, and unfortunately it's....OK.

Slow start I thought.  I guess when it's early morning, you've probably been up all night and you're the boss so it's doubly your fault, the stress must be severe.  And it was a tentative, timid and dull performance for the first hour or so.  But once he'd got into it I think Mr Fisher did OK.  New show, new station and new to Oman, but he'll get into it.  The basic competence in knowing what he's doing and the desire to be light-hearted and chatty as a breakfast host should, is all there.  Basically, one day in, this is now the least bad breakfast show in Oman.  It's a good place to start, and I think it's going to get better.  The music is certainly a welcome diversity compared to the other commercial station.

Moving on, I caught a bit of Rumaitha's show at lunchtime, and this is a clincher: this girl clearly has no experience whatsoever, but I don't object at all.  She's smart, she's got a nice personality and the confidence to push on through the little stammers and hesitations and get the job done.  The important thing is, she's Omani.  Given a chance, on day one, to just get on with it.  Good for her.  I hear a rumour that she follows this blog so let me be the first to say: Well done Rumaitha, you did fine and you're going to be great.  

That difference in attitude is really welcome - putting Omanis front and centre from the beginning.  Sure, it's still a station built by and around former provincial British DJs who never quite made it big and drifted off to one of Dubai's myriad craphouses.  But unlike Hi, they're not targeting British expatriate 18-25s with learning difficulties as their exclusive market.  If they can manage a voice that Omanis don't feel is patronising them, they will do just fine, and so far so good.  Just don't let the Brits talk about pubs and the Premier League all the time please.  There is a world beyond Dover, and now they're in it, they should talk about it...

As I type, the afternoon chick with the funny name is on.  Jury's out, she's nervous too and doesn't really have anything to say.  But no reason to write her off just yet, and again the music's a good mixture.

Overall it's a "C" today then for Merge FM.  Which isn't bad at all for a first day, and I'm sure they'll get better.  By GCC standards it's all been perfectly competent so far, which means by Oman broadcasting standards it's top of the class.  I do wonder whether all the radio stations make the same mistake though: if you try to serve everybody a little, you end up serving nobody well.  Still, with that caveat, Merge is the best of the bunch.  There, I said it.  I was prepared to stick the boot in, but they don't deserve any kicking just yet.  Well done.

During that turgid first hour though, I did have a spin across the dial to check out the competition and refresh my memory.  Hi FM was hideous, over-caffeinated blethering and relentlessly upbeat chart hits.  That Darren chap actually seems very nice, but the show and style is just so generic it might as well by a syndication.  From a hospital.  But here's the main competition to Merge now in my mind:  there is something special about Oman FM.  No really.  Any DJ who can go from Creedence Clearwater Revival straight into a full length club re-mix of J-Lo's "On The Floor", and then cut it off half way having just realised how long and inappropriate it is, must be special.  Sure, Merge has a much more diverse playlist than Hi (thank you!), but Smokey's "Living Next Door to Alice"?  The original?  That's Fike-on-the-Mic territory.  And listening to the Fikester chuckling about a smutty story he's read in The Sun about Ryan Giggs, while he's decided he can't share what it's actually about on the show, is gold.  Bizarre, surreal, staggeringly improper gold.  I was grinning from ear to ear listening to Fike.  Probably for all the wrong reasons, but grinning nevertheless.  Work on that Merge FM and you might just win me over for real...

P.S. One small criticism to the Merge community: your website has a couple of dead links and several typos/mistakes.  On launch day.  Not good - get someone else to proofread this stuff for you; your in-house team don't write well enough themselves.  Sorry.  Good luck though.

June 06, 2011

Censorship in Blogostan: Stickin' it to da Man

I awoke from my post-kebab meditation to discover that half of the blogs I follow in Oman are now on the payroll of a new commercial radio station named "Merge".  Which is fine.  Except that I'd already started winding myself up to write about it, as part of a general lament on the abject professional, intellectual, artistic, aesthetic and journalistic poverty of the Omani information media.

There are two reasons that I have yet to write anything about the media, despite having some experience in that field, and having talked about it for a week.  The first reason is that it might not be very interesting to state the blindingly obvious fact that all the TV and radio stations, and all the newspapers, are pitiably poor sources of either news or entertainment (well, the latter perhaps a bit, in a Vladimir Nabokov kind of way).  Either way, none of that is news to any readers of this page, and I should leave writing about nothing to those very media organs...

But the second reason is that, before laying a literary pounding across the board, I thought I should wait for the birth of "Merge".  The contractions started a few days ago with test broadcasts of Hi FM's playlist and some industry-standard annoying jingles, and delivery is scheduled for 7am tomorrow as I understand it.  So, I thought I'd hold off slapping the newborn until I could say with authority that all three English stations in Oman were equally bad, or, should a miracle be upon us, discover a spectacular new exception - a good radio station with presenters capable of surpassing a packet of instant noodles in wit or charisma.

