Thursday, December 16, 2010

It's all in the cards

I've been conducting a little experimental observation the past week.

It started with simple curiousity about all the pre-paid phone cards one sees lying around on the ground but it's really about the larger issue of littering in KSA. I got the idea from reading Susie of Arabia's article about the clean up effort on the corniche in Jeddah. As I opined at the time to Susie, I heartily endorsed the idea but felt confident that anything they cleaned up would be back in duplicate the next week.

So here's what I did

For the admittedly arbitrary period of 4 days, I stopped and picked up every single pre-paid plastic phone card on the ground in my path between my apartment and my workplace, a distance of about one km. I stopped after 4 days because I had gone over the slightly varying routes 8 times (round trip) and found that the average number of cards was decreasing only slightly. I figured the first couple days I was picking up cards from several previous weeks but by the third day it was mostly new cards.

My hypotheses going in were (1) that the assortment of cards would reflect the market shares of the three local providers: STC, Mobily and Zain, in that order, (2) that the value of the cards would be evenly distributed among 10s, 20s, 30s and so on. [Note: 10 SR=$2.67 US]

I was also simply curious about how many cards there really were. I asked a few colleagues who hazarded guesses of 7-10 cards per day.

The actual average was 41.75, with slightly higher numbers on the first and second days.

Here's what my collection looked like after 3 days:

The sharp-eyed among you will note that my initial two hypotheses were gloriously disconfirmed.

While STC dominates the market for phone cards in the Malaz district, Zain clearly trumps Mobily, which is actually the market's second-in-command for overall telecoms market share.

Why is that? Well, as a colleague mentioned, it seems that Mobily has better deals for post-paid service, leaving STC and Zain as the price-leaders for pre-paid service. I can't vouch for that but it's certainly suggested by the numbers:

STC: 68%
Zain: 20%
Mobily: 12%

I was also wrong about the distribution of phone card values which were completely dominated by the 10 and 20SR cards:

SR 10: 77%
SR 20: 17%
SR30: 2%
SR 50: 3%
SR 60: 0.5%
SR 100: 0.5%

Essentially 10 and 20 SR cards comprised 87% of the pre-paid cards left on the ground.

It's important to remember that these figures represent cards carelessly or deliberately left on the ground, not the total number of cards purchased, some of which are undoubtedly dropped in the trash. So it may well be that the numbers tell us more about how the mixture of the army of foreign blue-collar or subsistence workers and middle-class native Saudis dispose of trash than the population as a whole.

In other words, this doesn't say anything about what percentage of cards are put in trash versus dropped, or what the true distribution of card values is.

Be that as it may, it's clear that residents and passers-by in Malaz buy the cheapest cards available and, from what I can personally observe, think no more about dropping a card once it's been scratched than they think about a fly once it's shooed from their arm. Once a card has been scratched and used, it is no longer in the customer's attention span and seems to simply fall from his hand like so much lint.

In fact, I asked one gent, with as much politeness as I could muster, why he dropped his card instead of throwing it in the trash. He replied quite matter of factly, "That's how we do it here."

I asked another guy whom I found buying a 10SR card at the bakalla (mini mart) why he bought that value instead of something higher. He said, "It's how I control my phone calls. If I got more, I'd just use more."

It's a bit tricky to calculate how many minutes one gets from a given phone card given that different providers have different rates and SMS charges are different from voice calls, not to mention the variety of services like prayer time notifications, but I'd venture to say that a 10SR card (worth, as noted, about $2.70 US) yields about 18-20 minutes of telephoning or 40 text messages.

Of course many of the dropped cards can be found in the immediate vicinity of the bakallas but a surprising number are found up and down the neighborhood streets. The reason for this, as I observed, is that a customer buys a card and then walks down the street scratching to get the code and re-charging his phone and then drops it when he's done, which may be a block and a half away.

As I was discussing this with a colleague, he ventured a further opinion about phone usage in the kingdom. According to his theory, Indians are the big texters, Pakistanis won't text but will call, and Bangladeshis use a sort of missed-call system to convey information like "on my way home," thus avoiding call charges. I can't vouch for any of this; just tellin' what I hear. Americans simply lose their phones a lot. And of course Saudi students usually have two phones -- one that the family knows about and one for...other uses.

