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Bridges to Saudi Arabia

I’ve become a big fan of chef Anthony Bourdain, first through his snarky, obnoxious and profane books about the restaurant industry and food around the world, and more recently through his excellent television show, “No Reservations“. The show portrays Bourdain travelling around the world – or sometimes around the corner – in search of unique culinary experiences. Much of the time, the show makes the case that you should visit a place you know little about simply to eat the food – his show on Ghana was so joyful and positive that the Ghanaian tourist board should simply send DVDs of it to any potential tourists. The very best shows, in my opinion, aren’t just travelogue, but provocative political statements – his show on the US/Mexican border made a passionate case that the border needs to be looser, not tighter, and that anti-immigration activists didn’t understand the unique cross-border culture.

Last night Rachel and I caught up with Bourdain’s recent travels to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and encountered one of his best political episodes. Bourdain freely admits that Saudi Arabia hasn’t been high on the list of countries he’s dying to visit – a former heroin addict and current, unabashed heavy drinker, the Kingdom’s attitudes to alcohol alone seem like they’d be sufficient to keep him away. But No Reservations ran a contest encouraging fans to submit videos encouraging Bourdain to film a show in their hometowns. The clear winner of the contest and interview process was Danya Alhamrani, a remarkable Saudi woman born in Bismark, North Dakota, and raised between Bismark and Jeddah. With business partner Dania Nassief, she’s the founder of Eggdancer Productions, a media production company in Jeddah unique in that it’s run by two women.

Alhamrani is very clear in her videotape that she wants to bring Bourdain to Saudi Arabia to challenge his preconceptions – and America’s perceptions – of what her nation is and isn’t. She succeeds with Tony, at least – he’s surprised by the warmth with which he’s received, and observes on his blog:

Fact is we met a lot of funny, good natured, very, very generous people over there. They actually had the capacity to laugh at themselves. They were all too aware of how they look to outsiders. They watch “Friends” and “Oprah” and “American Idol”.

Many, many of them were educated abroad. They were scrupulously devout in their faith without being humorless.

It’s clear from the show that the humor and warmth which which Bourdain is received has a great deal to do with Alhamrani, who is clearly a remarkable figure, and one of the most natural bridge figures I’ve ever seen on a television screen. Her North Dakota background means she understand more or less precisely what Bourdain is inclined to believe about Saudi Arabia, allowing her to line up and then mow down stereotypes. Because she lives in Jeddah as a Saudi, not as an expat, she knows where to go, who to see and how to show Bourdain the markets and greasy spoons that always serve as his happiest locales. And because she’s apparently a force of nature, her agenda of challenging preconceptions comes through every shot of the episode.

I’ve never been to Saudi, and am not likely to make the trip as a tourist any time soon. But I found myself reacting to certain moments in the show based on my limited knowledge gained through Saudi bridgeblogs. Alhamrani and Bourdain visit a local fast food restaurant, and he’s briefly confused as to whether they should sit in the “family” or “single” sections. Alhamrani explains that the single section is only for single men – the two of them together were a family, and their meal took place in a booth surrounded by translucent glass. Bourdain asked the predictable question – whether this form of isolation was insulting to Alhamrani as a woman – she explained that it wasn’t something she found frustrating, but something that single men often resented… something that had been clear to me from reading Ahmed Al-Omran’s brilliant Saudi Jeans blog. As a young, single Saudi man, Ahmed is a feminist at least in part because he’s frustrated about the ways in which the Kingdom’s attitudes towards women end up marginalizing men as well.

There’s nothing better than visiting another country – preferably in the company of someone who can bridge cultural gaps and help you experience the actual country rather than the tourist simulacrum – for changing opinions and attitudes. Amy Teuteberg, Bourdain’s producer, finds herself – to her great surprise – writing about her fondness for her abbaya, which allowed her to blend in on the shoot to a much greater extent than in other shows.

But if you can’t go, you can always read. Reading the Global Voices Digest this morning, I came across Ayesha Saldanha’s translations from Saudi blogs about slavery and worker’s rights in Gulf nations. The frustration and anger in these posts at the treatment of “guest workers” makes it very clear that some Saudis are very upset about the situation workers face and looking for ways the situation could be addressed:

When I listen to the real complaints of workers, I can’t help but think that they are largely being treated like slaves… Not only do some companies request a month’s salary from workers in order to renew their residence permit, but other companies prevent workers from having a day off in the week, and others won’t allow any excuse or leave, even in the case of illness. One worker told me that he had been working in Saudi Arabia for three years and hadn’t been able to perform Umrah [pilgrimage to Mecca] because the company refused to give him two days’ holiday.

The greatest problem with us is not Islam, of course; we take pride in our customs and culture and our Islamic spirit – but we don’t apply it on the ground. One day try stopping at a busy traffic light near a work site or industrial area, and see how, in 45 degree [113 Fahrenheit] heat, the workers are crammed into a lorry meant for equipment, or for sheep at most… But the greed of the factory or company owner prevents him from buying buses, which might cost no more than 40,000 Riyals to transport the workers from their accommodation to their workplace. If the matter was in my hands, a case would be brought against any company transporting its workers in lorries, and it would be ruled that the owner should experience this transport for a week. (In my dreams!)

Ask yourself now, when was the last time you brought a meal from a restaurant for your driver or housemaid? And how often have you let the driver use your mobile phone to talk to his family, and what about the maid? Does she still write letters and send them by post?

Do you have any doubt that this is slavery?

3 thoughts on “Bridges to Saudi Arabia”

  1. Thanks Ethan for sharing. I watched the Saudi Arabia show on Youtube it is very amazing seeing the humor–etc. The good way of seeing and learning about different culture.

  2. i always heard stories about Jeddah frm my father. He went for Haj (at Mekah)few years ago and miss the place so much so everytime i see him, he’ll recalls all the moments he had it there.
    but the Anthony Bordain & Dania Nassief’s Jeddah episode is the best show i ever see on TV. Dania is lovely and very humble yet she a brilliant lady! for the 1st time in my life i really feels like i need to go to Jeddah and really hoping that i could meet with Dania and her famuly to learn about their culture. i fell inlove with the people right away. i imagine myself having Maghrib prayer together… masyaAllah!


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