The Great American Fraud

November 19, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

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

money-stacks2 The U.S. Chief District Attorney, this week, revealed a conspiracy by a Kuwaiti owned and operated food company to bilk the American government out of $8.5 billion in contracts to provide food for troops in Kuwait, Jordan and Iraq. It took the Atlanta-based Grand Jury no time at all to indict the Kuwaiti company. According to the indictment, Agility (formerly known as the Public Warehousing Company) was charged with a veritable ‘laundry list’ of crimes related to defrauding the U.S. Government. Agility provided food for U.S. troops from 2003-2005. The conspiracy was uncovered during a probe into unethical business practices of Middle East vendors.

According to court documents, Agility took painstaking measures to get away with the fraud. Some of the charges include submitting falsified documents, overinflating prices to sometimes triple the local Kuwaiti market value, making false statements and wire fraud. Most damaging is perhaps the revelation that Agility ordered it’s own suppliers to reduce the size of packages so that twice the number of packages would be delivered to unsuspecting U.S. military bases.

Agility is not taking the charges sitting down and has already come out ‘swinging’ and leveling their own verbal barrage at the U.S. government. In a recently released statement to the press, Agility has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and says that the charges are baseless. The company also says that ongoing contracts with the US government, which are not part of the current indictment, remain in tact. However, Agility has been barred from bidding on new contracts with the US until the pending indictment is either proven or dismissed. The press release also went on to say that Agility is putting its’ full confidence in the US system of justice to prove its’ innocence, “An indictment and a complaint are merely allegations. PWC is confidant that once these allegations are examined in court, the will be found to be without merit.” Agility also revealed that the prices it charges for its’ goods and services were predetermined and approved by the U.S. government and that company heads are “surprised and disappointed” by the charges.

This case is only one out of several that have been launched against contractors hired by the U.S. government over the past several years. The most notable is a case of fraud leveled against KBR, which is a subsidiary of Halliburton. The company has been charged with overcharging the U.S. government for oil and other military supplies. Since the news of the Agility fraud broke, the company has ceased all trading in the Kuwait stock market which has seen an 8% drop in its stocks. However, on the Dubai market, Agility continues to rally without incident.

Agility stands to lose plenty if it is found guilty of the charges of fraud. According to a recent report by Goldman Sach’s, the company’s annual revenue is comprised of a meaty 37% of American contracts. A guilty verdict would result in Agility being put on probation and having to repay either twice the gain they received from the contracts or twice the loss that the U.S. government incurred. The U.S. government has promised to deal swiftly with those seeking to defraud it and that the charges against Agility are “only the first step” in dealing with dishonest contractors.

In the meanwhile, Agility continues to look for new ways to break the chains of reliance upon the U.S. government for it’s daily ‘bread’. Agility has diversified itself across the board. The company now sells real estate and even provides freighter service for gold mining companies in Papua New Guinea. However, their new business ventures may prove to be exercises in futility as the U.S. government is unlikely to back down as it relentlessly seeks justice.

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Mall Rats

November 12, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

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

wallgarden The Middle East is world-renowned for hosting some of the tallest buildings in the world. However, the region is also home to some of the largest and most luxurious shopping malls in the world. As a result of almost year-round scorching temperatures and excess oil wealth that flows out of banks just as quickly as the bubbling crude can be exhumed from the earth, shopping is the new national pastime for most Middle East nations.

It’s primarily the elite and wealthy denizens of the Gulf region, in countries like Kuwait, Dubai and Oman, that can afford to shop til they drop in the most prestigious designer boutiques and stores from the global arena. And since the wealthy clearly outnumber the less fortunate in the Gulf region, malls go up at a record pace, each bearing a signature style to lure customers and ring up sales.

Built across 12 million square feet, the largest mall in the Middle East can be found in the United Arab Emirates.  With more than 1,200 stores ready and open for business the Dubai Mall attracts approximately 750,000 visitors each week. The mall is part of the Burj Dubai Project, which is the tallest building in the world. Some of the features that make the mall unique include the biggest gold market in the world with more than 220 jewelry stores. It also has more than 70 stores that carry exclusive haute couture designer clothing. And as for entertainment, the mall is home to the first SEGA indoor theme park in the Middle East and a 22-screen movie theater.

However, the undisputed crown of the region’s largest mall is set to topple by next year’s end. Just a hop, skip and a jump away from Dubai, the leading contender for the most lavish and gargantuan mall in the Middle East can be found in Kuwait. ‘The Avenues’ mall lives up to its name. This monster of capitalism and sheer consumerism is as big as it gets with several hundred stores and plans to house a European-styled ‘Grand Mall’. The mall has already opened despite the fact that only two out of the proposed three phases have been complete. Security is also very tight as the mall features its very own police department with a force of 350 ‘mall cops’ that work around the clock to ensure public safety. The command center of the police department receives live feed from over 350 security cameras situated all over the interior and exterior of the mall.

Size, however, does not always matter. There seems to be a mall on every corner in the biggest cities of the Gulf region with most of the smaller malls mimicking each other and offering little more than a rehashing of the one prior. However, there is one mall that while small is standing out as a veritable gem in the crown of all things commercial. The ‘360 Mall’ of Kuwait was built in a perfect circle and is an architectural feat of sheer minimalism and art. The most attractive features of this mall are not a giant store or an enormous entertainment center. What makes the 360 Mall unique is that it houses two very unique and permanent art installations. The first is the largest vertical garden in the world, which was grown by French botanist Patric Blanc and is the size of four tennis courts in length. The second are two glass sculptures, made to look like the moon and the sun, by renowned American glass artist Dale Chihuly.

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World’s First Arab Robot

November 7, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

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

facebot-ibn-sina-robot Known more for its architectural feats and infrastructure genius, the UAE is charting new waters in Artificial Intelligence with the creation of the Arab world’s very first Arabic-speaking robot. Named after the famous 11th century Islamic scientist and philosopher Ibn Sina, or Avicenna in English, the robot appears extremely life like and bears quite a resemblance to his namesake while also speaking in classical Arabic. Ibn Sina wears traditional Arab clothes complete with a flowing gilded robe and headdress. A series of motors in his face help him to move just like his human counterparts.

The robot is the first humanoid robot that can carry on a conversation and articulate human gestures as well as facial expressions in the Middle East. Ibn Sina can also ‘see’ and is programmed with software that helps him recognize objects, remember faces, understand dialogue and respond verbally. A team of students at the UAE University with the guidance of Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Nikolaos Mavridis, designed Ibn Sina.  Hailing from Greece, Mavridis spearheaded the project alongside 12 international students, which also included several local UAE citizens.

Ibn Sina can fulfill a number of tasks including answering specific questions, connecting to the Internet and providing other information. According to Mavridis, Ibn Sina is destined to be cloned and will go into public service as a shopping mall information clerk. The prototype Ibn Sina already serves a full day at the help desk at the local Al Ain Mall where he also directs shoppers to stores carrying items that they are looking for. However, Mavridis estimates that it will take another six months and a team of five students to perfect Ibn Sina so that he is more useful and delivers a flawless performance.

Funding for the project was made by the ruler of the UAE himself with an investment of almost $200,000. Ibn Sina is also used for other projects in the university laboratory as students are more than eager to use him as an, albeit robotic, guinea pig.