Ecologically, however, I'd say the cards are a disaster, considering the amount of plastic involved for a useful life of 20 seconds, not including the resources needed to create the cards and truck them to the points of sale. And don't forget the plastic sheaths each card is wrapped in. Once the number has been scratched, the card becomes useful as...nothing.

One thing that some vendors do is provide a register receipt with the re-charge number instead of a plastic card. I'm sure the customers drop the register paper just as freely as the plastic, but the paper is a bit more biodegradeable.


Here's a typical Zain card

At least the folks at Mobily give you a collectors' motive for not tossing out the cards.

And finally: a glimpse of the rare 100 SR (about $27 US) STC card!


Sunday, October 10, 2010

The ears have it

Here teacher.
Here sir.
Good afternoon Mister V.

As I continued to read the afternoon roll of Saudi students, through the various Abduls, Alis and Mohammeds, the noise level in the classroom of 30 variously interested English language learners continued to rise.

Having read the roster list thrice already that day for my other classes, I could feel my voice starting to get scratchy and a little hoarse as I raised my volume to reach over the din. And we hadn't even gotten into the annoying business of gerunds and past continuous tense.

Then it occurred to me. They're teaching me. And what they were teaching is that their attendance meant more to me than to them.

Which is patently untrue.

Whether a particular Khalid or Majed was in class that particular period really made no substantive difference to me. It was just a check mark (present) or a zero (absent) and a possible argument later in the week when they'd come to my office to ask for help (student code for "Please don't mark me absent"). They wouldn't win the argument.

The fact is, an absence means a lot more to Hussam than to me. Once he goes over the rather generous allowance of absences he is afforded in order to keep earning his stipend, it's all over for him.

So why was I shouting to be heard over the pre-gerund clamor?

I tried a little experiment. I started lowering my voice...

Here, Mister V.
Right here teacher.

I lowered it further...


By the end of the alphabet I was practically whispering. No kidding. My voice was low enough that I could barely hear myself!

Without a noise meter I couldn't say whether the ambient noise had gone down. If so, I don't think it was by much. But some of these 21- and 22-year-olds were sitting in the very back row of the room and they could hear me just as well as if the room had one of those acoustic domes where you can hear someone whisper from 30 meters.

It was eerie. A face--Muadh, Nasser, Omar--would pop up from behind a screen of students saying "Here Mister V!"

From this I draw two conclusions:

1) Never underestimate the ability of young-eared Saudis to hear at a distance.
2) People hear what they need to hear.

It's nice to get a lesson from the students.

If only we have ears to hear it.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Top 20 Middle East travel tips

Having trekked from Riyadh to Amman, Jordan to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt to Beirut to Istanbul and thence to London, Chicago and Phoenix in the past few months, there are few things I've learned that you may find helpful.

Of course these are nothing compared to significant world travelers like my sister or niece so I've cadged a few items from them.

1. Most people planning a vacation like to book a direct flight to their destination. But I found that by accepting a hefty layover in a desirable city, you can actually double your adventure. In fact, if you plan it right and are careful not to miss your flights, it's almost like the airline is saying "How'd you like a free trip to Beirut as long as you're heading toward Istanbul?" The trick is to give yourself at least 6 or 7 hours, quiz some locals about the distance and typical cab fares into the city, get a transit visa (if necessary) and then simply let your spirit take you where it will. Caution: a lot of airports won't have storage lockers so you may have to haul your carry ons with you.

2. Beirut is a wonderful trilingual, cosmopolitan city full of history and abounding in outdoor cafes, some with watermelon hubbly-bubblies.

Imagine a place where you can find a Roman ruin, a Christian church and a mosque literally side by side. (photo below)

3. The most expensive instant coffee in the universe is in the Beirut airport near Gates 1-8. Avoid that cafe. Get your coffee before you head to the gates.

