The Business of Iftar

August 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

iftar tablebwMuslims from around the world forge onward with the Ramadan fast in hopes of being successful this holy month and reaping all the benefits. Year in and year out, the rites of Ramadan remain primarily the same. Fasting, performing the daily and nightly prayers, reciting from the holy Quran and rejoicing in the season are the activities that most Muslims find themselves engaged in during the auspicious occasion.

However, while most things stay the same from one Ramadan to the next, there is one thing that always changes. The Iftar meal, which follows the breaking of the daily fast, is as diverse as the leaves adorning a lush green tree. Muslims in the Middle East, most of which continue to thrive despite the economic turmoil affecting the rest of the world, are renowned for the Iftar spreads offered on their tables. Surplus oil wealth and heavily subsidized governmental social services ensure that cups runneth over and plates are filled to capacity during Ramadan as well as the rest of the year.

Yet Ramadan provides a unique opportunity for savvy businessmen in the region looking to cash in on the Holy Month. And it does not hurt that this Ramadan features a minimum of 14 fasting hours per day and in scorching day time temperatures. Why bother slaving over a hot stove when you can be feted like a king? Hotels and restaurants in wealthy Middle Eastern countries, like Qatar and Kuwait, cater to the fancies of Muslims fasting in Ramadan. Social-networking sites, like Facebook, are utilized to attract fasting Muslims with sleek ads featuring delectable dishes. Print media, such as newspapers and magazines, are also used to advertise sumptuous buffets offering international cuisine as well as local delicacies.

Some of the most sumptuous Iftar buffets can be found in the Dubai Mall located in the municipality of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. One of the most popular restaurants, Na3Na3, features live cooking stations during Ramadan and the Eid festivities.  Guests dine on traditional Arabic fare and sip freshly prepared beverages that compliment the meal. A traditional ‘Oud’, or Arabic stringed instruments, player keeps everyone entertained during the meal. Al Bahou restaurant, also located in Dubai, offers fasting Muslims a lavish menu featuring roasted lamb and freshly wrapped shwarma sandwiches.

13-33

Should it Take a Village?

July 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

photo

You’ve probably heard the old African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child”. However, it is doubtful that the person who first coined the phrase meant for anyone to take it literally.  It is true that raising a child, especially one who is considerate of others and mindful of being a contributing member of society, is one of the hardest jobs in the world. Yet still, in most parts of the world, a child’s parents are the primary caregivers and the ones responsible for raising the life that both brought into the world.

Conversely, there are several parts of the world where parents enlist a veritable army to assist in the raising of their children. In many parts of the Middle East for example, having a team of caregivers right in the comfort of your own home is a staple of the Arab culture. Chefs, chauffeurs, housemaids and nannies are the primary job titles that many families seek to fill even before junior is born. The annual surplus oil revenues that Middle Eastern countries like the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman enjoy has paved the way for a life of ease for nationals. Why change dirty diapers or fool around with play time when you can hire someone to do it for you?

As a result, many children in the region are raised almost exclusively by their caregivers with ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ taking a backseat to the care of their child. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the gilded streets of the wealthy Gulf nations. Parents can be seen strolling hand in hand along sun-kissed beaches while a trio of nannies keep junior out of trouble or merely cart him around. Playgrounds are often full of rambunctious kids busily playing their hearts out. However, something is clearly wrong with the picture as nannies keep an eye on their wards instead of the parents. For many children in the region, there is not a parent around to watch their amazing feat on the jungle gym or one to snap a photo as he glides down a slide.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of a reliance on caregivers is that most are unqualified for the job. Most of the household staff enlisted to help raise the children of a family come from Southeast Asia. They are typically poor, uneducated and semi-skilled laborers that do not possess the skills, and often temperament, to raise children. There have been countless cases of housemaids and nannies turning on their charges, sometimes fatally, in recent years. Some cases revealed an abundance of housemaids and nannies physically abusing the children that they were supposed to protect. Worse yet, some have even gone as far as to poison or otherwise murder the children they were hired to raise.

A professor at Qatar University recently shed light on the issue in a recent discussion that attributed a host of societal ills that are linked to children being raised by household staff. Professor Rabia Sabah Al Kuwari said, “This phenomenon is prevalent in the Arab societies. In other countries such as Holland, for instance, there are no household helpers.” Al Kuwari also went on to say that some of the problems associated with relying on paid staff to raise a child include a lack of affection between a parent and child as well as learning deficiencies that will most likely affect the child for his lifetime.

13-31

Every Child Left Behind

April 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

child-desk-400The allure of the Middle East, for western foreigners, is primarily found in monetary perks that makes life in the region more financially savvy than back at home.  First of all, skilled and specialized workers from the US and Europe stand to earn three to four times more money than could be earned at home and they face less job competition. Second, not having to pay taxes and enjoying heavily governmentally subsidized utilities as well as health care are added bonuses. However, what most expatriates do not realize is that there is a heavy price to be paid. And it is in the form of the education of their children.

Wealthy Middle Eastern countries like Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE provide a cradle-to-grave welfare system that keeps their citizens living a very comfortable life with free education only being one out of hundreds of social benefits. Expatriate children are not allowed to attend public schools which are reserved exclusively for the children of the citizens of the country. Expatriate parents must put their children in private schools which are often costly, poorly managed, overcrowded and understaffed. Many Gulf nations are host to several European and American private schools which boast a curriculum on par with the most exclusive schools in the world. Unfortunately, the tuition fees are so high that many expatriate parents can only afford to send one child, if any, to school while the others must attend less expensive private schools. And that is in the event that the child can even get into the school.

For countries, like Kuwait for example, private schools are regulated by the Ministry of Education. Each school is ranked according to student performance and receives special preference as well as accolades based on the percentage of students that do well. What is unfortunate is that most private schools in Kuwait require an admission test to ensure that only the best and brightest students get admission which guarantees a high percentage of student performance. Prospective students are not given a book or even a manual to study from in preparation for the test. All they can do is hope that they have the knowledge to pass it. For those who do not pass, they will most probably miss an entire school year or more. Until a student can pass the admission test there is no hope that his journey for a quality education can begin.

What is painfully ironic is that, while there are stringent controls for the admission of students to private schools, there are no such requirements for the hiring of teachers. The private schools in Kuwait, and other regions of the Gulf, are full of teachers who do not possess college degrees and have little experience teaching in the classroom. It is not uncommon for housewives to become teachers without having even a basic college degree. And for many teachers who do possess a “degree”, a careful inspection of the document will most likely reveal that it is a fake certificate obtained from a country in Southeast Asia. So even for children who do pass the admission test, the catch 22 is that the standard is far less than what the school administration purports.

For Shermyla Mohammad, a housewife and mother in Kuwait, her journey to enroll her son in school has been a twisted battle that has spanned more than five years. “My son studied the Holy Quran for several years and met with a tutor to teach him school subjects privately at home.” When her son was ten years old she began visiting various schools in order to enroll him. He is now fifteen years old and has never seen the inside of the classroom. “My son failed several admission tests because he could not prepare for the specific questions asked. One time he did pass but the school administration refused to accept him because the percentage was not high enough.” Her son is waiting to take yet another admissions test in the hopes that he can finally begin his education.

There are countless numbers of children all across the Gulf region who deserve an education but it remains out of reach. It is a basic human right to be able to attend school and not be barred from an education that will most certainly define every aspect of life and determine its quality.

13-15

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.

11-45

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.

11-44

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.

11-37

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