Of Black Magic and Witchcraft

May 13, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

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The case of Lebanese citizen Ali Hussain Sibat, who has been incarcerated for the past two years in a Saudi Arabian prison on charges of being a sorcerer, has brought the dark world of ‘black magic’ and witchcraft that exists in many countries of the Middle East into the limelight. Sibat has been sentenced to death by beheading for hosting a television show called, “The Hidden” in Lebanon in which he engaged in acts of sorcery on camera. Saudi officials also claim that he confessed while in custody to selling potions to his clients that supposedly fulfill their greatest desire.

Sorcery, voodoo, soothsaying and all sorts of witchcraft are strictly forbidden in the Islamic faith and laws against the evil practices are firmly upheld by most Islamic countries. Despite the severe penalties, which are sometimes lethal, many people claiming to have special powers continue to prey on the public. And in many cases, the soothsayers are sought out by people suffering from hardships ranging from issues of the heart to more worldly issues like financial struggles. There is a tangible market in the Middle East for sorcery as there is a plethora of people seeking to get a hold of, what they perceive to be, the unattainable.

However, personal gain is not the only reason why witchcraft has found a comfortable niche in the Gulf region. Jealousy, hatred and just plain loathing are often the driving forces behind the use of witchcraft or sorcery. In a recent cover story in the newspaper Saudi Gazette, a pair of Indonesian housemaids was arrested for committing acts of sorcery against their sponsor families. Both were duped into confessing to their crimes in exchange for a large amount of money, which was bogus and meant only to extract their confessions. The housemaids admitted to placing at least 55 ‘charms’ in various parts of each of the family homes. Just prior to their confessions, family members had become suspicious after several other members of the family fell ill mysteriously. According to the article the charms, some consisting of broken glass and nails, were found and ‘undone’ by religious authorities.

The problem of sorcery has become so widespread in the Gulf that many countries are taking preemptive actions to dissuade the practice. Bahrain is just one government that is trying to root out witchcraft from within its borders. The Bahraini government is set to pass a new appendix to the law that already exists on the books which forbids anyone in the country from performing sorcery on the behalf of others or even privately in the home. However, unlike in Saudi Arabia, anyone convicted of sorcery in Bahrain does not stand to lose his or her head. The penalty for sorcery in Bahrain is a stiff fine and possibly a prison stint followed by deportation.

Human rights groups are swift to criticize Middle East governments for taking a hard line when it comes to witchcraft and sorcery. Most recently Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized the Saudi government for turning Sibat’s case into a capital crime when in other countries it would be most likely be classified as a mere case of fraud.

12-20

While You Were Sleeping

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

COV_iranFlag This week has seen a spurt of would-be terror plots that painfully highlights the reality that our world is still not as safe as it should be, despite the two wars still being waged against purported terrorist regimes. The most notable occurred in the heart of New York City as Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad has confessed to being the mastermind behind the car bomb that, luckily, did not explode in Times Square. Shahzad was just barely apprehended as he sat on an Emirates flight set for Dubai.

The tiny Gulf State of Kuwait also got its own dose of a potential terror-plot in the making when security personnel unraveled a tangled web of deceit within its own borders. A ‘sleeper cell’ network of spies, apparently working covertly for the Iranian government’s Revolutionary Guard, was exposed this past week much to the surprise of the denizens of the region. For weeks, local Kuwaiti newspapers have been reporting renewed ties between Kuwait and Iran as well as a couple of deals, like oil exports. By all appearances the sleeper cell was put into place to gather intelligence on primary Kuwaiti and American targets, in the event that America decided to take a preemptive military strike against Iran. Iranian President has always promised to lash out at any Gulf neighbor that allows its land to be used by the US and its allies in a show of force against Iran.

Kuwait’s security forces have arrested at least eleven high-ranking Kuwaiti citizens that worked in close proximity to both the interior and defense ministries as well as several Arab nationals whose nationalities have not been released. During the bust, Kuwaiti security personnel raided the home of one of the leaders of the sleeper cell and found a great deal of incriminating evidence including maps for sensitive targets in Kuwait, hi-tech gadgetry and an estimated $250,000 stockpile of cold hard cash. Key players within the sleeper cell have also revealed to Kuwait security forces that they were instructed to recruit new members from Kuwait that were sympathetic to the plight of Iranians.

It’s not surprising that Kuwait was chosen as a primary location for the Iranian sleeper cell to settle in unnoticed. There are several American army bases littered throughout the country and Kuwait is a key stopping point for American troops headed to the frontlines in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the strongest reason is most likely the friendship that Kuwait and America have built ever since the 1991 Desert Storm war, where America and its allies literally pulled Kuwait out of the clutches of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Word out of Iran is that the whole fiasco is merely a chance for Kuwait to discredit the country. However, the evidence is strongly leaning towards the validity of the sleeper cell and the Iranian governments full knowledge of its existence. And according to the Kuwaiti government there are still at least seven more members of the sleeper cell who have not yet been apprehended. But what is most disturbing is that interrogations with the suspects are slowly revealing that the espionage stretches clean across the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) member states with several Gulf countries supposedly having an invisible sleeper cell operating from within. Leaders from the Arab world are expected to meet in the foreseeable future to join forces in combating Iranian spy rings.

12-19

The Legacy of Lunch

April 22, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

lunch%20tray For the past couple of months now I have been intrigued with an anonymous blog project based in America that has captured the imagination of countless Internet users. The topic of the blog is school lunches in America and the blogger is a schoolteacher that masks her identity for fear of losing her job. Every day, she shares the food that not only her students are eating but what she is eating herself in the school cafeteria. The blog, Fed Up With School Lunch, has ignited a rallying cry that stretches clean across the globe with teachers in countries like Korea and France chiming in to share their school lunch victories and disasters. Most notably, the blog highlights the poor quality of food served in most American schools and the lack of nutrition to sustain students.

What strikes me the most about the project is not the fact that American kids are eating a ton of processed foods intermingled with a mere sprinkling of fresh fruits and vegetables, but the fact that kids in the USA are actually served lunch every day whereas my own children in the Middle East are not offered any form of lunch in their schools whatsoever. In fact, the vast majority of schools in Kuwait don’t offer hot or even cold lunches. And vending machines are absolutely nowhere to be found on school campuses. Most parents send their kids a packed lunch, usually potato chips or chocolate and Pepsi. Some don’t even send lunch at all. And what’s worse is that there is not an allocated time slot for lunch in most schools in Kuwait, so many children bring their lunches back home with them or eat while they are studying.

Kuwait is not the only Gulf country lacking when it comes to school lunches. Even wealthy Arab neighbors like Dubai have a school system that rarely serves lunch. Parents are left to monitor their own children’s nutrition at lunchtime with zero support from the faculty at their school. The biggest problem for parents of school-aged children in the Gulf region is a lack of proper nutritional information. In a recent survey that I conducted in my own daughter’s 3rd grade class, a whopping 90% of children had been given junk food for their lunch with only a handful of children having a healthy lunch and an equal number having no lunch at all.