A gentle buzz has slowly started forming around the world’s first Arabic robot with several companies reaching out to Mavridis and his team to learn more about Ibn Sina. In a recent interview Mavridis revealed his own hopes and dreams for the future of technology in the tiny Gulf kingdom, “Given all the growth that is happening right here at this moment, it’s important that apart from building the largest tower in the world and all of these beautiful buildings, to try to do something that has to do with scientific and intellectual achievements. For that reason we chose Ibn Sina as the character from which our robot was inspired in order to bring back his values to our students. He brings together a lot of traditions, ancient and more recent traditions.”

Ibn Sina is also becoming an old hand at social networking. He has his very own Facebook account. Ibn Sina can ask someone new their name, look them up on Facebook and become friends with them online. And with over 115 friends on his profile page, Ibn Sina looks well on his way to becoming a social networking guru in no time at all. Bots and humans forming social connections online is just the tip of the iceberg in artificial intelligence, at least in the UAE. The UAE University plans to further develop its robotics department and laboratory. Recent research conducted by the Information Data Corporation projects that IT development and projects will grow by over 12% over the next five years in the UAE at an estimated cost of almost $2 billion dollars.

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The Jazz Ambassadors

November 1, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

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

saxophone Just leave it to U.S. President Barack Obama to come up with an innovative way to mend the bridges that former President Bush annihilated in the Middle East region. Armed with trumpets, drums, voices smoother than silk and a piano, or two, the newly recruited ‘Jazz Ambassadors’ have set their sights high in U.S. Foreign Policy.

In 2005 Rhythm Road was created as a joint venture by the US State Department and Lincoln Center to share the beat of American music with the rest of the world. The program continues to grow by leaps and bounds and has captured the attention of America’s first African American President as a way to continue the dialogue he promised during his campaign speeches.

Throughout the history of America, the U.S. government has sought to bridge the cultural divide between nations through music. Since jazz is the epitome of American cultural expression and the lifeblood of art in it’s most raw form, what better platform for America to extend a hopeful hand to other nations around the world.

Every year the Rhythm Road tours a different segment of the World. This year, the motley crew of jazz musicians toured several international locales including Belarus, Myanmar and the Middle East while kicking up just a little bit of dust in the process. Composed of approximately 10 separate quartets, Rhythm Road musicians are spread out in the region that they are touring for maximum exposure and results. One band, The Chris Byar’s quartet, was dispatched to conservative Middle Eastern countries including Syria, Oman and Bahrain. The saxophonist was floored at the opportunity to play jazz for people who had never been exposed to the music genre, “These people have never heard jazz before,” he was recently quoted as saying.

The Jazz Ambassadors do a whole lot more than just play music on stage. They interact with the public by holding jam sessions in local hot spots and even offer classes for anyone wanting to learn a thing or two about Jazz. Some even visit the music department of local schools to give students a view of jazz up close and personal. Residents of the Middle East are often well acquainted with American pop music as the likes of Britney Spears and the Black-Eyed Peas typically blares out of the speakers of popular western tourist attractions in the region. For reasons that have never been spoken, publicly at least, it’s easier to trust the music than it is to trust American foreign policy which has consistently failed to win the hearts and minds of the every day Arab.

Middle East observers and commentators see Obama’s army of jazz musicians as a means to an end. The Bush Era has forever changed the way that Americans are perceived overseas in the Middle East as well as other regions. Through Jazz, American can connect to people from different cultural backgrounds without words but a common thread of humanity that ties us all together. Most, if not all, countries of the world have some sort of musical expression that has evolved throughout the ages. The drum, or daff, is the most popular musical instrument in the Middle East as Islamic traditions frowns upon music in general with the drum being the only acceptable means of creating music.

Enrollment in the Rhythm Road music program continues to grow with auditions for new musicians already underway to tour the globe in peace and understanding from the American people to whole new worlds.

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Skilled Labor?

October 22, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

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

hand-holding-diploma The economic boom and unprecedented growth of the Middle East over the past several years has made it a lucrative venue for employment seekers. Barely scathed by the global economic turndown, that has brought the rest of the world to its’ knees, most Middle Eastern countries continue to ride a wave of economic independence and expansion.

As a result of the sheer speed of growth, an increased demand for skilled workers has evolved. Doctors, nurses, teachers, IT professionals, architects and engineers are just a few of the careers that are in high demand in the Middle East region. However, not everyone seeking a job has the proper credentials and, unfortunately, many people who have already acquired high paying jobs in specialized fields have done so with fake university degrees.

Within the past few months, the extensive reliance of unqualified persons utilizing the services of fake degree mills has come to light. The Spokesman newspaper in Washington State recently published a list of more than 10,000 names of people who have already purchased fake university degrees or were in the process of doing so. The majority of persons on the list were Arab Americans who now face possible criminal charges from the US Department of Justice.

What is most surprising is that the majority of the wealthier Middle Eastern countries like Kuwait, the UAE and Bahrain offer free university education for their nationals. So, it is not necessarily a matter of someone being denied access to higher education but actually it is often about someone lacking the initiative to attend university for the required number of years to earn full accreditation.

With the problem in the international spotlight, some Middle Eastern countries are taking swift action to punish anyone attempting to utilize a bogus university degree to get employment. The United Arab Emirates has launched a stellar campaign to crackdown on anyone currently employed or seeking employment by presenting a fake university degree. Violators face a lifetime ban from working or even entering the UAE and face up to 24 years in prison. In the State of Kuwait, the Public prosecution has received several complaints from employers regarding job seekers presenting phony academic certificates. Most recently, this past week, 19 potential teachers were ordered held for prosecution as their educational certification was proven to be counterfeit by the Ministry of Education.

Obtaining a fake university degree is not difficult. A short trip to Southeast Asia or even Hungary can help someone achieve a PHD or CPA without spending a lot of time or money in school and for a fraction of the cost of a long stint in college. However, the odds are against such persons once they are on the job and cannot fulfill the work that their forged certification claims that they can do. Such was the case recently in Kuwait when a man went to the Ministry of Education seeking a job as a teacher. His forged university degree came from Hungary. However, he could not speak Hungarian or even English and simply claimed that he studied with the aid of a translator.

Unscrupulous degree dealers can be found all over the Gulf region offering a variety of degrees for under $1000 and in less than a month. A local reporter in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recently exposed one such degree dealer. The dealer advertised on the Internet and communicated exclusively by email or mobile phones to elude detection from Saudi authorities. He promised the reporter “you name it and we provide it”. The degrees for sale bore the name of “Buxton University” in the UK and could be made to order immediately.

The real losers in this scam are the people who hold authentic university certification and now find themselves having to prove that their degree is worth the paper that it is printed on. Degree cheaters have forced most Mideast governments to cast out an overly wide net to root degree violators out, unfortunately authentic degree holders are getting caught up in it as well.

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House of Mirrors

October 1, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

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

plant For many people a broken mirror is steeped in the superstitious belief that the injurious deed will be followed by seven years of bad luck. However, for Lidia Al-Qattan, a renowned Italian artist in Kuwait, a broken mirror would be the inspiration to set her upon the journey of a lifetime. As the wife of the famous Kuwaiti artist Khalifa Al-Qatten, Lidia was often inspired to create her own works of art to impress her husband after he returned from trips exhibiting his artwork in various locations around on the world.