4. Obviously traveling light is the desideratum, but remember that carry ons don't have a weight limit, just a size limit (the size of the overhead bin). So if you're also checking bags, feel free to load up your heaviest items in your carry ons. If you can manage to heft it onboard you may be able to avoid overweight charges on your checked bag. On the other hand, if you're doing the layover adventure thing, it's best not to load up your carry ons because they'll get mighty heavy the longer you're out and about.

5. Airport Internet access is about as reliable as, well, airline departures, so don't count on it. Interestingly, you can sometimes find hidden WiFi hotspots by wandering around, if you're really desperate for an e-mail fix.

6. Pack the charging devices for your key electronics along with one or two multipurpose outlet adaptors in your carry on, not in your checked bag.

7. If you're ever in Amman, I highly recommend the museum on the big hill at the Temple of Hercules.

The museum covers the entire gamut of civilizations that have occupied the region from the stone age to the present and has some very nice original specimens of the actual Dead Sea Scrolls.

8. Always check on the typical cab fare to your destination. In some cases, fares are regulated but in most Middle East locales, the rate is highly negotiable and the locals will definitely take advantage of you, possibly charging twice as much as the going rate. For example, in Riyadh, the fare from King Khalid Airport to the Radisson or Al Yamama Hotel should be about 70 riyals, but the freelance drivers will insist that it should be 125 or even 150 riyals.

How to check? Make some instant friends in the duty-free store, tourist info booth or coffee shop and sort of average out their estimates.

9. Make your best estimate about how much money you'll need to exchange at the airport into local currency and then make sure you have plenty of small bills. You're going to need this when you negotiate with your cabbie. One method that works pretty well: Having determined what seems to be a fair average price for a ride to your destination, say, 20,000 Lebanese pounds, get that exact denomination and put it separately into one of your pockets...with nothing else in the pocket. When the freelance cabbies start approaching you, reach into your pocket and dramatically flourish your 20,000 pound note and say "downtown, 20,000." As with any haggling situation, you have to be prepared to walk away briskly. Holding out the note and suggesting that this is the only currency you have helps to sell the proposition. Make sure you have another note of the same denomination for your ride back where the flourish is even more effective. A lot of arguments can be avoided by having the exact change. If you've negotiated a $20 ride and all you have is a $50 you've put yourself in a weak bargaining position.

10. Count the metallic junk in your pockets and then remember that magic number for when you're going through metal detectors at airports. Example: belt, pen with metal clip, money clip, USB device , cell phone = 5. When you go to collect your junk, don't leave until you've counted 5 items.

11. When you pack your carry ons, try to pack consistently so that you're always keeping the same stuff in the same pockets or compartments.

12. For longer trips with few plane changes, unless you're an actual fashion model, wear your heaviest clothing, including your heaviest shoes onto the airplane to avoid having to pack them in your checked luggage and possibly face a hefty overweight charge. There's no charge for simply being heavy as long as you don't take up an extra seat. Budget-conscious students manage to wear multiple outfits including numerous heavy sweaters and would probably wear multiple shoes if they could figure out how to do that.

13. As obvious as this sounds, check your plane tickets, passport and visa a week before you're ready to leave. Put them somewhere so insultingly obvious that you won't forget them on departure day. Tape a note to your front door that says: A friend of mine attending a trade show in Las Vegas booked her hotel a month in advance, had her customer meetings all lined up and hotel reservation confirmed and then realized the night before that she forgot to book the actual flight. Another friend tells of planning a wonderful dream vacation to Italy with her pilot boyfriend only to find -- at the check in counter -- that he didn't have a passport.

14. Traveling with a favorite companion can be a wonderful experience but the best adventures happen when you go solo. Also the most boring. Also the most exciting.

15. Sometimes planning well ahead isn't always the best strategy . . . as long as you don't wait till the day before. During the Iceland volcano catastrophe this spring, travelers who had booked their trips months or weeks ahead found themselves either completely unable to leave for European destinations or stranded en route. In the meantime, a few people who had arranged trips just a few days prior had the benefit of the most recent information and easily traveled to non-volcano destinations. However, once you have determined your destination and dates, don't delay actually booking your flight and hotel since rates during holiday periods can double in just a few hours.

