Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Saudi Arabia - Cradle of the Arab race

It's hard to study the history of Saudi Arabia without making reference to the historical context of the rest of the Middle East.  I picked Saudi as my first Middle Eastern country for a good reason - because this is where it all started.  By that I mean, Islam, the growth of an Arab identity and the influence of oil-rich nations on the global politics of the late twentieth century. 

In preparation for this learning journey, I watched Lawrence of Arabia, the 1960's epic starring Peter O'Toole and Egyptian-born Omar Sharif.  It covers an interesting period in the history of the Middle East, when the British were conspiring with Bedu tribes of Arabia, to overthrow the oppressive yoke of the Ottoman Empire and establish a united and, according to Lawrence, independent Arabia, with Britain's support.  A major historical theme of the movie is the fact that Lawrence helps unite disparate tribes from different parts of the Arabian peninsula.  The concept of a united Arab identity is, in many ways, an historical construct and the real picture is a lot more complex, with tribal and religious loyalties taking precedence over the idea of nation.

In the same way as Hinduism has long been associated with ethnicity in India, Islam too was very much the religion of the Arabian people.  The main difference is that, whilst Hinduism is still predominantly practised by people of Indian origin, such was the appeal of Islam that a mere 20% of Muslims now live in the Arab world, with approximately 203 million Muslims in Indonesia and half a billion Muslims in Pakistan/India/Bangladesh.  Although the holiest Islamic sites of Medina and Mecca are in Saudi Arabia, the centre of Islamic culture has shifted around since the time of Mohammed to cities like Damascus (under the Umayyad's) and Baghdad of the Abbasid.  Delhi, Cordoba, Cairo and Constantinople have all had their golden ages of Islam and even a city like Samarkand in Uzbekistan, where I spent two years, has played its part in the development of Islamic culture and sciences.

I find the history of the Middle East fascinating.  European involvement in Middle Eastern affairs goes back to the days of the spice trade.  The Portuguese occupying the island of Socotra (in Yemen), securing their safe passage to India.  The Dutch stealing Arabian coffee beans and introducing a craze to 17th century Europe.  It would seem as though Saudi Arabia has bobbed along through all of this, taking a sceptical interest in regional affairs, often divided between the politics of the Gulf states and Iran, on one side of the country, the influence of Egypt and Africa on the other.  The change came in the 1920's, when the royal Saudi family of Riyadh managed to gain control of most of the Arabian peninsula, uniting the various nomadic tribes in, what was to become, a definitive Saudi Kingdom. 

Both the US and Britain have actively supported the national integrity of Saudi Arabia.  Even more so, when oil was discovered in the late 1930's and American interests moved in to make a quick buck and get the Saudi oil wells open for business.  King Faisal was a key figure in the OPEC oil embargo in 1973.  The major oil-producing countries found that they could treble the price of oil overnight and that affluent Western nations would still pay the price.  The result was an unprecedented explosion of wealth in the Middle East, for the oil-rich nations, naturally, and even the labourers coming from poorer neighbouring countries, who could send their wages home and create mini economic booms there too. 

I'm not sure anyone could have guessed how quickly things would change in the Kingdom and Riyadh, a city of 150,000 people in the 1960's, now has a population of 5 million!  Saudis enjoy one of the highest living standards in the world, have become notorious for their immense wealth in a way that, more recently, the Russian oligarchs have caught the world's attention.  The ruling Saudi families can send their children to the world's most exclusive universities.  Obesity is a pressing issue for a country hooked on American fast food. 

Of course, there is a downside to all of this - the exploitation of immigrant labour, the repression of women and LGBT people, the emergence of shadowy fundamentalist groups and the uncompromising hold that the ruling Saudis have on the country's governance.  Who only knows what the future has in store for this highly-influential nation, I guess the oil will run out some day? 

Image credits:

The satellite image of the Arabian peninsula is from Wikimedia Commons from the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) Project.  The image is more than 5 years old and is, therefore, in the public domain.

The beautiful picture of King Fahd Road in Riyadh (one of the wealthiest addresses in the country) was shared with us on by flickruser Ayman Aljammaz who is from Dhahran in Saudi Arabia.  Ayman is a very talented photographer and you can see more of his images at

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Saudi Arabia - Assalom Aleykum

From Jaipur, we're heading west another 1808 miles or 2910 kilometres to Riyadh, capital of al-Mamlaka al-ʻArabiyya as-Suʻūdiyya, a.k.a the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  This one is going to be a real challenge for me, not only because it's a country I have never visited and can barely begin to comprehend, but also because it's so easy to fall into the stereotypes of Saudi Arabia, to get caught up in the excesses of an oppressive regime and a society that makes no sense to someone living in the liberal and 'decadent' West.  It's a challenge to myself, really - to go beyond the negative stereotypes, overcome my own prejudices, to learn about the everyday lives of Saudi Arabians and to learn about aspects of their culture, music and language that are, I'm sure, every bit as enthralling as the culture, music and language of Rajasthan.