The price for the ‘rubbish’ lunches, as my hero/cooking guru Jamie Oliver would say, is more and more children in Kuwait are battling obesity before they even reach puberty. The Ministry of Health in Kuwait has recently projected that the rate of diabetes amongst children in Kuwait is set to double in the coming years. And, so far, no one is doing anything about it.

So no matter which way you, slice, dice or reheat it, the legacy of lunch is something that affects children from all walks of life and in every region of the world. It’s up to adults to make the right food decisions for the younger generations, and win the battle over lunch once and for all.

12-17

Examining the Evil Eye

April 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

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The hamsa (also called a hamesh, Hand of Fatima, Hand of Miriam, or Hand of God) is an ancient Middle Eastern symbol for protection from the evil eye.

You woke up to a flat tire in the morning. You spilled a steaming hot coffee on your leg on your morning drive to work. A large tree branch fell on you as you took a stroll on a sidewalk. Most people would chalk these events up to mere coincidence or simply a bout of bad luck. But a trip across the ocean to the Middle East reveals that it is a whole other ball game.

Often labeled ‘fatalists’ by the heavily biased western media it’s true that most Muslims in the Middle East,as well as the rest of the world, put their lives wholeheartedly in the hands of God. However, for Arab Muslims there is an equally intense belief in the ‘evil eye’ and a plethora of preventative measures to ward it off, depending on the culture. In a nutshell, the evil eye basically means that someone covets something that you have and thus taints it. Soon after you, or the aforementioned item, typically faces some sort of calamity. It’s not uncommon for every ill to befall someone to be intensely scrutinized to find the exact moment that the evil eye contaminated it.

For this reason, amulets of various sorts adorn objects that would otherwise be left ‘unprotected’. It’s not uncommon to see brand new, or even passably nice, sports cars with decals in Arabic that read, “In the name of God” or “Praise God”. Other places for the amulets to reside include the front doors of apartments and mansions, sometimes in every room of the house. Even newborn babies often are adorned with a small gold brooch on their night suits with the words “In the Name of God” before they are brought out to visitors. The concept is to basically ensure that someone recognizes the gift the person possesses as coming from God before they can desire it.

To the person unfamiliar with Islam, it might seem like a whole lot of hocus-pocus. But the evil eye is a reality that is mentioned in the Holy Quran and something that the Prophet Muhammad (s) himself was very well acquainted with. The recommendation from the Sunnah of Muhammad (s) is to recite certain verses from the Holy Quran and to pray for sincere protection from God Almighty. For many Muslims, just the thought of the evil eye is enough to send a cold shudder right down the spine.

As a result, some clever opportunists have seized the opportunity to make a profit off the fear and suffering of others. In most of the Gulf countries there exists some people, who by all appearances are extremely religious, who claim to be specialists in treating the effects of the evil eye. Many offer their services albeit for a price. Most charge cash money for reciting verses of the Holy Quran over the afflicted person while others will recite the Quran for free so long as the person purchases one of their homemade homeopathic remedies. Since the belief in the evil eye is so widespread, and the people seeking to profit from it even wider, authorities can not do much to eradicate the supposed remedy which is often much more evil than the cause.

12-15

It’s All in the Bag

April 1, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

handbag Already set to celebrate her ten year anniversary, savvy Lebanese businesswoman Sarah Beydoun has dedicated her life creating a happy medium of harmony between her social activism beliefs and her love of fashion. Through her business, “Sarah’s Bags”, she has found a way to use her skills as an artisan to make a difference in the lives of both the rich and the poor, annihilating social stigmas all along the way.

Born and bred in Lebanon, Beydoun’s modus operandi is none other than most women’s most coveted accessory, the handbag. After writing her thesis about the plight of female Lebanese prisoners languishing in prisons for some of the most heinous crimes, Beydoun recognized an opportunity to make an impact in their lives. She spent some time on the ‘inside’ of a rehab center for female convicts and got up close and personal with their daily struggles. It would be that first encounter that would set the future path for Beydoun and what would become her life’s purpose in “Sarah’s Bags”.

Beydoun sought out her own potential seamstresses in some of the toughest prisons and rehab facilities in Lebanon to create the bags, even teaching inmates how to embroider and sew beads herself. She also reached out to the poorest of the poor in Lebanon’s rural areas to give those women a chance to have a better future. “Sarah’s Bags” currently employs 100 designers who create its entire line of haute couture quality purses.

As Beydoun admits herself, each bag carries with it just a little bit of the impoverished or imprisoned woman who created it. The designs range from glittering spectacles of bling wear to socially aware pieces, like the ones featuring high ranking celebrities like Lebanese singers and even a queen or two. And the results have been outstanding and certainly a surprise to Beydoun. Everyone from top celebrities to the richest elite has clamored to have their own bag.

“Sarah’s Bags” can be found all over the Middle East and in Europe gracing the shelves of the most select boutiques. A single bag starts at $400, with more detailed bags fetching a handsome ransom. The company has also expanded over the years to include everything from shoes to belts to custom-designer jewelry and scarves.

Seeking to mark her tenth anniversary in style, Beydoun plans to handpick ten women to use her purses as their own personal canvas. Each woman will be allowed to share her personal trials and tribulations right on the handbag. In some small measure, they can use the power of the purse to let their voices be heard.

The awards and accolades Beydoun has begun collecting have been quite notable. Most recently, Beydoun’s line of socially aware purses were featured in Washington D.C. as part of the Kennedy Center’s International Festival. The future looks bright for Beydoun as an eager buzz, stretching clean across the globe, surrounds her company. However, the designer remains true to her roots promising to make employing less fortunate women the lifeblood of her company.

12-14

Marriage 101

March 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

The wedding-cake-recipe-ideas divorce date, in the Middle East, has spiked considerably over the past few years, which has sounded the alarm for many of the conservative Islamic governments. In Saudi Arabia, the rate of divorce has escalated by almost 15% from 2008 to 2009. And in Kuwait, the divorce rate has skyrocketed to a whopping 187% over the last 23 years making it the highest rate of divorce in the entire world according to recent statistics released by the government. Most countries in the Middle East take a backseat role when it comes to divorce, leaving couples to figure it out for themselves. However, one country seeking to nip the notion of divorce in the bud, even prior to the marriage, is Iran.

Statistics on the Iranian divorce rate are sparse given the cultural and language chasm between the West and Iran, however a 1992 study by Sanasarian indicated that about 10% of Iranian marriages end in divorce (family.jrank.org), while according to divorcemag.com, less than 1 out of every 100 Iranian marriages end in divorce.

Regardless, Iran’s government-backed National Youth Organization has recently inaugurated its very first online pre-matrimonial course.  According to the group’s mission statement, the online course will seek to assist young Iranians in finding their perfect marital match while also maintaining strict Islamic values, which frowns upon premarital dating or relations of any kind. The organization also has high expectations, by educating Iranian youth prior to marriage, to cut Iran’s rate of divorce drastically.

The course is held, for free, in virtual classrooms online and lasts for 3 full months. Designed by top Iranian professionals and Islamic scholars, the course highlights the dangers of relationships out of wedlock and upholds arranged marriages as the best recipe for living happily ever after. Participants in the online course must also take a weekly test and, based on how well they do, will receive a diploma in the union of marriage.

