Al Balad, Jeddah, the door to Mecca

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SAUDI ARABIA welcomed me with such a blast of heat that made me feel my eyelids burning. I Landed on Jeddha’s airport at 3 am and to pass the check points I had to fill in some papers indicating that I was aware that drug and alcohol trafficking are punished by death.

I was new in the traveling business and very inexperienced so the I accepted the first Saudi taxi driver that offered his service, and I asked him for the fare before getting in, (something you shouldn’t do). The driver was a very agreeable man and he asked me to seat in the front so we could talk. The car didn’t have seatbelt in the passenger seat but at night the roads were not very crowded.

As we reached the hotel he asked me for 500 riyal, that was too excessive I thought, since I recalled a workmate telling me that 50 was the usual fare from that course. When I told him that I would only give him 50 riyal, he went mad and we had a huge argument inside the car. Being in that foreign country for the first time and extremely tired after a long travel, I agreed to give him 200 riyal, that he took with an angry gesture. That didn’t stop him from throwing my suitcase to the ground and leaving the place, cursing in Arabic. It was 5 am and I was to be at the factory at 8, nevertheless in my hotel they didn’t have my registration ready and I had to wait for an hour, so I did not have time for any rest. At the hall I met my workmates, Javier and Domenico, a Spanish and Italian technicians. A minibus picked us up and I told them about my quarrel with the taxi driver. – How furious he was when I told him I knew the fare was 50 riyal! – I said, my friend looked surprised –  I meant 50 Euro! not 50 Riyal! – I felt like an idiot. I had made a fool of myself, but since 50 euro was around 200 Riyal, I guess we both got what we deserved after all.

We reached the dusty factory after an hour of traffic jams, and work was difficult and slow. Most of factory workers were Filipinos, doing the hardest work but always with a gentle smile. No Saudi Arabian was working outside the offices. Any position without air conditioned or in which they could get stained their white unsullied robes was not appropriate. They had aristocratic manners and walked always without hurry.

AL BALAT

Jeddah, is the so called door to Mecca, by the Red Sea, the most important Saudi Arabian city after the capital Riyadh. All city was full of people from all the Muslim world, many of them wearing the white robes, they are near to the end of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to their Holy City.

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By the car window I could see that there was an historical old town very near to my hotel. In reception I was advised not to go there on my own, it is not a safe place for westerners those days, but my desire to know was stronger than my prudence. There was a particular smell that only Arab towns have. A mix of scents, spices, swamp and car fuel.

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Balad was founded in the 7th century and historically served as the centre of Jeddah. Al-Balad’s defensive walls were torn down in the 1940s. In the 1970s and 1980s, when Jeddah began to become wealthier due to the oil boom, many Jeddawis moved north, away from Al-Balad, as it reminded them of less prosperous times. Al-Balad had insufficient parking space for large cars. Its stores did not sell expensive designer clothing. Poor immigrants moved in place of the Saudi population. The municipality of Jeddah began historical preservation efforts in the 1970s. In 1991 the Municipality of Jeddah founded the Jeddah Historical Preservation Society to preserve the historical architecture and culture of Al-Balad. In 2002 $4 million United States dollars were earmarked for the preservation society.In 2009 Al-Balad was nominated by Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities to be listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage site and it was accepted on 2014.

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In order to preserve the old structures within the Balad, the Historical Area Preservation Department was established in 1990, hoping also to help promoting cultural tourism in the country.

Many Jeddawis have moved away from Al-Balad by 2007; the streets of Balad were still packed with people during the month of Ramadan. Around that year the Jeddah Urban Development Company was formed to restore Al-Balad.

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RED SEA

Domenico an me decided to go to the seaside for some scuba diving.

There were two women dancing in bikinis and cowboy hats. As soon as they crossed the fence they had transformed into two black gosts walking through the desert. It was all a mirage.

 

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Arabian Bedouins

March, 2013

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SEEKING TO LEAVE BEHIND the glitter of the skyscrapers and the shopping malls of Riyadh I decided to take a trip to the outskirts of the city, where the bedouins keep the camel market. There, I was welcomed by the rough-hardened faces of friendly bedouins, who live a stern life, keeping thousands of camels belonging to wealthy Saudis.

The Arabic term badawī literally translates in Arabic as “nomad” or “wanderer.” The term “Bedouin” therefore means “those in bādiyah” or “those in the desert”.

Bedouins are among the most resilient people on earth. They can travel long distances with little water, they waste nothing, in a way, they are Stoic and, in my view they embody the best of the arab people.

69598_10200712693883939_2131451355_n.jpgEgyptians , Babylonians, Persians, Romans all passed by with their large armies and fell but Arabs still there. Perhaps because they knew that arrogance is paid dear in the desert and that only the knowledge of one’s limitations, and submission to superior forces, secures long-term survival. Small Arab armies wrecked on the sands of the deserts large Byzantine armies, Persian and crusaders, sometimes without having to face them directly. That is one of the reasons the Arabian Peninsula is one of the few places that has never been conquered, maintaining the continuity of their language and culture for thousands of years.