However, in between times I've had a comment mentioning my low expectations deleted from another blog, and had a third blogger contact me asking me not to say anything horrible about their sponsors before I'd uttered a word.  Censorship is here, corporate-funded and in your face in Blogostan!  And I shall resist.  Oman's media might not be a very interesting subject to think about, but tell me I can't write about something and just see what happens.  I'll give them a fair hearing.  But if you want me to be nice about your sponsors, they'd better be good.  Otherwise they'll get what's coming...mark my words.

So we will see.  I will at some point tomorrow give "Merge" and one of its "star*" presenters a good listening to, and feed back to the masses without prejudice (and I mean that in both senses if the company lawyer is reading)

*"Star" is a term applied in Oman to anyone who has ever had a job in Dubai, having already failed to maintain gainful employment in their own country.  Maybe that weird inferiority complex about Dubai is a subject worth writing about...

Facebook Linoleum

First of all, thank you.  This blog was only set up seventeen days ago at the time of writing, and has fifty "followers" in Google-world, and over four thousand page hits.  Now, I don't know if that's a lot, but it sounds like it to me so thanks for inflating my already unmanageable ego.  A special thank you to all the more established blog-folk who have linked, re-posted or quoted somehow from this page - a lot of this traffic is down to you.  And thanks even more to those who were sent here against their will and decided to stay anyway!

In the next step towards world domination, there is now a Facebook page.  It has no new content.  Because nobody "likes" The Linoleum Surfer and therefore nobody deserves it.  When you do, I promise that the Facebook page will get its own, shorter comments now and then.  A bit like Twitter.  Except that I find Twitter somewhat stupid.  I don't know why, it's just the way my mind works.  So go on, hit that "like" button over to the right.  And the "follow" button if you haven't already.  Oh, and pass it on to your friends - pretty please?

Thanks for coming, commenting, following, sharing and liking. You move me.  I might even get on with writing something...


June 02, 2011

The Electric Mufti!

Let me start this by clarifying one small thing: I am Muslim.  Not a perfect one, probably not even a good one.  But a Believer, a God-botherer, bacon-free, a Barbican-ist.  Ich bin ein headbanger.

In that context, I'm as aware as anyone of both the risks and the potential of the media in the battle of ideas.  The internet is full of pornography and BS.  Some of it also has erudite, informed, interesting and educational content, and some of that is about Islam.  Cool.  And Robert Spencer can kiss my halal butt.  Metaphorically speaking, obviously.

So this post is aimed at brothers and sisters all over, especially here in the Gulf where I see a lot of the Electric Mufti.  I will get on with this in a minute, I promise, but in the mean time, I note that readers of this blog are from an amazing diversity of countries and backgrounds.  So just so as not to be exclusive, I'll just stop a moment and put this "Muslim" thing into context for those who are less informed (you infidels out there and the like).  Here is a brief digression:  The Beginner's Guide to Islam in three paragraphs - feel free to share with anyone who is ignorant, and has a short attention span:

1. Islam's the straightforward, uncomplicated, practical expression of religious duty to mankind.  Basically, it starts with the Holy Qur'An, which is the direct world of God, transmitted via the angel Gabriel (you might remember that name from the Bible - same guy, OK?), to the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him), who then recited each part as it came along to the people around him.  Between them, those same people wrote it down, and although a few years later, it was those same contemporaries who got together and agreed a written version of the whole thing.  That's the Qur'An.  Straight from source, as we see it.  Unchanged since the time of Mohammed's (pbuh) contemporaries - and original copies are still in existence.  OK, so that's the main part.

2. The second part, in the mainstream view at least, is all that the things that the Prophet (pbuh) said and did during the many years of his prophecy, are worth imitating: we call the things he was seen to do the sunna and the things he was heard to say the ahadith (sing. hadith).  Now these are not "straight from source" as it were like the Qur'An, so there are some disagreements over what's true and what isn't.  But the majority of people agree, more or less, on which are from the most valid sources and therefore most likely to be true.  There are a couple of sets that most people agree on.  So, overall we have the Qur'An that tells us everything really important, straight from God.  And then we have the deeds and words of the Prophet (pbuh), in less perfect form, but a pretty good base of quality material for reference.  We look at the first, the answers are pretty much all there.  But if we want to try extra hard or get into fine print (and who doesn't, right?), we can refer to the other things for specifics of what to do in certain, very human, situations.  Cool.

3. So that's it.  That really is Islam in a nutshell: obey the Qur'An - that's "submitting to the will of God" (what the word "Islam" means), and try to live your life in the example of the Prophet (pbuh) too, which is what the other material is for.  No other texts, no church, no clergy, no book of common prayer.  That's it.

OK, infidels' guide over - back to the point.  I've always had a bit of an issue with the elevation of certain "sheikhs", "muftis", "scholars" and the like to reverend-status.  One of the most basic truths of Islam is that there are not intermediaries between man (or woman!) and God.  No popes, priests or rabbis.  Sure, people have their reasons for "following" an individual, in that they might respect his knowledge as superior, or feel it's safer to follow the best example they can find rather than try to work it out for themselves.  But I have felt for a long time that it's a weakness in the Muslim Umma now - the fear of contradicting a celebrity sheikh, the fear of debate and innovation, etc.  It's starting to look an awful lot like a church, and that's a bad thing.  At least I think so.