On one such occasion back in the Sixties, Lidia’s husband was away in the USA as part of a collective art exhibition in Washington, D.C. Prior to his departure her husband had completed a wooden cabinet that he created with his own hands. All that was left to be done was a couple of coats of paint. However, after Lidia was unable to procure some paint she came up with a brilliant idea to really make the cabinet shine. “I then remembered I had some pieces of a large mirror somewhere in the house where my three year old daughter, Jalila, had broken sometime ago which I decided to keep.” Lidia set to work affixing the broken shards of mirror to the cabinet with some heated wood glue. However, the edges of the glass were still very sharp and dangerous with a child in the home. After completing her design, Lidia mixed together some plaster cement and water to fill in the gaps and make the edges of the jagged mirror smooth. Once dry, Lidia further filed down any remaining rough edges. The result was very pleasing to her eyes. However, the real judge would be her husband as he was set to return home.

house Fortunately, Lidia’s husband was very impressed with her work. And so began her transformation as she evolved into an artist into her own right and used her very own home as her canvas. Over the course of several years Lidia has painstakingly ‘bedazzled’ every inch of her home with broken mirror pieces in every shade of the rainbow. Today it is a popular tourist destination and museum with visitors taking guided tours every day.

The tour begins in the kitchen, which is called ‘My World Hall’ and features designs relevant to the mystery of science followed by a walk through ‘Planet Earth Hall’, or the living room, which is designed along the lines of our Earth and nature. Next, visitors are led to ‘Zodiac Hall’, which is Lidia’s now grown daughter Jalila’s bedroom, and it is covered with sparkling galaxies, planets and all the signs of the Zodiac. Visitors walk through a hallway with a dual theme. Known as both ‘Shark Hall’ and ‘Corridor of Nations’, the journey of shimmering reflected light goes on to enthrall guests with sharks and other wonders of our world. The tour climaxes with breathtaking designs featured in ‘Sea World Hall’, ‘Universe Hall’ and ‘Knowledge Hall’, which also serve as a bathroom, bedroom and library.

The tour begins to wind down once guests reach the ‘Stairs to Inspiration’. The staircase, which features gilded birds in flight, leads to the first floor that houses separate art galleries for both Lidia’s and her late husband Khalifa’s work. Many people in Kuwait call her home the ‘House of Mirrors’ But for Lidia her home holds greater meaning, “I call it the fulfillment of a dream.”

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The Shoe Thrown ‘Round the World

September 24, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

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

shoes1 In one single gesture, Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi summed up the sentiments that had been swelling in the hearts of Iraqi’s and Muslims from all over the world ever since former President George W. Bush indulged in his own ‘Axis of Evil’ and went to war with Iraq. With the throw of a pair of size 10 loafers, al-Zaidi unleashed a wave of discontent that Iraqi’s had grappled with ever since their country was unlawfully invaded.

Many Muslims from all over the world cheered, as scenes of adults and children alike rejoicing in the streets of Baghdad waving their own shoes in the air played out on TV. Copycat shoe throwers also emerged in the days following the incident, most notably in India and China where at least two diplomats found themselves also dodging footwear.

However, news about the man behind the shoes was hard to come by. Following the incident, he was rushed away by Iraqi security personnel and imprisoned. Family members later revealed that al-Zaidi was severely beaten and tortured in prison. He was originally sentenced to spend three years in prison, but served only nine months of that sentence as he was recently released.

Finally, al-Zaidi is able to speak for himself and tell the world the reasons behind his actions. In a column recently appearing in the British-based ‘The Guardian’ newspaper, al-Zaidi writes, “When I threw the shoe in the face of the criminal, George Bush, I wanted to express my rejection of his lies, his occupation of my country, my rejection of his killing my people. My rejection of his plundering the wealth of my country, and destroying its infrastructure. And casting out its sons into a diasporas.”

Further al-Zaidi denies that he is a hero and writes, “It humiliated me to see my country humiliated; and to see my Baghdad burned, my people killed. Thousands of tragic pictures remained in my head, pushing me towards the path of confrontation. The scandal of Abu Ghraib, the massacres of Falluja, Najaf, Haditha, Sadr City, Basra, Diyala, Mosul, Tal Afar, and every inch of our wounded land. I traveled through my burning land and saw with my own eyes the pain of the victims, and heard with my own ears the screams of the orphans and the bereaved. And a feeling of shame haunted me like an ugly name because I was powerless.”

After his release, al-Zaidi was reunited with his family in a tearful and long-awaited reunion. According to his employer Al-Baghdadia TV, al-Zaidi has left Iraq and will travel to Syria and later Greece to receive medical care. Al-Zaidi suffered greatly at the hands of Iraqi security personnel who beat him with melt bars, electrocuted him with live wires and engaged in ‘water boarding’ to make him feel like he was drowning. The state of al-Zaidi’s health is unknown at the present time.

In a recent development, al-Zaidi also revealed his future plans in a TV interview conducted by TSR television. He hopes to rally Iraqis together to lodge a complaint against former President Bush and put him on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity. “I really want to go to Switzerland because it is a neutral country and because it is a country that did not support the occupation of Iraq,” al-Zaidi said, “Switzerland hosts many international organizations, including some that fight for children, and Switzerland is a country that has a great democratic tradition. It is an example for the world,”

While the man himself may resist being touted as a hero for his actions. At least one artist has forever immortalized the shoes that were ‘thrown’ around the world. Based in London, artist P Waniewski has created a pair of size 10 shoes identical to the ones al-Zaidi threw, since U.S. security personnel purportedly destroyed the original pair following the incident. So named, ‘Proud Shoes’ the tribute is made of 21 kilograms of bronze and dipped in 24 KT. gold. The artist recently revealed in an interview his reasons for creating the tribute to al-Zaidi, “When I heard this story I was moved by the passion and fearlessness of Mr al-Zaidi’s actions. The shoe that he threw was destroyed by the US authorities, so I felt it was a fitting way of marking this emotive event.”

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For the Birds

September 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

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

racing pigeon

The hobby of pigeon raising in the Middle East goes back several years. Enthusiasts spend a great deal of time and money acquiring rare and beautiful birds. The supplies for housing pigeons are also very expensive. Pigeon owners often build elaborate cages on their rooftops or in their gardens. Each cage typically holds around thirty birds. A devout pigeon master often pays more attention to his birds than he does to his own children, because one sick bird can destroy the entire lot. For many enthusiasts, they have turned a mere hobby into an exact science.

There are so many rare varieties of pigeons, each varying in color, sheen and ability. The most popular in the Gulf region include the Sherazi, Sudani and Baljiki. However, the favorite pigeon amongst enthusiasts is known as the ‘flipper’. The reason it is so popular is because of its mid-flight aerobics that it performs at great heights, flipping full circle without losing speed. Exquisite and unique pigeons are much sought after by wealthy hobbyists who are often willing to pay thousands of dollars to acquire a prized bird for their collection. It is not uncommon for buyers to trade their expensive luxury cars and watches for a single bird. Most of the time, however, a lump of cash is enough to seal the deal.