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The way of life of nomadic people, such as the ancient Hebrews and Arabs, traveling in their caravans under the shadow of the great civilizations of the Middle East, are the result of thousands of years of survival in the most difficult situations. Circumcision, the prohibition of some foods like pork or drink alcohol, made them distinctive from sedentary peoples. But it has also practical reasons. Pigs need plenty of water and they are not good traveler in the desert, circumcision is a sanitary measure in a place where water is always scarce, and alcohol dehydrated and disoriented, two thing less desirable when traveling through the desert. Fasting strengthens the body, both physically and mentally, prepares them for times of scarcity, that always come and also reminds them that we should not take for granted what we have.

It is no wonder that Jews and Arabs have outlived great civilizations such as the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians and Romans, who always ended up losing the habits that made them great, slipping little by little the soft ramp hedonism that leads to decadence.

The traveller and adventurer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, best known for his travel book Arabian Sands, once wrote; “As I listened I thought once again how precarious was the existence of the Bedu. Their way of life naturally made them fatalists; so much was beyond their control. It was impossible for them to provide for a morrow when everything depended on a chance fall of rain or when raiders, sickness, or any one of a hundred change happenings might at any time leave them destitute, or end their lives. They did what they could, and no people were more self-reliant, but if things went wrong they accepted their fate without bitterness, and with dignity as the will of God.”

“I had learnt the satisfaction which comes from hardship and the pleasure which derives from abstinence; the contentment of a full belly; the richness of meat; the taste of clean water; the ecstasy of surrender when the craving of sleep becomes a torment; the warmth of a fire in the chill of dawn.”
 
“In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization; a life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance. I had found too, a comradeship inherent in the circumstances, and the belief that tranquility was to be found there.”

 

 

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“I knew that I had made my last journey in the Empty Quarter and that a phase in my life was ended. Here in the desert I found all that I asked; I knew that I should never find it again. But it was not only this personal sorrow that distressed me. I realized that the Bedu with whom I had lived and traveled, and in whose company I had found contentment, were doomed. Some people maintain that they will be better off when they have exchanged the hardship and poverty of the desert for the security of a materialistic world. This I do not believe. I shall always remember how often I was humbled by those illiterate herdsmen who possessed, in so much greater measure than I, generosity and courage, endurance, patience and lighthearted gallantry. Among no other people have I ever felt the same sense of personal inferiority.” Sir Wilfred Thesiger – Arab Sands

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Arab historiographer and historian Ibn Khaldun in the XIV century wrote:

“Bedouins are more disposed to courage than sedentary people.

The  reason for this is that sedentary people have become used to laziness and ease. They are sunk in well-being and luxury. They have entrusted defense of their property and their lives to the governor and ruler who rules them, and to the militia which has the task of guarding them. They find full assurance of safety in the walls that surround them, and the fortifications that protect them. No noise disturbs them, and no hunting occupies them. They are carefree and trusting, and have ceased to carry weapons. Successive generations have grown up in this way of life. They have become like women and children, who depend upon the master of the house.Eventually, this has come to be a quality of character that replaces natural(disposition).

The Bedouins, on the other hand, live separate from the community. They are alone in the country and remote from militias. They have no walls and gates.Therefore, they provide their own defense and do not entrust it to, or rely up on others for it. They always carry weapons. They watch carefully all sides of the road.They take hurried naps only when they are together in company or when they are in the saddle. They pay attention to every faint barking and noise. They go alone in to the desert, guided by their fortitude, putting their trust in themselves. Fortitude has become a character quality of theirs, and courage their nature. They use it when ever they are called upon or an alarm stirs them. When sedentary people mix with them in the desert or associate with them on a journey, they depend on them. They cannot do anything for themselves without them.. This is an observed fact. (Their dependence extends) even to knowledge of the country, the (right) directions,watering places, and crossroads. The reason for this is the thing we have explained.At the base of it is the fact that man is a child of the customs and the things he has become used to. He is not the product of his natural disposition and temperament.

The conditions to which he has become accustomed, until they have become for him a quality of character and matters of habit and custom, have replaced his natural disposition. If one studies this in human beings, one will find much of it, and it will be found to be a correct (observation).”

“God creates whatever He wishes.”

Objects of Desire

STOIC_WEEK_socrates.jpgIN THE LAST decades we have witnessed an unprecedented increase of opportunities for human development. A roman emperor could not even dream of having access to the kind of healthcare, technology and information that the average modern citizen enjoys in a developed country. We live longer lives, can travel faster, safer and more comfortably. We can eat exotic food and consume more entertainment than ever before.