Personally, following another man's view (and it's always a man, let's face it) without question, makes me nervous - I don't want to say on Judgement Day that I took a decision to follow some guy rather than think for myself because someone said I should.  Or because he was on MBC.  Or because he had a really impressive beard and other people seemed kind of scared of him.  I think that might suddenly feel a little thin, as defences go.  Maybe it's my nature, but I always want to think about it and make my own decision.  At least then there's no doubt who's to blame.

Anyway, what I think is irrelevant to most people.  And after all, as I'm opposed to the veneration of scholars I can hardly set myself up as one.  I'm not at all, just a child trying to learn.  What I am going to talk about is what I think of the Electric Mufti.  Even if you do follow Sheikh Al Falani, or Imam Shismoh or whoever, he's got a big rival.  Enter the Electric Mufti!  But who is he?!  Well I will tell you, because he's been on my case lately and it's starting to annoy me.

The Electric Mufti is a mythical creature.  He has no name.  He has no address.  No office.  No masjid and no sabla.  There is no feedback, no interactivity, and no refund.  The Electric Mufti just broadcasts, through your email, your social media account, and even to your phone.  And he uses your friends, acquaintances and business associates as his delivery boys.  The Electric Mufti has a LOT of servants.  And let's look at his work:

- The Electric Mufti sends to your email, a detailed explanation of how the end of the world is nigh.  In Arabic, or occasionally in hilariously broken English, you will see in detail how the erection of Burj Khalifa, the level of the tide in Somalia and the number of people in the news whose names begin with "B" add up to an unerring indication of the imminent end of days.  The Electric Mufti must therefore be a genius, and indeed a prophet.  At least that's what he's saying without using the words.  The Electric Mufti knows when the end of the world is.  That's a big claim.

- The Electric Mufti tells you on Facebook exactly how many points you score for walking to the mosque, saying certain voluntary prayers, cursing the Devil and cutting the toenails on one foot before another.  The Electric Mufti is extremely well-informed, and can add up exactly how your actions, prayers and obediances to the tiniest details of his code, can affect your celestial sin rating.  The Electric Mufti is heaven's accountant.  That's an even bigger claim.

- The Electric Mufti, in his generosity, wants you to be fast-tracked to the highest level of the afterlife.  So he is sending instructions to your Blackberry on how you can jump the queue: here is a du3a ("supplication", infidels) that gets you a VIP pass through the side entrance.  Just recite this long screed, and forward it to ten other people, and all your sins will be wiped away.  There might even be several different ones sent in the same day, each with different bonuses: "This one will help you with money problems."  "This one is very powerful".  "This one will bring forgiveness for everything you've done in the last six months".  Some have a catch, too: "Forward this to at least ten other Blackberry users or it won't work".  Which sounds a bit like the old "chain letters" game of decades ago "if you don't forward this, you will die!".  But it can't be like that, right?  This is from the Electric Mufti!  The Electric Mufti can get you a discount on the afterlife.  That's a huge claim.

- The Electric Mufti doesn't need to refer to any sources or evidence, as it's all right there in his electric head, so he can ping out a fatwa (meaning "scholarly religious opinion", infidels, nothing scary) as quickly as you or I can change our MSN Messenger status.  The Electric Mufti can tell you why you need to pick your nose with a certain finger.  He can tell you that there is a conspiracy manifested in butter from New Zealand.  He can tell you that putting your left foot first into your car causes accidents.  And he can tell you, unequivocally, categorically, with no justification or explanation, exactly which tiny details of your life are pleasing or displeasing to the Almighty.  The Electric Mufti knows the mind of God.  That's the mother of all claims.

The Electric Mufti is a mysterious character, working behind the curtains, with no name and no accountability.  He could be real.  He could be one person, working for good or  for evil.  Or he could be a million people just writing down stuff that's in their heads, things from blogs and obscure sectarian websites.  Creating, quoting, mis-quoting, cutting, pasting and fabricating.  Day and night, working feverishly to propagate the Electric Mufti message around the world.

So ask yourself: are you working for the Electric Mufti?  Are you sending stuff from sources you don't really know?  Are you making yourself a messenger for an invisible voice?  And if so, why?  Aren't the Qur'An and the Sunna enough for you?  Don't you have a brain, God-given and amazing, to reflect and understand and "seek the fatwa of your heart"?   And didn't Islam tell you that is more than enough?

The Electric Mufti is a liar and a charlatan.  If you're working for him, forwarding his messages and promoting his ideas, then I think you should resign for your own sake, and stick to the Qur'An and the Sunna.  If you're the following type, you're taking a gamble that the voice you follow is one more informed, more wise, and more righteous than you are.  Maybe.  But if you're wrong, then at some point you're thinking that if he's wrong, it won't be your fault because you followed in good faith.  Maybe too.  But how is that going to work with the Electric Mufti dude?

After all, if you're planning on blaming the Electric Mufti for your mistakes in the next life, how are you going to point your finger at an invisible man?  Maybe you should just pull the plug, and you can stop forwarding it to me anyway.


P.S.  If you are the active type, maybe you can send this link in reply to any messages you get from the Electric Mufti.  I'm sure he would not appreciate it.  And I don't care.