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From outside one will always triumphantly impress theories upon the world and then fall straight into the ditch one has dug, but only from inside will one keep oneself and the world quiet and true. /FK (Contact: TBONotebooks at fastmail.fm. The Blue Octavo Notebooks welcomes mail, although we cannot guarantee a response. Your email may be posted in part on The Blue Octavo Notebooks unless otherwise requested.) Please enjoy the notebook entries, and thanks for reading.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

This week’s (January 5) issue of The New Yorker magazine includes an article by Lawrence Wright entitled “The Kingdom of Silence.” Unfortunately, the article isn’t online, but it’s definitely worth reading. Here’s what the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had to say about it:

Kingdom of silence: As an editor for three months at the English-language Saudi Gazette, reporter Lawrence Wright was able to view Saudi Arabia from a unique vantage point. He trained young Saudi journalists, shopped at malls, met Osama bin Laden's son and saw citizens being chased by the religious police. Wright reports these and other observations in a compelling cover story in this week's The New Yorker (Jan. 5).

At one political salon Wright attended, the men complained that their children's hatred of America terrified them. Many young people admire bin Laden, Wright was told. One man said his daughter listens to Britney Spears, but her wall is covered with pictures of Palestinian girl martyrs.

The most unnerving aspect of Saudi life, Wright says, was the treatment of women. "I could go through an entire day without seeing any women. . . . Almost all public space, from the outdoor terrace at the Italian restaurant to the sidewalk tables at Starbucks, belonged to men."

One of Wright’s tasks was helping train young Saudi journalists, and his portraits of these people are thoughtful and touching. Being a journalist in Saudi Arabia isn’t easy, to say the least, especially if you’re a woman trying to do research at a library that’s closed to you except for one day a week. Saudi society is extremely rigid and conservative, and apparently depression has become a mounting problem, to say nothing of the travails confronting the country’s sizable foreign worker community. One can see some of this in the people Wright encounters: They seem like good folks, but they’re people whose lives are everyday emotionally and socially constricted.

Among other things, Wright discusses doing an article to mark the one-year anniversary of a deadly fire that killed several students at a girls’ school. At the time, the story marked a watershed of sorts in the Saudi media, as many people questioned actions on the part of the government that had occurred during the fire, including those of a member of the religious police who had prevented people from rescuing the girls because they were not wearing their head coverings.

Near the end of the Thursday meeting, I suggested assigning a one-year anniversary story about the event. I wanted a woman reporter to write it. “The question is, after a year, have things really changed?” I asked.

“Of course they have,” Najla said impatiently, leaning on the table with what must have been her chin resting on her fist. “Everybody knows this. The head of the Presidency of Girls’ Education was fired. They merged that department into Ministry of Education. These are huge changes.”

“To me, they seem like symbolic changes,” I said. “The girls died because they were locked inside a ramshackle, overcrowded building with no fire escapes. Is the government actually building safe schools for girls? Are the terachers conducting fire drills? Are the girls still locked inside?”

One of the women, Sabahat Siddiqi, shyly spoke up. “I will do this story, if you will tell me how,” she said. I suggested that Sabahat talk to civil-defense authorities to see if they have improved fire safety, and to the Minister of Education to determine if the government had followed through on its pledge to build safe schools. I advised her to go to Mecca and talk to the families of the girls who died. She should visit girls’ schools in Jeddah, and talk to women educators to see whether they were satisfied with the government’s response. Sabahat nodded and earnestly took notes, but Najla laughed. “That’s not the way things work here,” she warned me.

As you can probably guess, Sabahat encounters various journalist difficulties, some simply because she’s a woman. The story eventually dies, and “The first anniversary of the school fire came and went, largely unremarked in the Saudi press.” It’s a good article. Check it out.

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