Nevertheless, this overwhelming technological and material progress has not come hand in hand with human flourishing. Rapid urbanization, consumerism, loneliness, virtual sex, disconnection from Nature, alienating jobs, the contradictions and meaningless of post-modern life, are making us more anxious and dissatisfied that our ancestors. They may have lived shorter and more brutish lives, but it seems that all our security, comforts, and new opportunities, are not making us wiser, let alone happier, than they were

According to The World Health Organization depression and suicide are increasing in the world at an astonishing rate, and it is not just happening in developed countries. Reports show that suicide rates have increased 60 percent over the past 50 years, most strikingly in the developing world, and claim that by 2020 depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world.

If we have more opportunities for fulfillment than ever before but we are more disquiet and unhappy, could it be our problem is not of lack of choices but a lack of values? A wrong understanding of what a good life means?

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Modern lifestyle has achieved to drastically reduce the number of people dying from infectious disease and hunger, an unprecedented colossal achievement in the history of humanity. But now diabetes and coronary disease are the principal cause of death in the world. Our consumerism making us is unhealthier and weaker, destroying the environment, compromising the life of future generations, and on top of that, is not making us happier…

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When our actions are motivated by the pursuit of pleasure, comfort and consumerism, our inner life becomes empty and it transfers its energy toward the external objects of desire. We quickly becoming  mass-men, a technology dependent being, ever distracted, and a product in himself. The ubiquitous advertising images and the pantomime of “celebrity culture” is shaping the new hedonic, utilitarian human being, a perfect consumer/product, ever empty and more anxious to fill up its void with the newest gadget, eager for instant gratification and fast food experiences in exchange for his time and soul.

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The historian and Member of Parliament Edward Gibbon (8 May 1737 – 16 January 1794) was an English historian and Member of Parliament. His most important work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, according to him the decadence of the Roman empire and its decaying culture had five marks:

  • Concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth;
  • Obsession with sex and perversions of sex;
  • Art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original;
  • Widening disparity between very rich and very poor;
  • Increased demand to live off the state.

It is difficult not to see the similarities of the postmodern western culture.

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We are constantly bombarded with messages cleverly engineered to keep us in need for more external things. We are encouraged to spend money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t know.  We are directly or indirectly told that our happiness depends on external objects of desire, that our image and reputation is more important than our well-being, and that the measure of human flourishing is quantified in its purchasing power. Corporations invest billions in advertising in order to exploit our weaknesses, cognitive bias, social perceptions, basic drives and lack of self-esteem. For the corporate world the goal of our life should be the pursuit of pleasure; instant gratification, the maximum pleasure, defined as the satisfaction of any desire or subjective need a person may have (Radical Hedonism). For such a system to work, we ought to be continually distracted, ever dissatisfied, self-centered, hierarchically oriented and anxious.

If in medieval times, religion and superstition were the driving forces of civilization Global Capitalism is fueled by  dissatisfaction and greed.

The paradoxes of Radical Hedonism are that by trying to achieve happiness through consumerism we are in a permanent status of dissatisfaction and anxiety. Yet, we know that most of the best things in life are free, and have no price. We know it but we forget about that every day, and keep consuming our time and energy in the acquisition of new stuff. It is just our lack of temperance and practical wisdom what keeps feeding the monster. A monster that is leading us directly into an ecological and economical disaster. Our anti- ecological global system is self-destruction. 

HEDONIC ADAPTATION

Consumerism is an addictive attitude, and hedonic adaptation shows that  we adapt very quickly to the pleasure of acquiring new things, just to be again in need for more. Hedonic adaptation is the psychological process by which people become accustomed to a positive stimulus, such that the emotional effects of that stimulus are attenuated over time (Frederick & Loewenstein, 1999 ; see also Helson, 1964 ; Parducci, 1995).

 

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“Material things per se are indifferent, but the use we make of them is not indifferent.” (Epictetus, Discourses II, 5, 1)

SHADOWS IN THE CAVE

Like in the Plato’s cave, we are distracted and amused by shadows of reality.


[Socrates is speaking with Glaucon]

[Socrates:]  And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: –Imagine human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

[Glaucon:]  I see.

 

And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?

Yes, he said.

And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

Very true.

And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?

No question, he replied.

To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

That is certain.

And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, — will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

Far truer.

And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

True, he said.

And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he ‘s forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

Travel journal

 

One of the most exciting things about foreign travel is the sudden change of mind that we experience. When we are in a totally new envieronment, we are more awaken, our eyes more open, and our mind sharper. We become more attentive and alert, for we are more exposed to danger, even when just crossing the street, drive a car or seat to eat with the locals. In countries were the language, customs and landscape are utterly different from ours, we have to improvise more, to pay more attention, that is why we experience that time passes differently. It is as if life became a bit longer.

There is a big difference between traveling for fun and traveling for work. In the former you may get to know the country and the people, but rarely in a deep level, and you never cease to be seen as an outsider, if not a “tourist”. In the later, on the other hand, you get to know the reality of the people and the country much better, (whether you like it or not). You work with them, eat with them, travel with them, meet their families, see their real problems, discuss issues of politics and religion, and if you ask them, they take you to see the real thing in a level that you rarely get if you are just traveling around.