16. If you ever find yourself here . . . . . . Alexandria International Airport (ALY) -- run away, run away. The ambiance resembles what I imagine Cold War-era Berlin must have been like on the dumpy side of town. There is not an electrical outlet of any kind to be found (though I sweet-talked the coffee concessionaire into letting me plug my cell phone under the counter) and obviously no Internet. The restrooms have no paper products of any kind...and no hand dryer either.

17. Most Middle East cities have a form of cheap shuttle bus service -- sort of a hop on/hop off deal where you simply flag down the mini-bus and yell "stop" when you want to get off. This is a great form of transportation but you need to be very careful about not getting ripped off for the fare, depending on where you are. Sometimes the fare schedule is posted on the bus (e.g., Istanbul). Other places (Egypt) you just have to know the going rate, which varies according to who you ask. Still others have a fixed rate, but it's not posted...again, you just have to ask someone. In Riyadh, the shuttle is dirt cheap (2 riyals, about 50 cents US), but it's a dirt cheap, ramshackle ride where every turn is an adventure in weight and balance.

In Egypt, you really need to ask some trustworthy locals because the driver and his cronies will simply cite whatever fare they think you'll pay.

Typically, you get on the shuttle and sometime during the course of your ride you simply pass your fare up to the driver. If change is called for, he passes it back through the intervening passengers. This is always done on the fly since the essence of the shared-fare taxis or mini-buses is speed and efficiency.

18. As clever as it seems to wear flip flops or easy slip on/off shoes to the airport, it's usually better to wear your most comfortable shoes and socks (again, assuming you're not a supermodel) because it's more important to be able to walk long distances than to worry about the extra 10-15 seconds tying your shoelaces. By the way, I carry a very small plastic shoehorn in the outer pouch of my carry on.

19. Since all luggage seems to be either black, gray, gray/green or black/gray, some folks like to tie colorful ribbons to the handles for quicker identification at the luggage carousel. But those ribbons or yarn can get caught in the revolving contraptions so it's better to use colorful tape.

20. Never pass up a chance to use a restroom.

[all photos copyright by the author; all rights reserved; inquire within]

Hitting 60

I'm pleased to say that the Veeds of Arabia blog has just notched its 60th country: Jordan.

In the larger scheme of things, it really doesn't matter how many different countries the blog is being accessed from. In fact, I suspect that a lot of visitors simply landed here by accident looking for something else.

I do try to keep my keywords and tags fairly accurate and specific so as not to mislead readers who may be keen to learn THE SECRET OF THE UNIVERSE, for example, or HOW TO CURE DIABETES, or WHO WILL WIN THE BASEBALL WORLD SERIES, or even the BIG SECRET THE KARDASHIAN SISTERS DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW.

Obviously you won't find any of that here. (Well maybe the stuff about the soon as I figure out what they're famous for.)

However, I am a little surprised at how long it took to hit the magic siteen. Countries were piling up like cars during a Phoenix rush hour for a while and new national flags for about a month.

In case anyone's wondering, the blog is now at its summer headquarters in the aforementioned Arizona sun where the owner is busy sipping adult beverages, playing tennis and watching cable TV.

But that doesn't mean we don't have our thinking shemagh on.

And right now I think I'll have another beverage.

Next time: some things I learned while traveling.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Mobily strikes again!

It's bad enough to get spam in your e-mail, so why is my telecoms provider sending me a steaming load of promotional spams on my mobile phone?

I've complained about Mobily before, specifically lack of any credible customer service. but this is a new low in customer relations: spamming your own customers!

Consider what they either sent or let through:

1. Mobily: message in Arabic announcing a promotion for getting extra minutes.

2. MOWE: promotional message in Arabic directing me to the website of the Ministry of Water and Electricity.

3. Mobily: another message in Arabic. (I get these a lot from Mobily.)

4. BodyMASTERS: message in Arabic -- how did they even get my mobile number?

5. Mobily: "Now win 20 kilos of gold by using Mobily roaming services."

6. Kilana: message in Arabic. One of my Saudi colleagues thinks this is a charity promotion but I think it's a message from the humanoid Vorta commander from Star Trek.