However, since its inception, there is very little information known about the specifics of what the course teaches which has whipped critics into a frenzy. At the launch of the program a very general syllabus was released to the media, which provided more questions than answers. In a recent interview, well-known Iranian sociologist Shahla Ezazi said, “Awareness is fine but the question is what kind of a family they are seeking to promote.” In a blatant attempt to quell any controversy, the head of the National Youth Organization Mehrdad Bazrpash summated, “Marriage needs hundreds of hours of education.”

Iranian officials have also used the launch of the program as a soapbox to discourage harmful and extravagant practices when it comes to Iranian weddings, such as exorbitant dowries and expensive weddings that most families cannot afford. And to seal the deal in cementing the union of marriage, President Ahmadinejad has recently promised to give priority to employing newlyweds and providing affordable homes for recently married couples. Quite notably, the age in which Iranians now get married has increased exponentially due to financial circumstances and familial problems. For centuries, most Iranians would get married in their early twenties and today most Iranians marry in their late twenties or even early thirties. More and more couples in Iran are delaying their marriages indefinitely until the time is right or until they can afford to get married.

12-12

Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

March 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

kuwait28606_wideweb__470x311,0 The pages of history reveal the anguish, sweat and tears that women throughout the ages have suffered in winning suffrage rights from often male-dominated societies. Hard-fought, and eventually won, battles have been waged from the sunny coastlines of California all the way to the villages of France and back again. And, despite our extremely advanced technological age that has morphed the depths of our world into the palms of our hands, many women across the globe are still fighting for their rights.

One such country, where women have seen great progress in the area of women’s suffrage rights, is the tiny gulf State of Kuwait. Kuwaiti women won the right to vote and participate in parliamentary elections way back in 2005. However, it would take another 4 years for Kuwaiti women to circumvent political roadblocks intentionally put in their path and assert their right to participate in the inner workings of government. In 2009, Kuwaiti women cheered from their balconies and congregated in the streets to congratulate one another over no less than four Kuwaiti women being voted into the Kuwaiti parliament.

However, since that one sweet victory, women’s suffrage in Kuwait has come to a screeching halt. This past Monday, Kuwaiti women seized the opportunity of International Women’s Day to lodge a public complaint. The primary area of contention is the fact that Kuwaiti women are not allowed to become judges. And most are prevented from being promoted to higher positions in the government. Quite notably only 17 Kuwaiti women hold high-ranking government posts as opposed to 252 positions held by their male counterparts.

At a special symposium held to commemorate International Women’s Day in Kuwait, Kuwaiti women showed up in force to demand answers in an all too public forum. Kuwaiti women, ranging from lawyers to housewives, stood up to allow their voices to be heard. Gender discrimination was on the tip of all of the women’s tongues as the Kuwaiti government was branded too conservative and resistant to change. One speaker, a lawyer named Salwa al-Ajmi, told the symposium, “I have been working as a lawyer for the past 32 years but still I cannot become a judge. It is shameful that the government has accepted and signed international treaties banning discrimination against women and still bars females from becoming judges.”

The symposium also highlighted other areas where Kuwaiti females face gender discrimination and lack basic human rights which should be an embarrassment to a country that, at least on paper, purports to uphold the rights of women within its borders. For example, Kuwaiti women who choose to marry a non-Kuwaiti are legally barred from giving their children or even their husband the Kuwaiti nationality, which comes with countless financial perks and benefits from the government. Contrastingly, Kuwaiti males enjoy full nationality rights regardless of whom they marry. As a result, Kuwaiti women cannot receive a free home from the government or monthly social welfare payments for their children that, once again, Kuwaiti males benefit from.

All hope is not lost as a female member of parliament, MP Rula Dashti, used the symposium as an opportunity to announce her plans to draft a new gender equality bill that she will present at the next session of the Kuwaiti Parliament.  The timing could not be riper for Kuwaiti women to make headway with at least some of the rights they are after, as the Kuwaiti government is trying to amp up its global reputation as a beacon of human rights appreciation.

12-11

Breaking the Chains of Labor

March 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan – MMNS Middle East Correspondent

DUBAI_WORKERS_(409_x_279) They say it takes a village to raise a child and, at least in the Middle East, that sentiment is taken quite literally. For decades, the wealthy denizens of the oil-drenched Gulf region have relied heavily upon an army of laborers numbering in the millions to help raise their families. Most of the laborers hail from the poorest nations of Southeast Asia, like India and Sri Lanka. They fulfill jobs that no one else wants to or seem beneath the wealthy elite class. Some serve as housemaids, nannies, cooks, gardeners and chauffeurs. Others have managed to crash through the ‘domestic servitude’ ceiling and work both in the private sector and public sectors as janitors, office boys and the like.

For many of the poor laborers, the jobs that they are contracted to do in the Gulf region are the only means of financial support for their families back in their homelands. And the support is often meager as the salary contracts are rarely enforced. The actual salary they receive is, typically, at least 60% lower than the original salary that was contractually agreed upon. Not only are the laborers exploited financially, but they are also often abused, both verbally and physically. Regardless of the drawbacks, the quality of life in the Gulf is a lot better than that in their poor homelands.

However, the result of the dependence upon such a huge force of laborers for so many years has come at a hefty price. There simply are not enough jobs for Gulf nationals. Well-educated and trained Gulf citizens are left redundant in most cases, as there are not enough of the highly coveted government jobs, with perks like obscenely high salaries and extra holidays, to go around. For this reason, many Gulf countries have little choice but to take drastic measures to release its dependence on a largely foreign workforce in order to free up jobs for their own people.

One such country is the State of Kuwait, who this week announced that the Kuwaiti government is initiating plans to replace its estimated 600,000 strong foreign workforce, in various sectors, at a rate of 10% per annum. The government also plans to ban hiring foreign workers, with the exception of those who are highly skilled, and will begin purging existing workers right back to their homelands.

The rationale behind the Kuwaiti government’s move is to cut spending and open new employment opportunities for eager Kuwaiti workers. According to a recently conducted study by the Kuwait Parliament, there are an estimated 60,000 foreign-held jobs today that could be handed over to Kuwaitis tomorrow.  The decision is also a preemptive strike to secure Kuwait’s borders as foreigners out number Kuwaitis 3 to 1. Other Gulf countries have already taken initiatives to break the chains of reliance upon a foreign workforce.

Further governmental plans include specialized training courses for Kuwait citizens so that they can step right into a skilled job previously held by a foreign laborer. And the government will also pay special attention to the Kuwait youth, which makes up a whopping 50% of the Kuwaiti population. Ignoring this segment of the future Kuwaiti workforce would be fatal as the next generation has the potential of meeting all of the employment needs of the country.

The impact of Gulf states sending much of their foreign workforce packing will have far reaching effects, most notably with the foreign laborers themselves. Once back in their homelands, there is little guarantee that they will be able to earn a quality living, as unemployment is usually high and community programming to help the poor is sparse. Being forced ‘out to pasture’ before their time is like a cold hard slap in the face for a foreign workforce that has helped build the Gulf region up to global contender that it is today.