Pigeon raising is also a lucrative sport. Enthusiasts gather to race their pigeons in competition with other birds. Most competitors will select their top five pigeons to perform in endurance races against the wind. The competitions are primarily held during the months of September and October when winds in the open desert often exceed 60 kilometers per hour. Each bird’s flight is measured in terms of resistance.

Come March, prize-winning pigeons are tucked away into their cages with equally alluring mates. The offspring of award winning pigeons can fetch even more money than the ‘contender’ bird himself. Newly hatched birds are also very easy to train for an optimum life span of racing and bringing joy to his master’s eyes. 

In Saudi Arabia, where pigeon raising is a part of local traditions, there is a special pigeon market held every Friday in the city of Medina. The market opens right after the dawn prayers and bustles for several hours to around mid-morning when the heat of the desert sun becomes unbearable. Bidding wars are common during the auctions held for the most sought-after birds and often get heated as the passion for pigeon rearing usually defies all reason.

However, not everyone has the bankroll to fund an elaborate pigeon pen plus fill it with expensive birds, then feed and pay for the medicines often needed to keep the birds healthy. In the state of Kuwait, the love for pigeons is a public affair. Right in the center of Kuwait City is what has come to be known as ‘Pigeon Square’.  Hundreds of pigeons descend upon the square around the clock, often mingling with shoppers and spectators alike. The area is lined with small grocery stores and meat shops.

It has long been a Kuwaiti tradition during the Holy Month of Ramadan to take the children of the family to visit the pigeons of Pigeon Square right before the Iftar meal. The grocery stores often see a rise in business as visitors often buy bread to feed the pigeons. In return, the pigeons ‘dot’ the landscape with their droppings, which the very same shop owners must clean up. Many locals have longed for the square to be turned into a tourist destination complete with refurbished structures, restaurants and cafes.

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The Ramadan Soaps

September 3, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

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

soapjpeg

The Holy Month of Ramadan heralds in a veritable wave of traditions, which are quite often tied to heritage and culture. This can be in the clothes worn during the month, or the food that graces the Iftar table. While most traditions in Ramadan are religious in nature, others are not.

Even before the crescent moon of Ramadan was sighted in Saudi Arabia, advertising placards for the newest Arabic soap operas began sprouting up in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon and several other Middle Eastern countries. For many Muslim viewers, it simply would not be Ramadan without having a salacious soap opera to watch during and after the daily fast is broken. And for corporations who payroll the soap operas, Ramadan is a golden opportunity to generate some much needed revenue.

Make no mistake, the Arabic soap operas have nothing to do with the principles of Islam, such as prayer or fasting, but rather focus on the evils of society that are perpetrated by misguided souls. In one recent drama that aired in Kuwait this past week, a wealthy businessman chases his single secretary at work all day professing his love for her and asking for her hand in marriage. Meanwhile, his wife is at home tending to the housework and stumbles upon a diamond bracelet he has purchased for his secretary. The drama switches to another married couple that seems happy enough. However, a male suitor promises to win the heart of the wife and if she won’t agree he vows to destroy her life, which he does in the next scene. He places a call to her husband who in turn throws her out of the home, to her despair.

The prevalence of Arabic soap operas during Ramadan have had a detrimental effect on worship. Increased acts of worship and welcoming guests in the nights or visiting the homes of others take a backseat to catching the next installment of the serial. Last year alone it was estimated that at least 64 new soap operas appeared on Saudi television, around the clock during Ramadan. The soaps were stacked upon the hour so that viewers could tune in at any time of the day. Coveted ad space was stuck in between each plot as it developed–with commercials hawking everything from soap to cooking oil. In fact, it is the ad space that fuels the soaps, as viewers view each commercial as they wait for the plot to thicken.

Before, most Muslims in the Middle East would gather in the nights of Ramadan to worship or to discuss matters related to the deen. After all, the region is the cradle of Islam and the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad (s). However, these days many Muslims gather to watch soap operas together, gossip about what happened in the current installment or speculate what will happen in the one to come.

It is encouraging to note that not all Middle Eastern countries streamline a barrage of juicy soap operas during the Holy Month. In Turkey, the television programming is geared towards Islamic history, living the deen of Islam and Q&A shows where callers can call in to have their questions about Islam answered live on air by a reputable sheikh. Locally produced and aired music channels in Turkey also pull their programming during Ramadan in favor of airing Islamic nasheeds.

Storytelling is an age-old tradition. However, Ramadan is a golden gift that should be seized by every Muslim that is willing and able to receive the blessings that come with it. Being glued to the TV and rapturously eating up all the human folly portrayed there definitely tarnishes the reality of  what Ramadan is all about.

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The Frozen Faloodeh

August 13, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

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

FALOODEH The month of August is one of the hottest in the Middle East, with temperatures sweltering, in many parts of the region, to well above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Keeping cool is at the forefront of everyone’s mind and the best way to do that is with a delicious bowl of ice cream. Forget about Baskin Robbins and all their 31 flavors. For centuries, frozen Faloodeh has graced the palate of many an Arab ice cream connoisseur. Faloodeh is one of the earliest known frozen desserts, with historians dating its creation prior to 400 BC in Persia. Back then the people would collect ice from the mountains and build special freezers known as yakhchals specifically to freeze Faloodeh.

The Faloodeh is primarily a concoction comprised of water, cornstarch, limejuice and rose water. It is often garnished with chopped pistachios, cherries and a splash of cherry juice. The method is simple. A cup of cornstarch is dissolved into three cups of boiling water. That mixture is left to thicken and then placed into a strainer. With a spoon, the mixture is forced through the strainer and into a large bowl of iced water so that thin noodles are formed. The noodles are left in the water until firm. Once they are drained, they are mixed with the rose water and limejuice and frozen for 5 hours, with intermittent stirring. Prior to serving, the Faloodeh is sometimes colored with food coloring. It is divided into three portions. And each portion is colored red, green, or yellow.  It is assembled on the plate in a horizontal bar shape.

The result is amazing. Perfect little frozen noodles that are flavored with just the right amounts of both sweet and sour notes. Faloodeh is popular everywhere in the Middle East however, it is a staple item in Afghanistan, Iran, India and Pakistan. And based on which country you are in, the Faloodeh is culturally morphed to fit in with local cuisine. In Pakistan and India, for example, the Faloodeh is served as a garnish for the traditional Kulfi ice cream.

The Faloodeh was no doubt born out of necessity. Even today, rich cream and sugar are expensive commodities in many parts of the developing world. Whipping up a bowl of rich and creamy ice cream would break the budget of a family in Afghanistan or Iran. Faloodeh is so economical, requiring so few ingredients, that even poor families can indulge the frozen dessert on a regular basis.

Faloodeh is not the only unique ice cream in the Middle East. Some of the most popular ice creams in the region would make most Americans turn up their noses. Unlike in America, where cake, cookies and candies are what make premium ice creams popular, Middle Eastern ice creams are typically flavored with teas, spices, fruit and even vegetables. Some of the most popular ice creams include saffron ice cream, which is a deep yellow and tastes as pungent as the spice itself and beetroot ice cream which is crimson red and flavored with just a hint of rose water. Another favorite is avocado ice cream, which is a best seller in the scorching summer heat.

No matter which way you scoop it, ice cream is popular all over the world with each country putting their own twist on the frosty treat.