When I think of Saudi Arabia, I think of oil, Islam and the scorching heat of the desert.  Adding Riyadh to my weather app today, I struggled to come to terms with the idea of the 45 degree heat in the Saudi capital.  I often think that national character can be influenced by your weather system - the languid, easy-going nature of Thai people, only occasionally getting hot under the collar - the stern and stubborn nature of the Russians, getting through six months of winter with curses and gritted teeth.  I'm guessing with scorching hot weather, the Saudis are a pretty tough bunch, surviving in a landscape that the rest of us would find intolerable.

Although I've not been to Saudi Arabia, I know several people who have.  Their stories have varied and the hospitality of their Saudi hosts seems to have only been dampened by the frustrating lack of alcohol, a staple of British and Irish culture.  As an ex-TEFLer, Saudi Arabia was always an option for me, with its high living standards, competitive salaries and low living costs.  But I decided against it in the end.  I like adventure, but Saudi Arabia was a little bit too adventurous, even for me!

In the next few weeks, I want to learn as much as I can about Saudi culture.  I want to learn about Islam and understand Arabian history.  I've already ordered a book by a Saudi author and one by a Westerner, with his insights into living in the region.  I want to watch 'Laurence of Arabia', listen to some Arabian music and cook a traditional Saudi dish.  I don't know if it'll be possible, but I want to find some Saudi friends on Twitter, as I have done with the other countries in my blog.  If nothing else, it will be an interesting journey and one that I hope you will join me on!

Image credits:

The image of the minarets was taken at dawn, in Medina, by flickruser Shabbir Siraj who is a Pakistani-Canadian photographer and film-maker and has shared this image with us using the Creative Commons License.  If you want to see more of his photos visit

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Rajasthan - Fir Melenge

The time has come to say goodbye to Rajasthan and au revoir to India.  I've spent much longer on Rajasthan, than any other place I've blogged about so far.  This was partly down to my getting lost in the array of stories, colours and music Rajasthan has to offer, but was also partly because June is a really busy time for me in terms of work. 

I think reading three books was probably a bit excessive and I've resolved to limit myself to two books per place in future.  The cooking, music, movies and general reading don't take me a long time, so getting bogged down in books really slows me down somewhat.  Despite reading three books, watching two movies, cooking a meal, learning about Bhajans and raising my Hindu consciousness, I still feel like I've only scratched the surface of my learning experience and, as usual, there is so much more . . .

During my virtual journey through Rajasthan, I've learned that Rajasthan is just slightly smaller than Germany and that 65% of its land mass is taken up by the Thar desert, the most densely populated desert in the world!  I learned that Ajmer is a mainly Muslim city, which is also the location of the prestigious Mayo College, founded by the British in the 1860's to educate Rajputana's elite.  I learned that 70% of Rajasthan's population works in agricultural, but also that tourism is a major industry and has been made a compulsory subject in Rajasthani schools.

I learned about the classical dance, Kathak, two forms of which originate in Jaipur.  I learned that Rajasthan is reknowned for its miniature paintings.  I learned about the bhuuts or dakins, which are ghosts that inhabit crossroads and this reminded me of a similar tradition in England of burying people who committed suicide at the crossroads.  I learned that most barbers in Rajasthan close on a Tuesday, as it's considered to be bad luck to have your hair cut on this day.  I learned about the traditional form of enamel work called Meenakari.  I learned about Jantar Mantar, Jaipur's famous observatory, built by its founder, Jai Singh.  I learned about yantras (sundials) and gnomons.  About the gates of Jaipur and Amber's resident poet Bihari.

I learned about the Kalyanamastu ceremonies, or group weddings, often the only option for impoverished young men and women.  I learned about the Jats and Siberian cranes.  I learned about the Pushkar camel festival and how puppeteers travel around the state, educating the masses on social issues, health and human rights.  I learned that Pushkar is the only official place where Brahma can be worshipped.  I learned about the kingdom of Matsya, of Mewar and Udaipur and of Marwar, the land of the dead. 

I learned about hathphools and turbans.  About the remote province of Jhalawar and the 'Scotland of Rajasthan', Shekhawati, with its proud people and painted havelis.  I learned the story of Mumal and Mahendra, about Padmini, the Queen of Chittor and Amritdevi, heroine of the Bishnoi people, who had her head cut off, rather than let their beloved trees be felled.  I learned about Bassi, with it's famous wood-carvers, Pokaran with its nuclear testing and the Afghan town of Tonk. 

I learned about the Demoiselle Cranes of Khichan and why Jaisalmer has been nicknamed 'the Golden City'.  I learned about the Karni Mata temple in Deshnok, near Bikaner and how they have an annual festival or worshipping rats, which are believed to be re-incarnations of local people.  I learned all of this and so much more.

धन्यवाद राजस्थान - thank you Rajasthan!  I hope to visit your wonderful cities sometime soon. 

Image credits:

The image of the Pichola lake in Udaipur was taken by flickruser bit ramone/off a.k.a. Jose Luis Hitos, who is from Granada in Spain (another amazing city!). 