12-10

Those City Lights

February 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

Dance Club The party capital of the Middle East has long since been Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon. The tiny gulf emirate of Dubai has tried, but miserably failed, to win the hearts and minds of the jet set and party-hungry consumers. The wide open consumer market for clubbing in some parts of the Middle East is enticing and could be very lucrative, as the region was barely scathed by the current credit crisis affecting much of Europe and North America.

A new contender has thrown their hat in the ring to vie for tourists looking to spend their leisure time partying in the windswept deserts of the Middle East. And that country is Jordan. Most famous for its rose-colored city of Petra, one of the 7 new wonders of the world, Jordan is slowly emerging from its well-known lethargic  conservative atmosphere and morphing into a clubber’s paradise. Nowhere is this transformation more prevalent than in the capital city of Amman.

The city of Amman has undergone a total makeover thanks to a younger workforce of skilled workers with extra money to spend. As a result, an affluent class of partiers has surfaced, fully willing and able to party the nights away. Unlike most countries in the Middle East, alcohol is not illegal in Jordan and flows freely in Jordanian restaurants, dance clubs and bars. With names like, ‘Wild Jordan’, ‘Canvas’ and ‘Upstairs’ there are an abundance of high-end party venues for locals and tourists alike. Even conservative Muslims have found a comfortable niche within the party scene while not overstepping the bounds of Islam, opting for a round of Shisha or piping hot mugs of steamy Arabic coffee instead of alcoholic drinks that are forbidden for Muslims.

Quite notably there is also a dark side to the new party atmosphere in Amman, which is an increase in crimes of morality. Promiscuity and adultery are particularly on the rise in Amman. It is not uncommon for men and women partying together to engage in a ‘dangerous liaison’ for a couple of hours. There is even an underground network of clever businessman capitalizing on the need for privacy in this newly found culture in Amman, providing secret rooms for rent by the hour. Even married people are getting in on the indiscriminate action, as a popular steakhouse in Amman called ‘Whispers’ has become a popular meeting place for cheating spouses.

Not to be outdone by their heterosexual counterparts, there is also a thriving homosexual party scene in Amman, a city that often turns a blind eye to homosexual activity. Homosexuals are treated less severely in Jordan than in other Middle Eastern countries. Well-known and openly gay establishments are littered between the ones specifically created for heterosexual clientele. Two of the most famous gay hangouts in Amman are called ‘Fame’ and ‘Books@Café’. However, it’s not uncommon to find people from all sexual persuasions partying together in Amman regardless of the theme of the venue.

And while there have not been any fatwas condemning the newly forged party ethos in Amman, several businesses seeking to serve alcohol have struggled with governmental ‘red tape’ in obtaining the necessary permits. Many business owners have complained that the slowing down of the permit process or denying permits altogether, has been a major and purposeful tactic of some devout Muslims city officials, who are against the whole party culture in Amman, seeking to put a damper on the celebratory scene.

12-9

The Manhunt of Epic Proportions

February 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

spy The scene plays out like something you would see in a chilling Hollywood thriller or spy movie. A team of seasoned assassins, eleven altogether, plots and plans a ‘hit’ to be carried out against an unsuspecting victim. In this case, the target was a Hamas official named Mahmud Al-Mabhuh and his death is not fiction but rather a stone-cold reality. Last January in the tiny Gulf nation of Dubai, the corpse of  Al-Mabhuh was found in his luxury hotel suite. The apparent mode of death was suffocation, however a coroner’s official report regarding the exact cause of death is still pending.

According to the lead investigator, Dubai police chief Lt Gen Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, the team of assassins were composed of both men and women from various European countries. This past week, the Dubai government released a series of photos of the eleven suspects and began creating a timeline up until the point where the assassins completed their mission and fled the tiny Gulf emirate. Composed of six Britains, three Irish, one French and one German national, authorities believe that the team entered the country around the same time that Al-Mabhuh did and followed him straight to his hotel room.

Once there, hotel video cameras corroborate the intricate plot of the assassins, which included several hotel rooms, disguises and the tools necessary to deprive Al-Mabhuh of his life. According to Tamim, at least 4 of the assassins broke into Al-Mabhuh’s hotel room while he was out. They waited for him to come back and then took less than 10 minutes to kill him. Once the deed was done, the assassins executed an almost perfect escape plan, exiting Dubai on separate commercial airplanes in under 20 hours.

The release of the eleven suspects passport information, by the Dubai government, should have provided more answers than it did questions. Unfortunately, it has left even more unanswered questions. By all accounts, the Irish assassins do not even exist according to the government of Ireland.  The passport number for the supposedly German assassin is wrong. And a few of the assassins named are actually Israeli citizens who have ironclad alibis and have never even traveled to Dubai. The Dubai police have not revealed exactly how they obtained the information about the assassins. However, many Hamas-friendly political analysts have speculated that the assassination was a poorly carried out murder plot designed by the long arm of Israel’s Mossad, or Secret Service.

It’s no mystery that there was no love lost between Al-Mabhuh and Israel. Al-Mabhuh was one of the original founders of Hamas. Israel also accused him, in recent years, of participating in a 1989 murder of two Israeli soldiers. And Israel has, for years, blamed Al-Mabhuh for orchestrating teams of smugglers to bring missiles into the Gaza Strip to help Hamas to continue to fight the Israeli occupation. But according to former Mossad officer Rami Igra, in an interview with the Israel Army Radio, the plan looks professional but really “…doesn’t look like an Israeli operation.” The primary reason being the assassin’s total lack of regard for the hundreds and hundreds of security cameras all over Dubai, almost as if they wanted to be filmed so as to lay blame elsewhere. And according to some speculators, the real culprits might be too close for Hamas’s comfort such as in the company of their rivals found in the late Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Movement.

The government of Dubai has reached out to the global community for assistance in solving the murder and this week launched an international manhunt to bring the assassins to justice. It’s not surprising that Dubai is eager to put the murderers behind bars, as it is fast becoming the site of several high profile murders.

Back in 2007, the famous Lebanese singer Susan Tamim was slain in her luxury high rise Dubai condo by none other than a hit man for her estranged boyfriend.

12-8

Organ Grinders

February 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

surgical-tools-f The sign reads “For Sale: Kidney , Blood Group A+” and includes a cell phone number at the bottom. It hangs on the wall of a dusty commercial complex in Kuwait, already bearing the signs of being lashed by the wind. Phone calls to the number go unanswered, probably for fear that there might be a policeman on the line. However, a series of SMS messages revealed that the nameless man wanting to give up the kidney was willing to do so for a mere couple of hundred of bucks. The lengths that poverty drives many of us to are as real as the sun setting on a frozen winter’s day.

Organ trafficking, whether willingly or unwillingly, is prevalent in the Middle East and is fast becoming a booming business. Most countries in the Gulf region have banned the wholesale slaughter of the human body for profit, however the laws banning the sale of organs are rarely enforced. There often exists a strong underground market for organs that authorities have a hard time penetrating due to its sheer girth and membership.

