Tuesday, April 20, 2004

A Few Laughs

Things have gotten a little too heavy of late, so its over to a Saudi blogger who is a barrel of laughs. The Religious Policeman talks about the social stresses caused by cellular phones. A sample of his stories:

Mobile phones are legal. Camera phones are not. OK, you say, but camera phones are a minority, what's the problem?

The problem is the march of technology. Ten years ago, PC's had floppy discs and big cubic screens; now CD-RW and flatscreens are becoming the norm. In 5 to 10 years time, all phones will be camera phones, it'll be the standard. So will the muttawa try and ban all phones in Saudi Arabia? It'd be like trying to take an American's gun, or an Englishman's dog. Arabs in general, and Saudis in particular, live for their mobile phones, in a way that other parts of the world would not understand. And we are physically incapable of ignoring our phone when it rings.

Let me illustrate with 3 incidents from the last 4 weeks.

1. My wife and I went out for dinner in the Italian restaurant in the Sheraton. At one point I looked across at a booth where another Saudi couple were holding an animated conversation. However they didn't quite seem "in sync". That's because they were each talking to two other people on their phones.

2. A Saudi was giving a presentation at my place of employment. Screen, PC projector, Powerpoint, the whole thing. Then his phone rang. He didn't switch it off, he answered it. Just as well, it was his Mother! We sat listening for 5 minutes while he explained why he'd not been to see her for two days. I have to say, some of his excuses were ingenious, I'll use them myself sometime. Finally he resumed his presentation, without an apology.

3. I have an Arab (non-Saudi) colleague who is divorced and a womaniser. He actually goes out in Riyadh in an evening and picks up women. How? I haven't a clue, but it's very risky, to say the least. Anyway one lunchtime I had to get in touch with him urgently, so I called his mobile. After 4 rings it answered. The person at the other end of the line was obviously having trouble getting his breath; in fact it sounded like a terminal asthma attack. All I could hear was gasping and wheezing. Then I realized what the "problem" was, asked him to call me back, and quickly put the phone down. I was clearly more embarrassed than he was.

So that's an idea of the priority that we attach to our phones. And when the day dawns that all phones are camera phones, and the Muttawa try to confiscate them, that'll be the day that the revolution starts. You heard it on this blog first.

Zeyad over at Healing Iraq has a review of new Arab blogs. There's one he calls "brainwashed but intelligent". Yet another has devoted itself to the Middle Eastern version of the pop idol contest. It has got everything but the gong and the hook that pulls the disqualified contestant offstage.

The most dangerous thing about the Internet from the point of view of those who would create a totalitarian or theocratic state is that it allows people to see others as men -- who may disagree, or who on reflection decide to fight -- but men nonetheless. The average person is never wholly unaware, as some academics are, of the humanity of other people. Nor is the average person wholly indifferent to concrete evil and imminent danger. Both are real and ancient things, ignored by those who live in a bubble of artificial laughter and contrived wit, but alive to those who meet them in the everyday. The Los Angeles Times article on Marine Corps snipers drives home how these marksmen, who live closer to the enemy than the ethereal postmodernist beings who jeer them, can never seek solace in abstractions. They must glimpse the faces of those they are about to shoot, the horror and necessity of the act combining in the single pull of the trigger, doomed to live in a world of specifics: fighting identifiable evils and performing individual acts of kindness. In this strange universe an Italian rips off a hood and with a final shout proclaims himself undefeated. Todd Beamer crashes an aircraft that others might live. Chief Wiggles raises money for children whose names he knows. And somewhere in a Riyadh a Saudi makes excuses to his mother.

Only the Grand Inquisitors stand apart, disdainful alike of both kindness and human weakness, full of schemes and plots. And of their false truces and cunning offers we should have no part except to answer it with silence (as in Dostoeveky's parable) and to go get a beer.