The image of the Kathak dancer is by flickruser Meenakshi Payal

Thanks Jose and Meenakshi for sharing your images with us using the Creative Commons license.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Rajasthan - Gayatri Devi, the Last Maharani of Jaipur

It's almost a year since Gayatri Devi, the last Maharani of Jaipur, passed away, aged ninety.  I've just finished reading her autobiography, A Princess Remembers and it's been a fascinating read - one that has covered, not only the Maharani's interesting and event-filled life, but also a period in India's history that saw independence from the British, the separation of British India into three separate states and the birth of a turbulent and sometimes frenetic experiment in democracy.  I've read two fictional books previously that cover the period of India's independence and partition from the (then) two Pakistans - Salman Rushdie's book Midnight's Children is an amazing read and I also loved Shauna Singh Baldwin's award-winning novel, What the Body Remembers.  Gayatri's book is a real account of events and it re-inforced my knowledge of modern Indian history and gave me a perspective on events that I didn't previously have.

Now, I'm not a monarchist and don't support the existence of royal families, so this isn't a book I would normally want to read.  Nevertheless, it was interesting to peek into the life of Indian royalty, trying to imagine what it would be like to have 700 servants to run your household, including six butlers, thirty grooms for the horses and four footmen (what exactly does a footman do?  Put on your shoes?).  Gayatri was born in the princely state of Cooch Behar, which is north of present-day Bangladesh and a distance of almost 1,000 miles from Rajasthan.  Like most royal families in India, her family had connections all over the sub-continent and her maternal grandparents were from the princely state of Baroda (Vadodara, Gujarat).  Gayatri met the Maharaja Man Singh of Jaipur, who she called Jai, at her family home in Calcutta when she was twelve.  She became his third wife and moved to live in a succession of palaces and royal homes throughout Jaipur region.

Her upbringing was one of immense privilege, being educated, not only at an exclusive school in India, but also at a finishing school in Lausanne, Switzerland.  Her summers were spent in England and France (Dinard and Cannes), with winters skiing in Engelburg and travel as a tourist to pre-war Prague and Budapest.  It was a life of Schiaparelli for clothes, Farragamo for shoes and Fortnum & Mason's for everything else!  Before her marriage she lived the fairly free life of a wealthy, young woman, dining at the Willingdon club in Bombay, travelling to Calcutta every autumn for the polo season and retreating from the hottest part of the year in hill stations such as Darjeeling and Ootacamund. 

When she married Jai and moved to Rajasthan, she was expected to observe a level of purdah she hadn't really experienced before.  Society in Rajasthan was much more conservative that other parts of India and she also found the style of dressing to be very different, with brighter colours, pierced noses and bangles right up her armpits.  I get the sense that her marriage to Jai was a love-match, as much as anything else.  Certainly, her parents weren't entirely happy to have a Princess of Cooch Behar becoming the third wife of a Maharaja.  Gayatri's attitude towards her co-wives was very pragmatic.  She understood that both of those marriages had been arranged for Jai during his childhood.  She was the one who continued to travel with Jai, to Europe, the United States and South America. 

When India became independent, the excesses of a princely lifestyle finally caught up with them.  Gayatri describes how the 600 or so princely states agreed to become a part of the newly-independent India, thereby unifying the country, as opposed to fragmenting its existence.  She talks about this as a choice that the various princes made, out of their genuine goodwill towards their new country, however I can't help thinking they didn't have much choice in the matter.  Her husband benefitted from this system for a while and, indeed, gained slightly more power as the Rajpramukh (Head of State) for all of the newly-created state of Rajasthan.  Her account of events is obviously biased and I couldn't help thinking that the description of Jai's subjects in Jaipur and how loyal they were to him and his family, was just part of the vicious circle of dependence on a monarch, which the new Indian government was desperate to break. 

Gayatri herself went into politics in the 1960's and has gone down in The Guinness Book of Records as the political candidate securing the biggest ever landslide in an election.  The days of princely rule were numbered though and, by the 1970's Indira Gandhi had broken the opposition, imposed a state of emergency and thrown politicians like Gayatri into jail, on trumped up charges.  India's history is incredibly facinating and the changes that have taken place in India since independence are nothing short of revolutionary. 

It's hard to feel sorry for someone like Gayatri, who was lucky enough to have enjoyed a world-class lifestyle and never to have suffered deprevation or lived in poverty, like so many of her fellow citizens.  I guess it was inevitable that the princely states, which were tolerated for so long under British rule, would become obselete in the world's largest democracy.  One point that Gayatri makes that I can agree with, is the short-sightedness of local politicians in terms of preserving the beauty of Rajasthani cities like Jaipur.  Gayatri and her husband found it heart-breaking to watch Jaipur change from an ordered and architecturally balanced city, under their rule, to a sprawling metropolis, with unimpeded social and industrial development, under a democratic government.  Gayatri points out that the royal family of Jaipur were always going to think about tradition and the long-term development of the city, rather than making a 'quick buck' and ruining Jaipur's beauty with a plethora of advertising billboards and ramshackle markets.  Whilst, I think that's true, I also think it has more to do with the corrupt nature of modern politics, than the need to maintain a royal family in Jaipur.