One such country struggling with organ trafficking is Iraq. The Iraqi people have seen an increase in the human organ trade as the country has sunk deeper and deeper into poverty since the 2003 invasion, with more than 20% of Iraqis surviving on less than $2 a day. Organ traders often lurk outside hospitals and approach people on their way out. A healthy organ can fetch a few thousand dollars, which could be the difference between eating and not eating for a poor Iraqi. And the person receiving the organ often pays in upwards of $15,000 to extend the quality of their life. It is a violation of Iraqi laws to sell organs, however it’s very difficult to prove that someone is selling their organ especially when they insist otherwise to hospital personnel carrying out the transfer of the organ to the recipient.

The problem of organ trafficking has gotten so bad in Egypt that the government has taken drastic measures to protect the poorest members of its society from becoming prey to clever traffickers. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), scores of poor Egyptians sell their livers and kidneys to the highest bidder each year so that they can support their families, pay off debts and purchase food. The Egyptian government has recently drawn up a controversial organ bill that aims to put an end to organ trafficking altogether. The newly drafted bill, expected to become a law in a few weeks, states that only family members can donate organs to their kinfolk. A 3-person strong panel, provided by the Ministry of Health, must first approve any organ set to be donated. Anyone attempting to donate organs that have not been authorized will be punished to the fullest extent of the law. The penalty for selling unauthorized organs, or their removal, will be a first-degree murder charge which carries the death penalty.

The waters surrounding the new law are already turning murky, as a controversy has arisen in Egypt about organ donation from people who are dead or dying. Members of the medical community often declare someone dead once their brain has ceased functioning, however in Islamic Sharia Law, the heart must stop beating before someone is legally declared dead. Clerics and health officials are already butting heads over this issue. There is also a very real fear that the organ trade will go on unabated in Egypt, with rich businessmen whisking their ‘walking donors’ off to perform the transplant in another country with more lax laws, like China. 

Once implemented, and hopefully enforced, the WHO hopes that the new law will help alleviate the suffering of more than 42,000 Egyptians awaiting lifesaving transplant procedures.

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The Camel Road

February 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

“As a camel beareth labour, and heat, and hunger, and thirst, through deserts of sand, and fainteth not; so the fortitude of a man shall sustain him through all perils.”

~Egyptian King- 14th Century

camel-s Long gone are the days when camels, also known as the ‘ships of the desert’, were considered mere beasts of burden. Over the past few decades, the beleaguered camel has come up in the world and is often considered, by more than a few wealthy Arab businessmen, to be a crowning jewel in a portfolio of glittering capitalism.

Every year the love of all things with skinny legs and a giant hump is brought out for all to see at the annual Al Dhafra Festival in Abu Dhabi, which started this week and runs until February 8. Located in the heart of Zayed City lies a barren and desolate unpaved road that comes to life but once a year.  Nicknamed “Millions Street” after many a million dollar deal that has been struck up over the years, the mere 3 kilometer long road is an internationally recognized commercial site for some of the best camels in the entire world. It’s also the site of the festival that draws in both a local and international crowd.

Camel owners and aficionados from all over the Middle East descend upon the tiny Gulf emirate in the weeks leading up to the camel show and auction. Organizers treat their wealthy guests to camel beauty pageants, camel petting sessions and an auction fit for a king’s ransom.  As a result of the buzz surrounding this social event, members of the non-camel loving set can also line their wallets with some cold hard cash simply by catering to both man and beast. Savvy merchants often set up tents and offer a host of camel-related gear, from plushies to woven mats, and traditional UAE handicrafts. The municipality has also gotten in on the game by offering meals and water for the human guests while providing fresh fodder for the four-legged ones. There is even a makeshift mosque, camel hospital and a grocery store.

The starting price for one of the perfectly pampered and preened camels is a whopping 50,000 Dirhams and often skyrockets to several millions of dollars. This year more than 28,000 camels are on display with each one carrying its own price tag based on breed and beauty. In the first days of the festival, reports in the local media already revealed that a wealthy local businessman named Hamdan Bin Ghanim Al Falahi bought several camels to complete his prestigious flock to the tune of 45 million Dirhams.

As for the beauty pageant, a team of judges determines which camels are the youngest, most beautiful, possess the best lineage and who are most well behaved. The prizes for the winners of the beauty pageant stand to win an estimated 42 million Dirhams. Owners busy themselves throughout the day fussing over the camels to ensure that everything is picture perfect. Once the sun sets, the festivities hit a peak and last well into the morning. It’s all smiles for the owners who stand to earn millions if one of their camels catches the eye of a ‘cash cow’ of a buyer.

Looking back at past events, several lucrative sales have been made. Most notably were the sales of two camels that had made a name for themselves in the region. The camel named Marokan fetched an estimated 15 million Dirhams while his equally beautiful compatriot Mura’a was purchased for 10 million Dirhams. Camel breeding and herding is big business in the Gulf region which has pretty much catapulted itself out of the global credit crunch with only a couple of scratches. Event organizers hope to continue the event in the future and share a bit of the traditions of the UAE with the rest of the world.

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A Crisis of Health and Minds

January 21, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

blowing_cement Ever since the H1N1 virus reared its ugly head this past summer it has jumped to the top of the list of diseases most deadly to humans. However, an older and wiser disease is still infecting many people across the world with the same deadly consequences. Tuberculosis (TB), a lethal lung infection, is as contagious as the H1N1 virus and spreads easily from person to person. For this reason alone, it is vital for the person infected with TB to be kept away from other people and treated in a hospital.

Unfortunately, in some regions of the world, people with TB are treated as if they have leprosy. They are often shunned by their society and isolated because people are afraid of contracting the disease. Nowhere is this more evident than in Egypt where having TB is often a death sentence for the person afflicted with it. According to the Egyptian government 21 out of every 1,000 Egyptians are infected with TB. However, only 1 in 10 cases becomes active while the remaining stay dormant. Doctors have approximated the number of TB cases in Egypt to be around 17,000. However, independent analysts believe that the number of TB cases in Egypt is a lot larger and could pose even a greater health epidemic than the pandemic flu.

Like most societies, it is the poorest and weakest members of a community that often bear the brunt of disease. In Egypt, slum-dwellers and cement workers are the most prone. In the case of the latter, Scientists believe that years of breathing the talcum-like powdery cement, which often causes Silicosis or lung disease, makes a person 30 more times likely to develop full-blown TB. However, there is no tangible evidence to support that claim besides the fact that cement workers are increasingly developing TB in droves. “TB has come to pose a real danger to the people of this country. The problem is that poor Egyptians living in the country’s slums are more prone to it,” revealed Essam al-Moghazy, chief of the National Tuberculosis Control Program, in a recent interview.

Once infected, company protocol often dictates that cement workers infected with TB are fired from their jobs. With most only earning a meager living in the first place, a stay in the hospital for treatment is out of the question. And the company the workers labor for day in and day out simply washes their hands of the sick employee without even offering insurance or other assistance. As a result, the workers have no recourse but to turn towards their home where it is common for them to spread the disease to their families. Cement workers are just one class of workers out of thousands whose jobs are dissolved once the employee contracts TB.

The Egyptian government has high hopes of eradicating TB by the year 2050 as it is the third leading cause of death amongst Egyptians, behind Bilharzia and Hepatitis C. In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report stating that Egypt had been successful in managing the disease with case detection averaging 72% and successful treatment registering at 87%, which is 2% higher than the WHO’s global objectives.