7. message in Arabic directing me to an Arabic website seemingly sponsored by the King Khalid Foundation.

8. 3351: "Message cannot be displayed." (I get these all the time.)

9. GDP: message in Arabic about protecting my passport

Is there no refuge from telemarketers and spammers?

You could say, "Mr. Man in the Sand, what do you care if you occasionally get an irrelevant message on your mobile phone? It doesn't cost you anything to receive an SMS. Why not just delete and move on?"

But see, I get a private, if small, jolt of delight when someone texts me because I think I'm getting a personal message from a friend with some SMS drollery or other important breaking news. Instead, I eagerly open the message only to find "Message cannot be displayed" or "Win 20 kilos of gold." (I believe I'll leave the gold and silver speculation to the notorious "G" -- a loud, oafish man who believes that the local souq merchants are fools who don't know the value of their goods.)

It's a bit like going to the mail box and finding a package only to discover that someone has sent you some dead batteries or a wad of cat fur.

SMS to Mobily...
Veeds of Arabia: cut it out please.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Why Saudi Arabia will never produce any NBA stars

It's a shame the bank can't supply a wastebasket for the ATM receipts.

Al Rajhi Bank ATM lobby, Pepsi Rd., Riyadh, 9:30am

Headline, courtesy of Anonymous much better than the original.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Pedicure for your Head

Think of it as half haircut, half chiropractic visit and half pedicure.

And it's all waiting for you at your neighborhood Riyadh barbershop.

OK, so I never was very good at math but I believe the ladies will know what I mean about the pedicure aspect when I explain what goes on.

Some would argue that a trip to the barber is wasted on me, but I still need to get rid of the shaggy stuff on the sides and back from time to time unless I want to look like a B-list Hollywood director.

Thus it is that we settle into the barber chair and signal to the barber that we'd like a "#1" cut. Nowadays, whether you're in Riyadh or Phoenix, barbers know how close to the scalp to go by a series of numbers. A #1 is as close as you can get. For me, it will take about five minutes but most barbers drag it out to 10-12 minutes to make us both feel like they're doing something more than shaving my head.

Now, watching a master barber from the Subcontinent go to work on a regular hirsute Saudi customer -- often in the late evening after prayer -- can be an excrutiating exercise in patience. He can easily spend 10 or 15 minutes after the main haircut making such ultra-fine clipping movements and razor cuts on his customer that you'd think he was giving a performance at the Met.

But it's after the Pakistani or Indian barber gets done fussing with his electric razor, clippers and straight razor, that the show really begins.

He starts by lightly oiling up his hands and giving your scalp a thorough 360-degree massage. That can go on for a couple minutes.

Next he cups his hands together and starts thwacking your head from ear to ear. It actually feels quite good though it looks bizarre.

Next he makes you lean forward and gives your upper torso a good massage.

Then he lifts up each arm and cranks it backwards and around in a circle.

After that he grabs your head, yanks it to one side and cracks your neck. Both ways.

Then it's back to your backside for another minute of massage.

Finally, you get a light dusting of talcum powder, and voila, "Ready for my closeup Mr. DeMille."

I really wish I could show you pictures of the whole operation but you know what they say: "What goes on in the haalagh stays in the haalagh."


"Ready for my closeup Mr. Demille" - Norma Desmond to newsreel camera in Sunset Boulevard


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Annals of Bad Service: Mobily

As much as people (including me) complain about customer service in the Western world, service is a dream compared to the number one offender in the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia.

I refer, of course, to telecommunications provider Mobily (pronounced moBUYlee).

I should make it clear that I have no beef with their actual phone service; it's not like I get a lot of dropped calls or fading signals. It's the customer non-service I'm talking about. Well, that and a few other things...but mainly the non-service.

Specifically: 1100, the Number of the Beast in telecoms.

