]> Sojourn in the Middle East

Sojourn in the Middle East

Part 4 of 9
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This is a blog of some of my impressions during a seven-month period living and working in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (the "KSA") in 2007-08.

Ahlan Wi Sahlan

I've been taking evening classes in Arabic at the university across the street from our compound. This is a vast complex known as Al Imam ibn Sa'ud Islamic University, or more simply and affectionately among locals, "Imam U". I am not yet certain what is "Islamic" about the place, whether it's entirely a religious college or the term is simply appended to indicate the general spirit of endeavors within, but in any case that is another story. The story here is about learning Arabic.

Simply put, it hasn't been easy. Leaving aside the fact that it's got its own alphabet and about 10 consonants that we don't have, it is one of those languages where seemingly everything must agree with everything else, in five different ways. I'm coming straight from Chinese where the only things that have gender are humans, there is no verb conjugation whatsoever, and in fact no agreement of any kind. You just put the words together, use a particle or two to indicate action status, and do the rest with context. ("I tomorrow eat fish" obviously means I will eat fish tomorrow, and "I yesterday eat fish" means I ate it yesterday. No problems anywhere, and it all works fine.

In Arabic on the other hand, you've not only got to set up "eat" in one of about 12 different ways depending on who's doing the saying and when it took place, but the "fish" has to be doctored up as well with all manner of endings and prefixes to say it's an object and generally agree with all else that's going on. Quite a headache.

Moreover this sort of contextual entanglement goes on in the basic written form of the letters as well. The sentence pictured above says "Ahlan wi sahlan." Keeping in mind that you are reading from right to left, note the apparent absence of correspondence between most of the two long words, despite the fact they differ only in the presence or absence of the initial "s". I'll spare you the details but be assured it is logical -- a fact that does nothing to prevent it from being a huge pain in the @$$.

Meanwhile our teacher, bless his heart, is trying to get all of this across to us implicitly, by example. He doesn't explain to us that the ending "-itan" means multiple females and "-itun" means multiple males (and possibly females), but simply uses the terms "talibitun" and "talibitan" in discussing various groups of students. If we were young kids we'd pick all of this up quite easily, but our stodgy old adult minds refuse to go with the flow like this and instead insist on wanting to know an explicit rule. Of course once we learn this rule at last then we must consciously think every time, "Now, what is the composition of this group.. OK, all women, so we use... (pause while memory spins up) .. '-itan'!". And we practice and practice, getting a little quicker with each passing month, until at last we know almost instinctively which ending to use without having to think about it -- and so arrive at where the kids were the first week.

Adults must be better at something I suppose, we came from kids after all, but sometimes one has to wonder.

Arabian Kitchen

I wasn't 100% sure what to expect of the cuisine here. Of course we are all familiar with foods from the Middle East -- falafel, grilled lamb, saffron rice, baklava, etc.. But in reality these are associated with certain countries and certain regions, and Saudi Arabia is a fair distance from the Lebanese, Jordanian, and Turkish centers of U.S. emigration. But I needn't have worried.

The fact is, all of this stuff can be found here. The traditional Saudi cuisine itself consists mainly of stews and grilled meats -- the Arabs were a pastoral people, with little recourse to farming. What grown foods there are reflect the desert. Dates. Figs. Cashews. All healthy and delicious.

One of the best parts is cardamom seeds. I've never seen them in the U.S. but here they're sold in large and varied quantities at every grocery store. Among other things you can drop them in your teapot, boil them with your rice, or brew them up with your coffee. In fact the Arabic coffee is flavored more intensely with cardamom than coffee itself. It is a greenish-brownish color, far paler than its counterparts westward, and served without sugar.

On the Roads

Driving here is a mass of contradictions. Most westerners I've spoken to seem to consider the Saudis rude, careless maniacs on the road. Yet in fact the opposite is the case: drivers are both attentive and considerate to a degree unknown in the west. And yet despite that, fatalities per distance driven in the KSA are 30-40% higher than even in the U.S..

At first sight, Saudi driving is a lawless free-for-all. Cars drift between lanes seemingly carelessly, without signaling. Drivers from side roads barge heedless on to main thoroughfares. At intersections cars swoop out from right-hand lanes to make lefts, cutting everyone off in the middle. It is easy to take all of this as aggressive behavior.

But a closer look is revealing. Take cars "drifting" between lanes. A car will start moving into a different lane, regardless of the distance behind it to the trailing car in that lane. This is not a move but a signal, no different in principle than activating a turn flasher. If the other car reacts by slowing down, the move will be continued; if it does not, it will be aborted. But never aborted precipitously. Instead the drifting will reverse direction, just quickly enough to be out of the way by the time the car comes through that space. It is an analog process, contrasting sharply with the digital one in the west: signal, then either make a relatively quick move or not.

Also analog is the process during a merge. Cars will squeeze together, across boundaries, temporarily forming an extra lane on the side merging in. At the same time, cars in all lanes shift away from the merge. Finally, the extra lane merges in some distance down the road, using the space freed up by this movement. Amazingly, this usually all happens with very little use of brakes, even at high traffic densities.

Lights present a Saudi "innovation" of dubious value. Instead of alternating between two cross directions, greens rotate around one side at a time, while the other three sit and wait. The side with the green makes lefts, rights, and goes straight with equal abandon. Other sides make rights if they can. Interestingly, the only thing one never has to wait for is a U-turn. Special U-turn lanes exist at all intersections, allowing drivers to make the turn in isolation before merging in with traffic from the left side.

These elaborate support arrangements for U-turns may seem strange, until you realize that there is no such thing as making a left from a typical Saudi road, which is divided with an impassable median in the center. The idea I imagine is to keep traffic moving at high speeds without getting mucked up by people trying to make lefts or avoid other drivers doing so. In fact the entire street system is mostly lined on both sides by concrete barriers, so being on the roads feels a lot like driving a slot car. At lights, people are therefore understandably very eager to make lefts, if they're not making U-turns, that is, and often do it from several lanes that should ordinarily be going straight. This can result in you being forced to make a left if you find yourself anywhere but the extreme right lane and everyone else is making lefts around you. On the other hand, even people in the right lane will sometimes go ahead and make a left, even if others to their left are trying to go straight, causing quite a hold-up.

Another interesting thing about Saudi driving is of course the absence of women from the roads. The Imams had decided some years ago that women should not be driving, and so they weren't. 100% men drivers, and one of the highest accident rates in the world -- some 40% higher than even the U.S. -- to boot. You can draw your own conclusions.

Finally, it should be noted that the colors of vehicles on the road are regulated by the Saudi government. Silver and white are the principal colors allowed for cars. Some blue and pale green cars are allowed as well, while pickup trucks have no choice but to be white. SUVs, tan or white. Aesthetics are a matter of great importance in the kingdom, a topic that shall be returned to later.

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