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The Story of ‘Skateistan’

January 9, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

skate

Australian skateboard enthusiasts Oliver Percovich and Sharna Nolan started a quiet revolution in the Afghan capital of Kabul back in 2007 simply by riding their skateboards around the dusty war-ravaged city. The looks on the faces of the Afghan kids that happened upon them would be the catalyst that would drive the couple to create the very first skate park in the country. The Australian duo’s first skate park venture began with a small patch of land near an old fountain, three skateboards and a handful of interested kids.

Yet, as interest in skateboarding grew and the dangers of the reality of surviving in Kabul set in, both Percovich and Nolan knew that they needed something bigger and better. Thanks to help from donations adding up to over $650,000 and support from the Afghan Olympic Committee, ‘Skateistan’ recently opened its doors to any Afghan youth interested in learning to skateboard. The indoor skateboard arena measures a hefty 1,800 sq m (19,380 sq ft) and is composed of several dizzying obstacles for the Afghan skateboarders to learn and master.

The first obstacle is the ‘baby ramp’ which beginners can learn to skateboard on and perfect their balance. The intermediary obstacles include a set of wooden stairs with a rail and curb followed by a mini ramp with extension. For advanced skateboarders there is the ‘rocket wall’, which is the park’s signature obstacle, and the ‘Afghan gap’ that is made up of two large quarter ramps with a gap in the middle for tricks. There are also novel obstacles littered in between the main attractions, which ensures that every skateboarder has somewhere to ride their board.

More than 200 Afghan skateboarders have already signed up for the skate park roster. Boys and girls from all socio-economic classes learn to skateboard together in a whole new world far removed from the atrocities that years of Taleban rule and the U.S.’s war have wreaked on the country. According to Skateistan’s official website, the founders mission statement declares that, “Skateboarding is a widely-loved platform through which young men and women from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds can engage positively with each other. Considering the country’s recent political history, not to mention its longstanding social barriers, we believe that the community-building effects of skateboarding will be especially visible in Afghanistan. Skateistan’s mission is to build cross-cultural understanding and develop youth confidence, leadership, and life skills.”

Not everyone is happy about the success of the skate park. Sports in Afghanistan are considered to be exclusively for males. Women and girls are often deemed to be unsuitable for playing sports. But since skateboarding is so novel in Afghanistan, girls are enjoying the sport well under the radar. However, there have been some reports that a couple of female skateboarders have been beaten by male relatives to deter them from going back to the skate park.

The skateboard services of Skateistan are free for all Afghan children and include the free use of equipment, such as a helmet and skateboard. Off the ramps and obstacles, Afghan skateboarders are also privileged to the opportunity of receiving an education. Classrooms are located in the back of the skate park with subjects like English and Computer skills being offered. Due to the variety and expense of services the skate park offers there is an ever-growing need for volunteers and donors, which are actively sought on the official Skateistan website (www.Skateistan.org ).

While the location of Skateistan might be remote and not easily accessible for non-Afghans, the skate park is already gaining international recognition. This past December founder Oliver Percovich accepted the award for ‘Best Non-Governmental Organization of the Year’ in Monaco, which was presented under the auspices of His Highness Prince Albert II.

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Funerals Burden Omani Families

January 4, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

Sultan Qaboos mosque The Middle East region is world-renowned for the often lavish lifestyles of its citizens, as most wealthy Arab states boast all of the designer clothes, houses, yachts, cars and luxury items that anyone could ever shake a stick at. However, the sumptuous lifestyle often extends beyond the grave as funerals and the price tag of entertaining the ensuing mourners rivals that of any party amongst the living. 

No place is this reality more vivid than in Oman, where it is a tradition to have grand feasts fit for a king and his army following the departure of a loved one. Funeral expenses and the costs for providing food for those wanting to pay their respects are often astronomical, numbering in the thousands of dollars. It is not uncommon for a few hundred people to show up as a sign of respect for the deceased. The mourning period often lasts for three days and serving refreshments is expected. In a recent interview, Omani citizen Rahma Saif revealed that more than 200 people showed up at her home to mourn the death of her father, “It is draining both physically and mentally, not to mention the cost of the food. I cared for my father when he was ill for six months and did not sleep well during the time. Immediately after his death, I had to provide a feast for three consecutive days for 200 people each day,” Mourners often stay throughout the day well until the sun has set. Bereaved family members are often too exhausted from catering to the mourners that they do not have the time to mourn the very personal loss themselves.

The Omani government lends a helping hand in funeral costs for low-income families, however it is only a few hundred riyals, which barely covers the cost of the gravedigger and some Arabic coffee for the mourners. Poor families must dig deep into their savings or even sell off valuable possessions to provide a minimum of six square meals for the mourning guests.  In Saif’s case, she had to use all of her father’s savings to feed the mourners, which negated any possible inheritance for his family members.

Contrastingly, many rich Omanis have no problem in hosting a grand feast for mourners and relish in putting on a huge event. Unlike their low-income counterparts, wealthy Omani families have huge bankrolls to pay for the affair and a fleet of servants to tend to the mourners every whim. It’s not uncommon for a high-end funeral service to cost several thousands of dollars, as guests dine on 5-star meals from local upscale restaurants and drink only the finest beverages available.

Critics of the mourning period in Oman have accused our contemporary world of altering an age-old tradition meant to comfort the bereaved into simply an excuse to get a free meal. It’s not surprising that, with the current state of the global economic crisis, more and more people are attending funerals in Oman for the sole reason of getting their fill, turning the occasion into a festivity instead of a time of sadness and introspection. Many skeptics have called for the government to legally shorten the mourning period to one day and put a cap on funeral expenses. Others have called the practice unIslamic and a transgression against a fellow Muslim in his greatest hour of sorrow.

Unfortunately, societal norms might have the final word as many a man is judged, not by the deeds he committed in this world whether good or bad, but by the number of people who showed up at his funeral. And those he left behind cannot escape the rumor mills should they not provide a grand feast for mourners who might label them as miserly. 

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Christmas Infectious in Middle East

December 27, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

-Christmas-Tree-Decorated Strands of colorful Christmas lights adorn the shop windows of too many stores to count, as employees decked out in red Santa hats greet customers with cheerful holiday grins. However, the setting is not in the suburbs of America but rather in the sand swept deserts of the Middle East. The majority of countries that make up the Middle East exercise religious freedom, which is in accordance with the religion of Islam. In many parts of the region Churches often reside on the same streets as Mosques and religious symbols, from Crucifixes to Buddhas, can be seen hanging from people’s necks and even rear view mirrors.

However, freedom of religion is primarily tolerated in the more liberal Gulf States while other Middle East countries, like Saudi Arabia, have a zero tolerance policy for any religion other than Islam. Churches and other religious buildings, other than Mosques, are strictly forbidden while displaying religious symbols in public are considered to be crimes punishable by imprisonment, lashings or deportation.