That's the alleged number you call to get any kind of customer non-service, short of trudging off to visit one of their offices. (Of course that's a frustration in itself because you may get to a Mobily office, take a number, wait for your turn to come up--assuming no one has jumped in front of you--and then find out the particular office doesn't offer the service you need or need to have fixed. Even something as simple as renewing your USB modem gigabytes can be your undoing if you go to the wrong office.)

I should mention that there is no other number provided in any Mobily literature anywhere except the 1100 number. And if you wait 45 minutes to see a Mobily rep at one of the offices and complain about having to drive all the way there, they'll just cheerfully refer you to 1100.

In short, the 1100 is about as useful as a flyswatter on a bowling ball.

First off, no one ever answers. Ever. Even after you've gone through their maddening phone menu. OK, so perhaps after 50 or 100 tries you do get a live person. The connection will either be immediately terminated or you'll find yourself with someone who speaks English with such a heavy accent that you need to have him repeat what he says 5, 10 or even 15 times for everything he says.

But enough yakking, let's try out the 1100 number right now:

[ring ring]
"Welcome to our new Mobily customer service menu. For Mobily services, press 1. For Broadband at Home press 2."

[Press 1]
At this point, instead of getting the option you requested, a recorded commercial starts: "Internet roaming..." (annoying commercial plays for about 16 seconds) " subscribe to this service, press 3. To go back to the Main Menu, please press 'star.'

[Press *]
"For information about the balance and recharging, press 1
"For settings, 3G services and internet packages, press 2
"To activate and deactivate Mobily services, press 3
"For (nacawfee?) program, press 4
"For reporting the harassment complaint, press 5
"To change the language, press 6
"To listen to the services list again, press hash"

[Press 2]
A new menu option list now starts up, the last of which, hidden after the "listen to the list again" item, is:

"To contact a Mobily customer care representative, press zero"

[Press 0]
"Dear Customer, you can now evaluate the quality of service provided by our customer service representative immediately after this call. Dear Customer, to ensure service quality, this call will be recorded." (Mobily is big on prefacing all their statements with "Dear Customer.")

Of course there is no evaluation because you will never get a live person to evaluate.

At this point the system often simply hangs up on you, so you call back a dozen times until you finally do get through to an actual live person (who, remember, you will have to ask to repeat everything he says at least 5-10 times to understand him). Alternatively, a live person may answer, who promptly gets drowned out by the previous recorded announcement...and the call is dropped. So you call a dozen more times until a heavily accented person comes on the line. This whole Abbott & Costello routine can go on a dozen times.

Now, is it just my imagination that Mobily customer service is renowned throughout the Kingdom for being slovenly and poorly engineered?

I've asked several of my student classes and every time I mention Mobily they all wake from their gerund-learning-induced stupors and start laughing and shouting about how much they despise the 1100 number.

I did find out while I was visiting the Mobily booth at an electronics exhibition recently (from a guy who probably shouldn't have told me this): Mobily has a 5-tiered system for responding to calls on 1100. It starts with their VIP customers, works down to "post-paid" phone customers and finally dead ends at the "pre-paid" customer level. That's me. I buy pre-paid cards worth 60 riyals every month or so. You'd think these would be among their most valued customers.

Back to the job at hand. In case you're wondering, I've now been on music-hold for more than 90 minutes -- about the time it took to write this blog, get some coffee, check some other e-mails and read a few chapters of a book. I'm just feeling ornery enough to plug my phone into its charger and see how many hours it will take for someone to answer.

UPDATE: I left the phone on the charger and let it just sit playing on-hold music and I racked up about 6 hours, including 3 or 4 callbacks...without a single live person interrupting.

In the meantime, I have suggestion for Mobily: Why not just change the number to 666 and get on with the business of ignoring customers without the subterfuge of a help line?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Labelous language

Idioms are one of the trickiest things to translate from one language to another, especially when the two languages don't even have the same alphabets or sound systems.

I don't know who the marketing genius at Nestle is, but the company somehow has managed to dominate the instant coffee market in the Kingdom, so much so that Nescafe has almost become the generic term for coffee. One of the coolest things they've done from a promotional perspective is to tie in their "Red Cup" brand with red collector coffee mugs, each with a clever coffee-oriented saying. You get the cup as part a nice package when you buy the jar.