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The Terminal

August 6, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

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

terminal Academy-Award winning actor Tom Hanks wowed audiences back in 2004 with his movie ‘The Terminal’. In the film he portrays Viktor Navorski, an eastern European immigrant coming to America so that he can fulfill a wish of his late father. But things take a turn for the worse as his homeland breaks out into a civil war and is no longer recognized by any government while he is en route. Not only is he stateless by the time he lands at New York’s JFK Airport, but he is also stuck in a political limbo which forces him to make the airport his new found home as he waits for the US government to either grant him entry or send him to another country to seek refuge as a political refugee. The film has innumerable funny moments as Hanks struggles to communicate his needs for money, food and clothing in his native language and broken English. It also has many heart rending ones as the audience is gripped by the plight of a stranger in a strange land.

For many Southeast Asian immigrants that descend upon the Middle East each year to work as laborers in some of the richest countries in the entire world, living in an airport terminal is often a reality that they have no choice but to accept as they embark upon a new phase in their lives to serve others as chauffeurs, office boys, janitors and housemaids.  In almost every Gulf State, there exists a sponsorship system, which states that no foreign immigrant can live independently within the country. All immigrants must have a citizen sponsor to vouch for them and co-sign on their residency documents. Herein is the problem . Out of the sponsorship laws has grown a new breed of criminals known as ‘visa traders’. They lure unsuspecting immigrants from agencies in their own homelands to the Gulf with the promise of a better life. The visa traders sell thousands of visas per years and it is a booming business.

Immigrants pay the traders thousands of dollars for their sponsorship that translates into a work visa. The moment the transaction begins and the cash changes hands, the immigrant is at the mercy of the sponsor. Many sponsors have developed the habit of leaving the new immigrants at the airport for days on end. They are either too busy or heartless to care. For this reason, many airports in the Gulf have developed special waiting areas specifically to cope with the influx of immigrants waiting to be picked up by their sponsors. The areas are well away from paying passengers view but are filled with human cargo simply left to wait. Men and women are mixed together often sprawled within close proximity as they try to sleep on the cold hard floors. Most immigrants only arrive with the clothes on their backs and not even a blanket to shield them from the central air conditioning that is pumped throughout the terminal around the clock. They have nowhere to shower and can only utilize the airport bathroom. As for nourishment, they are at the mercy of whatever the airport can provide.

maids It is common to see women crying and begging airport officials to simply go back home. Many of the immigrants do not know Arabic and yet the airport requires that they fill out processing paperwork in Arabic. While others make futile attempts to call the recruiting agencies that hired them or their individual sponsors. In most cases, the sponsors eventually do show up either several hours or several days after they were supposed to pick up their charges. The sponsors are not reprimanded by airport officials and suffer no ill consequences. Once again, the immigrants pay the price as they are not compensated for the wasted time and are usually forced straight to work without even a chance to rest after the long ordeal.

Many residents in the Gulf have long petitioned for an end to the sponsorship system. Nowhere have the voices been raised as loud as in the State of Kuwait, with even citizens publicly declaring shame that their own country would be a willing collaborator in the exploitation of others. This past month the Kuwaiti government has given hope to thousands by pushing for the annihilation of the sponsor system to curb visa trading and improve Kuwait’s standing on human rights in the global arena. The Kuwaiti government also promises to develop a new set of laws to deal with visa traders fiercely and decisively.  Other Gulf nations are expected to rethink their sponsorship systems as well so as to be seen as champions of human rights by the rest of the world and not exploiters bowing to the almighty dollar.

11-33

Where’s the Beef?

July 23, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

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They’re smothered in cheese, pickles, lettuce tomato, and mayonnaise, and are served on a sesame seed bun. But they’re not anything like the traditional all-American hamburger you might be used to. ‘Hashi’, or baby camel burgers, are the latest food trend to take Saudi Arabia by storm.

The camel is one of the most beneficial animals to residents in the Middle East. The camel has long been ‘man’s best friend’ for time eternal, and was instrumental in helping Islam flourish in the region during the life of the Prophet Muhammad (s), prior and since. Camels are prevalent in the history of Arabia as they have served as a mode of transportation, battle buddies in countless wars, companions, and a source of food whether through the fresh and foaming milk camels provide or as a source of highly nutritious meat. Even the camel hair is cultivated and used in the textile industry as it is woven into fine cashmere, which is made into disdashas, blazers or even blankets.

Camel meat has long been a staple in the Saudi Arabian diet. Camel liver is considered to be a fine specialty food and served in the finest hotels and restaurants from Riyadh to Jeddah. The meat is very light and has a delicate flavor. And it is not as fattening as beef, nor as cholesterol-ridden. However, the older the camel the tougher the meat. That’s why baby camels are used for the camel burgers, as the meat is tender.

The camel burgers are the brainchild of three brothers who together own the ‘Local Hashi Meals’ restaurant in the capital city of Riyadh. In a recent interview, one of the owners said that the new menu item was meant to “invent something new” which would tantalize the taste buds of camel meat connoisseurs. So far, the camel burgers have literally been flying off of the grill as customers are eating up the new sandwiches in record numbers.

The camel burgers have helped to revive the family’s business, which had slowed down in recent months due to the global financial crisis. Thanks to the camel burgers, business is now booming. The creators of the camel burger already have plans to expand their business by opening up another branch which could mark the creation of a whole new franchise, in the fledgling ‘camburger’ industry, that could most definitely be a market leader in the Gulf States.

Camel burgers may seem like a unique food that may or may not be a welcome guest on your dining table. However, there are even more unique and weird foods that are considered to be delicacies in the Middle East. How about a slice of sheep’s brain grilled to perfection and tucked into half of a freshly baked pita bread, along with a slice of onion and a squeeze of lemon juice?

Or sheep testicle kebabs grilled on skewers over an open flame until they ‘pop’? No matter which foods grace your palate, trying new foods that may seem strange at first is an excellent way to increase your culinary repertoire and experience a new gastronomic adventure.

11-31

Leading the Fight Against Human Trafficking

July 16, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

sexslaves2603_468x477 This past month the US State Department released it’s 9th annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which lambasted 4 Middle Eastern countries for their blatant human rights abuses. Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Syria have found themselves strange bedfellows on America’s ‘blacklist’, which means that unless these governments change their domestic policies to meet the minimum criteria for human rights they face a slew of sanctions.

According to the report, the global economic turndown has fueled the flames of an already exasperating situation. As a result, many traffickers in the Gulf region have moved underground to avoid detection and continue the slave trade. It’s no secret that the construction boom that has heralded many countries of the Middle East into a new modern age has been built with the blood, sweat and backbreaking work of poor migrant workers primarily from Southeast Asia. The sex industry is also flourishing in the Middle East, especially in Iran where ‘temporary’ marriages are legal and women are exploited by being denied the rights that a married woman possesses. Underground prostitution rings are present in all four of the blacklisted countries. Visa trading is also a major problem as migrant workers are lured to the Gulf with the promise of high salaries and a better life. However, once they arrive they soon learn that they are only paid a fraction of the salary that they were promised and are forced to live in deplorable conditions not fit for an animal let alone a human being.