The large Christian population residing in the Middle East is the main reason why Christian holidays like Christmas are celebrated with such fanfare. The region is renowned for its’ hospitality towards guests. And encouraging a non-Muslim holiday to be celebrated in a Muslim country is just one of the many ways Gulf countries extend a hand of understanding to its non-Muslim inhabitants. Many Christians living in the Middle East put their own spin on Christmas and make it just as memorable as Christmases of the past back in their homelands.

In the city of Dubai, in the UAE, shoppers are greeted by a bedazzled 50-foot Christmas tree at Wafi City Mall which also boasts its very own ‘Santa’s Village’. In Kuwait, all of the 5-star hotels and restaurants offer a Christmas feast fit for a king as guests dine on roasted turkey with all the trimmings while Nat King Cole Christmas songs play in the background. The only thing missing from the menu is the Christmas ham, as pork is forbidden in most Middle East countries. However, it can still be found on the ‘Black Market’ most likely in an aluminum can or dried into meat jerky. In Bahrain, Christian members of the expatriate community often host their own Christmas parties and exchange gifts between one another. Christmas carols and singing programs are widespread in the western schools of most Gulf States.

And while Saudi Arabia forbids wanton public displays of religion, with the exception of Islam, the government does allow its expatriate community to celebrate Christmas within the privacy of their own homes. Granted, sticking a glittering Christmas tree in the front window could land any holidaymaker in the slammer, but an inconspicuous tree tucked safely away from being seen is acceptable. However, Christians in Saudi Arabia are hard pressed to find decorations for the aforementioned tree let alone the tree itself, although it is possible to find tinsel and baubles in the expatriate underground. Clever shopkeepers also do their part in offering a few Christmas items for their Christian customers. Tiny Christmas tree bulbs can often be found in the jewelry section of some stores and the odd plastic fir tree and even strands of lights can be found in the toy section, as many Asian expatriates use them year round to secularly decorate their homes. Many Christians in Saudi Arabia have also taken to making their own decorations, such as strings of popcorn and baked ornaments made of cinnamon paste.

The Prophet Muhammad (s) was an exemplar in religious freedom and never persecuted anyone based on his or her religious beliefs. So it is only natural for the holiday of Christmas to be welcome in the conservative Middle East, even though the degrees to which it is publicly celebrated varies as much as all those colorful bulbs strewn up on a tree.

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Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

December 17, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) Middle East Correspondent

mall_of_the_emirates_dubai_03

Mall of the Emirates, Dubai

Stolen glances, quiet giggles and flushed faces are just a few of the hallmarks of mingling with the opposite sex in the Middle East. Dating is wholly unacceptable and considered politically incorrect in the conservative Gulf region, which applies the letter of the Islamic law when it comes to relations between members of the opposite sex. However, as with most social aspects of life that governments attempt to control, where there is a will there is a way.

Tweens, teens and twenty-some things in the Middle East have come up with their own brand of dating that is not only secretive but also kept largely away from the public eye. Since a suitor driving up to a girl’s home is not an option, many Arab youths have capitalized on the abundance of luxury malls in the region. Many boys and girls cruise the malls looking for someone that catches their eye. Most malls are so enormous that is it easy to slip away from one’s family should the occasion arise. And while the ‘hunt’ may be extremely public, communications are kept excruciatingly secret. In many cases the boy will walk past a girl that catches his eye and slip his phone number to her on a piece of paper. It’s really up to her what she does with it, as some girls might call the boy and others may simply crunch the paper into a nearby garbage can. And in other cases both boys and girls interested in this new form of dating use technology to hook up.

Bluetooth cellular phone technology is the biggest ally for Arab youths wanting to find that special someone. Amorous boys and girls often send out random Bluetooth messages in both Arabic and English. Then they wait to see who will respond and reply back. It’s a little known fact that Bluetooth messaging has ignited countless numbers of romances in the Gulf. Unfortunately, many married men and women that happen to have their Blue Tooth switched on in the vicinity often get caught up in the wide-scoped message, which can create suspicion within their own union.

Once the match is made, actually going out on a date is almost a mission impossible. In the conservative Middle East, males enjoy more freedom than their female counterparts. For a girl to successfully get away from her parent’s watchful eyes she would have to lie and, most likely, enlist the help of some of her girlfriends to turn the date into a reality. And the date itself typically takes place on a local beach or garden, as it would be impractical to go to a restaurant or even the movies.

Two of the most relaxed Middle Eastern countries, when it comes to cruising for dates, are Kuwait and Bahrain. The opportunities for meeting are immense and there is very little enforcement when it comes to youths of the opposite sex scoping each other out. Contrastingly, Saudi Arabia takes a hard line against co-mingling and has its own religious police force to maintain segregation between the sexes. Even the UAE is becoming more stringent when it comes to public displays of affection.

The reality of this secretive form of dating is that Arab youths are dealing with adult issues that they may not be ready to cope with due to lack of sexual education in the region. They also lack parental support and intuition since the dating falls far below most parent’s radar. It’s very common to read in local newspapers about a young girl running off with a boyfriend. Instances of sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy and ‘date rape’ are on the rise. Unfortunately, due to the secretive nature of relationships between youths in the Gulf and most Arab governments unwillingness to admit that there is a problem, statistics revealing the magnitude of the issue are not readily available.

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Paan—Red-Stained Scourge of the Middle East

December 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) Middle East Correspondent

Paan2_new For many residents of Kuwait, litter and pollution have taken a back seat to a more heinous environmental disaster. As the tiny Gulf State continues to looks for ways to improve its global reputation as a country that cares for the environment, at least one segment of the society is determined to pollute the landscape as mindlessly as they can.

It used to be that second-hand cigarette smoke was at the top of everyone’s list of noxious pollutants. However, in many parts of the Middle East, poor Southeast Asian laborers have dotted the landscape with their own homemade pollutant. Commonly known as “Paan”, which is a concoction of natural and chemical substances bundled into a Betel leaf, this chewing-tobacco like substance creates dark red tinged saliva, which the person chewing it usually spits out at any available target. Paan stains can be found outside of buildings, inside elevators, at bus stops and just about anywhere the public shares a common place. As a result, the spit stains its target thus leaving a blood-like appearance on the surface. Most residents would agree that the red hued Paan stains are more offensive than graffiti especially since they contain millions of disease carrying bacteria.

Many business owners in Kuwait have called upon the Kuwaiti government to intervene. Paan is banned in Kuwait, as most of the ingredients are forbidden entry into the country. However, it is widely available on the Black Market, as clever businessmen have found ways to smuggle the ingredients into the country. Since Paan is more affordable than cigarettes, it is a hot commodity with an eager market. Yet enforcing a law against Paan could be difficult, as it would really entail looking in the mouths of every possible offender. However, Paan-spewing crimes might soon appear in Public Service Announcements (PSA) that already educate the public about litter and saving water. Perhaps future PSA’s will include proper receptacles for spitting as well as the dangers of chewing it.

2052708660_1 Paan is just as deadly, if not more so, than cigarette smoking. Since the Paan rests against the interior of the mouth when it is chewed, it can cause a host of oral mouth cancers that affect the throat, cheeks and tongue. Treatment for the cancers may involve the removal of the entire jaw or portion of the mouth.  Chewing Paan also permanently stains the teeth red and causes the gums to recede, which can cause the teeth to fall out prematurely.  And it also creates severely bad breath and is fast becoming a social stigma.