This week the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia set itself apart from the other countries on the blacklist. The Saudi government has toughened its stance against human traffickers within its borders. New laws recently put into effect will punish traffickers with up to 15 years in prison and fine of more than one-quarter of a million dollars.

Saudi Arabia has long been fodder for critics accusing the kingdom of ignoring human rights abuses that are often well publicized in the media, but routinely ignored by the ruling government. The kingdom has also clearly defined, in writing, what constitutes human trafficking in the country. Sexual servitude and slavery, forced organ donations or forced medical experimenting and involuntary begging are all instances of trafficking under the new law, which metes out harsher punishments based on the victim of the crime. If the victim is disabled, a woman, child or elderly then the penalty is substantially increased. However, many critics still lament the fact that the definition does not better define the trafficking of children into the kingdom who are forced to work as sex slaves, beggars or street vendors. The new law also makes zero reference to women and children who are exploited or abused within their own family unit.

Following the cabinet meeting that signed the new law into action, the Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz was quoted as saying about the new law, “It embodies the principles of Islamic Sharia law which prohibit attacks on the rights of another human being to protect the rights of citizens and residents under Islamic law.”

The remaining three countries have done little to improve their human rights records since inclusion at the top of the list of human rights abuses. Kuwait, for example, does have a set of laws to defeat human trafficking within the tiny Gulf state. Unfortunately, the laws are difficult to enforce when so many citizens have influence to bend the laws in their favor. The phenomenon of ‘wasta’, or friends in high places, is too often the grease that moves the cogs of society no matter who gets hurt in the process.

11-30

The Pullout

July 2, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

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Iraqi soldiers march during a parade in Baghdad, June 30, 2009. U.S. combat troops left the last of Iraq’s cities on Tuesday, restoring to the country a proud sense of sovereignty that many applauded even though some fear it may leave them more vulnerable to attacks.

REUTERS/Saad Shalash

In a burst of fireworks that illuminated the Baghdad sky, jubilant Iraqis celebrated the pullout of US forces from their country this past Tuesday. It has been six long and bloody years with over 100,000 civilian lives having been lost since the Bush-era “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq changed the country and, by extension the World, irrevocably.  U.S. Forces handed over the reins of power to Iraqi security personnel. However, it will take at least two more years for the American armed forces to complete the withdrawal in 2011.

The long awaited pullout, which many political commentators believe helped President Obama win the Presidency, is a component of a security deal that was reached last year by Washington and Iraq. In a press interview, U.S. General General Ray Odierno said about Iraqi security forces, “I do believe they are ready. They’ve been working towards this for a long time.”

In a symbolic gesture, Iraqi security personnel retook the former Ministry of Defense building even though there are still more than 130,000 U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq. The remaining soldiers will continue to train and advise the 750,000 strong Iraqi army in a primarily ‘back-seat driver’ role. The Iraqi security forces remain on high alert as the government expects insurgents to do their best to spoil the transfer of power. Iraqi security personnel are visible on the city streets in a show of force against anyone attempting to disrupt the current calm. Security checkpoints remain in place and motorcycles have been banned from the streets, as they are often the mode of transport for suicide bombers.

The Americans may be leaving, but Iraq will never be the same. The country bears the scars of an unwelcome war and occupation. Lives have been lost, innocent civilians maimed and the course of history has been changed forever although it remains to be seen if it will be for the worse or better. Likewise, hearts and minds have also been changed. Many Iraqis are exercising more freedoms than under the reign of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, which are in line with their American counterparts. The influence of the U.S. in Iraq can be seen as near as the local marketplace where western-inspired clothes are quickly scooped off the racks by customers eager to dress like the characters from their favorite American movies or sitcoms.

The stakes are high as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has promised his people that the Iraqi security personnel can effectively protect the country. If Maliki can keep that promise, the future looks very bright for Iraq. No less than 31 companies are vying for coveted oil-development contracts, which will make Iraq a force to be reckoned with in the global oil market.  The plan is to develop six massive oil fields and two gas fields located in the Iraqi deserts. The Iraqi government wants to double production from 2.4 million barrels per day to a whopping 4 million barrels per day, which will give the Iraqi government an estimated 1.7 trillion dollars in revenue that can be used to rebuild the country’s beleaguered infrastructure. It has been almost 40 years since any oil company has been willing to do business with Iraq. And it could take another 40 years if the Iraqi government cannot maintain a high level of peace and stability to appease investors.

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The Kuwaiti Quartet

May 28, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

610xggg Political crisis has marred the growth and development of Kuwait for the past few years as political upheaval has been the order of the day. The entire government has resigned no less than five times and the democratically elected parliament has been dissolved thrice in only a matter of years with the most recent dissolution coming just a few months ago. Even before candidates hung up their campaign posters or voters could go to the polls, there was an air of change floating around in Kuwait. Citizens have long tired of the bickering between the Emiri elected cabinet and the members of parliament chosen by the public. There were more ‘grillings’, where MP’s make accusations against another MP, than parliamentary decisions to pull Kuwait out of the current economic crisis it is wallowing in and put it back on track with its’ neighboring Arab rivals.

It has been a mere four years since women were granted suffrage rights and the right to run for parliamentary elections in Kuwait. Female candidates failed to win seats in the past two parliamentary elections. But this past week, history turned one giant page when a total of 4 female candidates won seats in the newly formed Kuwaiti Parliament. A total of 210 candidates, 16 of which were female, vyed for a coveted seat in the 50 member strong Parliament. “Frustration with the past two parliaments pushed voters to seek change. And here it comes in the form of this sweeping victory for women,” Massouma al-Mubarak told reporters following her victory.

Quite notably all four newly elected female MP’s were educated in the USA and hold Doctorates in their specific fields. Massouma Al Mubarak is a political science professor and was Kuwait’s first female Emiri appointed Cabinet minister. Rola Dashti is an economist and activist for women’s rights. She was at the forefront of the battle to win voting rights for Kuwaiti women since it began. Salwa al Jasser is an Education professor and Aseel al Awhadi is a Philosophy professor.

Supporters of the female candidates set off fireworks and feted them in a barrage of wild cheers and congratulatory celebrations rivaling even the poshest of Hollywood after parties.  However, there are several male MP’s who are unhappy with having to share parliament with women. Islamic fundamentalists have made statements to the local media that women do not belong in politics and have insisted that all of the female MP’s wear the Islamic hijab whenever Parliament is in session. Only two out of the four newly elected females MP’s observe the Islamic headscarf.

It remains to be seen if the Kuwaiti Quartet will be able to change the political scene in Kuwait, which has always operated on a crisis-by-crisis basis. Kuwaiti political analysts expect the power struggle between MP’s in the Parliament to continue regardless of gender. If this week is any indication, the Kuwaiti Quartet is already facing an uphill battle in their bid to makeover Kuwaiti politics. MP Massouma Al Mubarak was accused of trying to push through more female politicians into the Cabinet and the Kuwait Quartet were also accused of trying to form their own bloc to stand united against the male members of Parliament.

The State of Kuwait is often referred to as a ‘half democracy’ since only the Emir controls the Cabinet while the public chooses Parliamentarians.  Kuwaiti activists have long petitioned for the formation of political parties and for Kuwait to be a true democracy where the public has the right to choose all elected officials.

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Not Fit For Human Consumption

May 14, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

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Bananas with brown spots. Rubbery carrots with wrinkled skin. Tomatoes with black spots and showing the onslaught of mold. These are just a few of the vegetables Reshmi, an Indian housemaid in Kuwait, bought today with her hard earned Dinars. As the global economic crisis takes on an even more alarming pace, those who already live a meager hand-to-mouth existence are finding it increasingly more difficult to put food on the table.

For Reshmi, and hundreds of thousands of poor expatriate laborers living in the Gulf region, eating food that is spoiled or not fit for human consumption is a part of daily life. There is a thriving black market for food that has been rejected for release into the marketplace. The majority of Gulf nations have strict quality controls in place to ensure that food being sold to consumers is of the best quality. The State of Kuwait, for example, is one such country that has a stellar reputation for food safety controls in coordination with the World Health Organizations (WHO) standards.

All edible food that is imported into the country must receive a stamp of approval from the Ministry of Agriculture before it even is brought onto Kuwaiti soil. Unfortunately, some shipments of food entering Kuwait are never inspected. Unscrupulous businessmen use wasta, or influence, to circumvent the food inspection process.  They knowingly purchase food that is overripe or damaged from their suppliers for a mere fraction of the cost of fresh produce. Then they peddle it on the streets of Kuwait to unsuspecting consumers.

At any time of day, peddlers can be seen carting around huge boxes of mangoes on their shoulders. They often go door to door selling the poor quality produce to whomever will buy it. And the buyers are often plentiful, as the cities in which they sell the tainted goods are comprised primarily of poor day laborers. It’s also very common to see the fruits and vegetables slated for sale outside of the mosques. Peddlers set up blankets and await customers just finishing up their prayers.

Tainted food is rife in Kuwait and is sometimes even purchased by restaurants. This year alone, five separate bloggers have reported cases of spoiled food being served to them. In one case, rotten tomato slices were discovered on a sandwich purchased at an American fast food chain and in another a woman found several large bugs stuck to the lettuce in her premade salad. In both cases, the restaurants in question were accused of knowingly buying rotten produce to offset some of their costs. 

Most recently even medications have been found for sale on the Kuwaiti market that have already expired. In the most notable case, a packet of antibiotics was sold to a consumer at a local pharmacy with an expiration date of two years prior. The medicine was intended for a child and luckily the father read the expiration date before administering it.

Authorities in Kuwait have not been as swift in dealing with the problem of the rotten food and medicines that have escaped inspection and are being sold on the black market.

This is surprising considering the code of hygiene that restaurants, coffee houses and other eateries in Kuwait must live up to around the clock. The Kuwaiti government has a zero tolerance policy for restaurants found to be serving rotten food or preparing the food in an unhygienic manner. A group of dedicated inspectors perform surprise inspections at every eatery in Kuwait and their findings are usually published in the local newspapers. Offending restaurants are often shut down within minutes of failing the inspection.

However, cracking down on the spoiled food peddlers is a trickery task given that the target is in a constant state of motion. And unfortunately the evidence is typically eaten in good faith without a thought to its questionable origins. “ I have to feed my family,” Reshmi laments, “and am grateful for whatever I am able to afford even if it might make me sick.”

11-21

Chaos on Cairo Streets

May 7, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

cairo Cars on bustling Cairo streets compete with pedestrians, donkey carts, buses and motorcycles as they make their way down the ever congested and polluted roadways. And that’s in addition to sharing the street with countless other vehicles. As a result of the chaos, Egypt is ranked as 2nd in the world for traffic fatalities. According to a World Health Organization report, there were an estimated 7,000 road fatalities in Egypt last year alone. The reasons for the deaths can be chalked up to several factors such as poor driving skills by motorists, a failing infrastructure with poor roadways and a general indifference by a population who is one of the poorest in the world.

Most drivers in Egypt do not even have to pass a driver’s education course before they are licensed to hit the road. This is evident the moment you pull onto any street in Cairo. Driver’s weave in and out of traffic and get off at exits without even turning on their blinkers. Since bus stops are few and far between, buses often stop in the middle of the roadway to dispense their passengers, who just might get hit by a speeding motorist the minute they get off the bus. The speed limit is too often ignored and even traffic stoplights serve as mere road ornaments as driver after driver blow through the red lights.

Taking a look inside a typical vehicle driven by an Egyptian citizen reveals a whole new world of hazards and violations. For one thing, most seatbelts are either missing or tucked down into the seat without even a thought to their purpose being taken into consideration. The occupants of the car are jostled about unrestrained, which includes children who often use the car as an excuse to jump around and play. A children’s carseat in an Egyptian car is an unfortunate rarity. There are also countless distractions that cause the driver to keep his eyes off of the road, which includes hot beverages like tea, cell phones and the all too common cigarette balanced between fingers.

There are an estimated 4.4 million cars on Egyptian streets and the number is growing. The Egyptian government is fighting an uphill battle in combating the roadway mayhem. However, parliament has recently taken measures to punish those who break traffic safety laws and hopefully send a message to others that reckless driving is no longer acceptable. Last year a new traffic safety code was adopted in Egypt. Simple traffic transgressions, such as not yielding to pedestrians or driving in the opposite direction on a one-way street, are now punishable by jail time and a hefty fine.

The government has shrewdly turned to technology to maintain some level of road safety. Egyptian roads are now monitored by cameras, which are remotely manned by a control center that operates around the clock. A system of radars has also been established at congested intersections to catch traffic violators in the act. Policemen have also been equipped with portable digital devices to quickly issue citations. And the government plans to study traffic accident patterns to prevent future calamities.

The Ministry of Interior has also launched a media campaign to educate the public about the importance of road safety. This month the ministry plans to launch a monthly documentary about specific traffic accidents that resulted in one or more fatalities. The documentary will show viewers, up close and personal, the reason for the accident and how it could have been prevented. The ministry also plans to go a step further by interviewing family members of the deceased to see how traumatic their loss has been. The Egyptian government hopes that the programming will wake its’ populous out of their slumber to take road safety seriously.

11-20

Trapped by Indifference

April 16, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

 

feral cats eat fishHis eyes glaze over as his head droops in defeat. His hair is a dingy shade of blonde. His plaintive wail can be heard all night, up until dawn when an eerie silence fills the air. He lays against a wall, slumped in such a way that it is difficult to see if he is alive or dead. His only crime was curiosity. He is a stray dog who made the mistake of climbing onto the roof of an abandoned building in Kuwait. Now he is stuck there, with little to no hope of rescue.

Unlike in the West, domestic animals like cats and dogs are not man’s best friend. In fact, they are considered to be filthy creatures often likened to cockroaches as carriers of disease. Cats, in particular, are as prevalent on the streets of Kuwait as squirrels are in rural America. They dig out their daily meals from dumpsters, sneak a snooze on the roof of a car and spend their days searching for small puddles of water to quench their thirst in the unforgiving desert where temperatures often well exceed 100 F.

It has only been within the past couple of years that stray dogs have made their presence known on the streets. More and more misguided travelers bring a dog home with them after trips abroad to Europe or the USA. Once back in Kuwait, reality sets in as pet supplies are not always plentiful and walking a dog in the desert heat several times a day is not always a welcome activity. It’s unfortunate that, for many, the best option is to simply open up the front door and let the dog run away to live a life of fending for itself on the harsh streets.