Kuwait is not the only Gulf state suffering from Paan chewing and the by-products of the habit. Dubai has seen its share of Paan stained surfaces and is cracking down hard on anyone who chews or sells it. According to the Director General of the Municipality, Hussain Nasser Lootah, anyone partaking in Paan will face harsh penalties, which includes a fine and deportation. The Dubai government has also offered a $1400 reward for anyone that offers information about people who sell or chew Paan. The municipality recently launched an awareness campaign by distributing leaflets to inform the public about the dangers and unhygienic nature of Paan chewing. In addition, the Dubai government has also launched a media campaign in local newspapers and magazines informing the public about the new laws that will punish Paan dealers and chewers to the fullest extent of the law. 

Even European countries are not spared from Paan staining their capitals, as more and more Southeast Asian immigrants flood to the region looking for a better life. London, for example, is just one city that has recently faced a spat of red-tinged spittle staining its most treasured landmarks.

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When the Floodwaters Rose

December 3, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

floods

This past week, just prior to the Eid al Adha holidays, the Gulf regions of the Middle East saw exceptional rainfall that caused massive flooding, death and destruction. Nowhere was the rain more violent than in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Meteorologists have estimated that approximately 90 millimeters of rain fell in just under six hours.

The Red Sea port city of Jeddah was affected the most by the sudden and unexpected burst of showers. More than 100 people died, with that number expected to rise as the murky waters recede and possibly reveal more bodies beneath the mud. A lot went wrong on what is being touted as ‘The Wednesday Disaster’ and most of it could have been prevented.

Financial corruption, big business and living above the laws are just a few of the charges that angry Saudi Arabian citizens are leveling at their own government. However, the city of Jeddah is a low-lying area, which is prone to flooding. Questions are now being raised about whether or not the areas hardest hit should have been inhabited at all. New projects in the region have also come under scrutiny, such as the ‘Abdullah Bridge and Tunnel’, which was completely inundated by the floodwaters. The lack of drainage maintenance has also been an ongoing problem in Jeddah for more than three years as most drains and sewers are inoperable, clogged with debris.

Citizens had little to no warning about the impending rainfall and flooding. The majority of those who died were trapped inside cars or buses and drowned to death. Those who survived were left stranded for hours, as civil authorities did not have the appropriate equipment, skills or training to launch a massive search and rescue operation. The entire incident is reminiscent of the emergency services fiasco following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

By all calculations, Saudi Arabian security personnel may have been spread a bit too thin as the Kingdom hosted an estimated 3 million pilgrims during the recent Hajj season. The government put most of its energy and resources into ensuring that worshippers were safe while performing Islam’s most holy rituals. All measures were taken to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus with medical staff on alert around the clock. Security forces also had to keep a watchful eye as pilgrims tested out a new bridge meant to diversify traffic from congested areas to prevent stampedes, which have plagued past Hajj seasons. The clouds opening up and unleashing waves of fury upon unsuspecting residents took most everyone by surprise.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has ordered an all-inclusive investigation into the flooding disaster. The governor of Makkah, which includes the city of Jeddah, Prince Khalid bin Faisal will head up the inquiry. According to the state-run news agency, King Abdullah was quoted as saying, “We cannot overlook the errors and omissions that must be dealt with firmly.” King Abdullah has also stepped in to ease the suffering of the flood victims. He has ordered the Ministry of Housing to make available more than 2,000 apartments for flood victims whose homes were lost or damaged due to the flooding. King Abdullah has also earmarked more than $260,000 compensation for each flood victim’s family.

However, despite the Saudi government’s attempts to make things right, public sentiment is still turning sour. Since public protests are banned in the Kingdom, disgruntled citizens have taken their complaints to the Internet. The social-networking media mogul, Facebook, has been the heir apparent for the Saudi Arabian people and their supporters to vent some good old-fashioned anger. The most popular page on Facebook is the ‘Popular Campaign to Save the City of Jeddah’. Within in only days of the page’s creation, more than 11,000 users joined and an estimated 22,000 comments were written. One of the cyber protestors wrote, “We’ve been talking about this issue for years. Everybody knew this disaster was coming. There’s only one reason: it’s corruption.”

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Journey of a Lifetime

November 25, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS) Middle East Correspondent

2009-11-24T065219Z_497529973_GM1E5BO15BZ01_RTRMADP_3_HAJJ The journey to attend the Hajj pilgrimage is an essential pillar of Islam that all Muslims of means must perform at least once in a lifetime. Pilgrims from all over the world began to pour into the holy city of Makkah weeks ago with an estimated 2.5 million Muslims expected to perform the Hajj rituals this year.

The Hajj season has, for years, presented a host of difficulties for Muslims performing the sacred journey, which reveals the fleeting nature of the material world we live in. However, this year has revealed even more trials that pilgrims will have to cope with. The primary concern is, of course, the H1N1 virus. Before the pilgrimage has even commenced, 20 pilgrims have been diagnosed with the H1N1 virus while 4 people had died. Many of the pilgrims have been inoculated against the deadly H1N1 virus, however many have not. And recent scenes coming out of Makkah via satellite television show that only a handful of the masses are donning the infamous white surgical masks as a means of prevention. More than 20,000 medical personnel have been dispatched throughout the city and in the city of Medina to cope with H1N1 virus as well as other maladies that pilgrims may become afflicted with. Pilgrims arriving at the airport are being screened for H1N1 symptoms before they enter the Kingdom and the government has ordered a veritable army of doctors to be on duty around the clock.

This Hajj season also sees renewed tensions erupting between the Saudi Arabian government and the Iranian government over the way the latter perceives its pilgrims have been discriminated against during past pilgrimages. The war of words between both governments exploded recently when Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khamenei said, “Such acts are against the unity of Muslims and contribute to the goals and wishes of the US and foreign intelligence services. The Saudi government should fulfill its duty in confronting these acts.” To which the Saudi Arabian government retorted, “The kingdom does not permit any party to disrupt the security of the pilgrims or to attempt to divide the ranks of Muslims.” It is a very really concern this hajj season that sectarian violence could break out during Islam’s most holy occasion. More than 100,000 security personnel have been dispatched to maintain order and keep the pilgrims safe.

The current hajj season also marks the unveiling of a newly built bridge that will help diversify the traffic at one of the most important areas of the Hajj – the Jamarat or ritual ‘Stoning of the Devil’. This area is the most highly congested and where stampedes have occurred in the past killing pilgrims. The most horrific stampede occurred in 2006 when 364 pilgrims were crushed to death and scores more were maimed or injured. The 5-storey walkway is over 3,000 feet long and over 260 feet wide. It was built at a cost of over $1 billion and the Saudi government hopes that it will facilitate pilgrims as a safe passageway while simultaneously assisting them in fulfilling a Hajj rite.

And as if the dark cloud looming over this year’s hajj could not get any bigger, this year also marks the 30th anniversary of a coup by extremists who seized the Grand Mosque in a stunning act of aggression that sent shockwaves reverberating around the world. Saudi Arabian and French security personnel eventually stormed the mosque in a bloody battle that cost hundreds of lives.

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