And the streets are brutal. There is a general lack of empathy for animals in Kuwait, which is surprising given that it is an Islamic nation. The Holy Quran gave rights to both man and beast centuries ago. It’s not uncommon to find children torturing a defenseless animal in a vacant lot and reports of building caretakers throwing stray cats from the rooftops down to their deaths is a too often reported crime appearing in the local newspapers.

Thankfully, there are some loving souls that have chosen to give animals the rights that they deserve. Even in the case of the dog trapped on the roof, several local residents have thrown food up to him and some have scaled a wall below the roof in an attempt to reach him. Unfortunately, the dog backs away. He fears humans as probably every experience he has ever had has taught him to do.

There are two primary animal relief agencies in Kuwait. PAWS and Animal Friends League of Kuwait are fighting an uphill battle as the unwanted pet population in Kuwait continues its upward spiral. Both organizations are active in the community, providing food and shelter for unwanted animals. And both have hotlines where members from the public can call in to report a stray animal or animal abuse.

As of press time, the stray dog on the roof remains stranded. But help is hopefully on the way, thanks to the animal relief agencies in Kuwait who have recently been contacted. While there is light at the end of the tunnel for this dog, scores of other animals will most likely have bleaker futures in Kuwait as the indifference to their suffering goes on.

Update:  Animal Friends came and one of their volunteers scaled the wall and grabbed the dog.

11-17

The Crimson Tide

March 26, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

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It sounds like something out of a sci-fi blockbuster. A mysterious red blob suffocates and kills anything that gets in its way as it slithers along, leaving mayhem in its wake.

However, in the case of the current crimson tide washing up in the GCC, truth is stranger than fiction. Known as ‘red tide’, the phenomenon is caused by a thick growth of phytoplankton called dinoflagellates, and it occurs naturally.

However, scientists have discovered that some variants of the occurrence may also be a by-product of human activities, such as development programs to extend land borders by adding fillers to the sea, or the dumping of waste into the ocean. The red tide suffocates fish and other marine life to death. Areas of the coastline affected by the phenomenon are often littered with the carcasses of fish, crabs and other sea creatures.

Typically, the red tide rears its’ ugly head in the spring. However, this year the red tide arrived as early as this past October off the coast of the UAE where it still lingers and is spreading to other GCC States including Oman. This past January the Ministry of Environment and Water in Abu Dhabi appointed a specialized team to develop a national course of action to cope with the problem that has left many beaches in the kingdom empty as well as several dinner plates. The ministry has also launched an intense media blitz to inform the public how to stay safe during the peak of the red tides. While studies have shown that it is safe to swim in the tainted water, being in close contact with the algae can cause severe respiratory problems. As for eating the marine life that is veritably soaking up the contaminated water, it is safe to consume seafood as long as the catches are caught fresh and alive. Officials have warned the public from scavenging through the several tons of dead fish that have already washed up along the coast. A mass clean up effort is continuously underway in the affected regions to collect the decomposing corpses and incinerate them at a public facility.    The government of the UAE also plans to develop a system of satellites to serve as an early warning system for when the red tides begin to roll in.

This past week the State of Kuwait was put on alert as the red tide began looking for its next victim. The Environment Public Authority (EPA) in Kuwait has warned the government to give the phenomenon special attention for the sake of public health. The Kuwaiti government sent scientific expert, Dr. Mona Hussein, to the UAE this week to study the red tides first hand before they make landfall in Kuwait. Dr. Hussein will collect water and dead fish samples to bring back to Kuwait for further studies.

As a result of the red tides, the tourism industry in the GCC has taken a massive hit especially in Dubai where divers from all over the world come to enjoy the crystal blue waters and immaculate coral reefs. The murky waters are keeping tourists away and isolating the public from their own coastline.

11-14

American TV Popular in the Middle East

March 5, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

friends There certainly is no love lost between most Middle East countries and the US, where peaceful coexistence is often stormier than two dogs fighting over a juicy bone.  Years of bias, perpetrated by American foreign policy, has left a bitter taste in the hearts and minds of the denizens of the Gulf that won’t easily be washed away by mere ‘sweet talk’ from the Obama administration. However, politics aside, there is a quiet love affair between the East and West that has only grown more intense over the past few years. Regardless of the innumerable ‘fatwas’ issued about the evils of the boob tube or outright condemnations by Muslim clerics, western television and cinema is the daily bread of many Gulf residents, and have  made an irrevocable mark on the social fabric of the region.

Talk-Diva Oprah Winfrey’s show is just as popular in Kuwait as it is in the suburbs of California. Dramas like ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ have Gulf dwellers glued to their television screens, just like their American counterparts, on sofas in the UAE, Oman and Bahrain.  And even syndicated shows like ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld’ still resonate with the Gulf audience. And while English is not the primary language spoken in the region, all the programming is made complete with Arabic subtitles at the bottom. A notable side effect of the translation crawler is that many Arab speakers are learning to speak English, courtesy of the western programming.

There are two primary satellite television stations situated in Saudi Arabia and Dubai that send out American programming 24/7 throughout the whole Gulf region.  The media giant of the Gulf is known as the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) and is completely financed by Saudi Arabia. The MBC Group has evolved over the years to include 5 separate channels including MBC3 which airs American cartoons dubbed in Arabic, MBC4 which airs American sitcoms and dramas, as well as the newest channel named MBCMax which airs the latest Hollywood blockbusters to grace the silver screen. The second biggest media giant in the Middle East is known as OneTV, which is owned and operated by the UAE. It combines the best of both worlds, to include western sitcoms and movies in its monthly repertoire.

Both media empires compete for viewers’ attention by offering the most sought-after shows without charging a single penny. Unlike the popular Showtime channel, which is the predominant pay channel in the Gulf, and rakes in billions of oil soaked dollars every year from their subscribers. However, thanks to cutthroat advertisers hocking everything from shampoo to cooking oil, the television business is becoming more lucrative in the Gulf  than the ‘black gold’ that lies beneath the land. Advertisers scoop airtime up as fast as it becomes available, much to the chagrin of viewers who have to wait between 4-5 minutes for the commercials to end, with each show having no less than 3 commercial breaks.

Surprisingly, the key to the success of satellite television in the Middle East is censorship, which keeps everyone happy. Scenes depicting intimacy or even a kiss are cut off. Programming dealing with things such as homosexuality or teenage pregnancy is usually not aired. It is really up to the code of morals followed by each country where the stations are based. For example, the MBC group based in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia almost never shows intimate situations, whereas OneTV based in liberal Dubai has been known to allow some kissing scenes to appear on its viewer’s screens. For the most part, there is not a lot of governmental regulation as to what is aired by either the stations airing the programming or the countries receiving the feed.

However, one country has gone to great lengths to block American television and cinema. Iran only allows a handful of approved American serials to be played on the state-run news station. As a result, young Iranians are downloading their favorite American serials from the Internet or purchasing them from video dealers.
With the Middle East region constantly feeling the strain of threat, whether from internally or from abroad, western television offers viewers in the Gulf a chance to forget their problems and indulge in a bit of escapism, resplendent in jaw dropping comedy and breathtaking stuntmanship that could only be concocted in Hollywood and exported to the rest of the world.

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