Now, "No can do" is a sort of hipster American phrase and apparently the closest Arabic can render it is"Forget it"(انس). Not too bad really. I've consulted with several native Arabic speakers and there's always quite a bit of heated discussion as to what the imperative mode for the verb "forget" might be. One person even suggested that the idea of commanding someone to forget is a metaphysical impossibility. There's even discussion as to whether the Nescafe cup lettering might not be quite right so I've changed it above to the consensus spelling, pronounced eensah.

Next up, a foul little item that appeared at my doorway in a bag along with a nice doorhanger.

Foul medammes or (ful medammas), as everyone knows, consists of mashed brown fava beans which my trusty Wikipedia says derives from the Egyptian language. Ful is Egyptian for fava and medammas is a Coptic word meaning "buried." The Wiki article suggests that it has been described as "like a stone in the stomach." I'll stick to my corn flakes and strawberries, thank you.

Submitted for your consideration: the classic A1 steak sauce bottle.

What I love about this bottle is that they could very well have simply left it as is with the usual information about contents and serving size and the need to occasionally shake the bottle. But someone at A1 decided to perk up my day in a wholly gratuitous and wonderfully whimsical manner.

Did it cost them a penny more to write something whimsical that perhaps conveys a bit of spice, foretelling the contents to be enjoyed therein?

As I used to tell my advertising clients: a good idea doesn't really cost any more than a bad idea.

Finally, a logo that needs no introduction to sports fans.

To the untrained eye it simply looks like Gatorade as seen in a mirror. But to a crack Arabicist like me (more crack than Arabicist some might say), there's an interesting little dilemma: Should you say "zhay-toor-eed," thus mimicking the long "a" of the English brand name, or "zhah-toor-eed" using the standard Arabic pronunciation. Note that Saudi Arabic doesn't have the hard "g" sound so the first letter is a pronounced like a soft "g" or [zh].

After much consultation among my Arabic experts, the feeling seemed to be that either way will do -- "same same" is the phrase used -- but the zhah pronunciation might be best: zhah-toor-eed.

I was about to put a feather in my cap and call it macaroni after this revelation when a colleague who was casually checking out the bottle during my hallway conversation pointed out that the Arabic translation of "fruit punch" was "fruit mix," using the Arabic word conventionally used for "problem" -- thus it becomes "fruit problem."

Makes me wonder what Hawaiian Punch uses for their translation.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A good day to wear my polo shirt

Although 9:30 a.m. on a Friday (like Sunday to the Western world) is a bit early for most Riyadhites (Riyadhians?) to be up and at 'em, I reckoned that an amateur coed polo match is too good an idea to pass up just for the sake of a few extra Z's.

The match was to be held on the spare driving range of the Riyadh Golf Club just north of town and I managed to hitch a ride with a friend in exchange for navigating.

Along the way we were treated to a camel brigade and my friend was gracious enough to allow me to jump out to capture the moment.

It's a pretty good deal. For a mere 100 riyals (about $27 US) you get admission to the polo match, a lovely clubhouse brunch, complimentary Red Bull drinks courtesy of one of the sponsors and professional DJ music between chukkers.

We were advised to bring our own folding chairs -- though one couple actually carted out matching wicker chairs -- and sun shielding devices but about half of us enjoyed the match from the comfort of the covered tee boxes.

Overall rating: Rahther!

(all photos by the author except shot of yours truly...hint: not the person with a parasol)


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Snow time like the present

For a school kid growing up in the snowbelt of the USA, there's just no day as beautiful as a snow day--at least before the days of universal Internet access allowed teachers to send in work via e-mail.

First, you got a day off from school without the unpleasant side effects of being ill, pretending to be ill or just missing the school bus.

Next, the fact that the weather is too dire to keep you from traveling to school doesn't mean you can't go out and play in the snow. Or stay in and watch TV. Or read.

Plus you got an extra day to continue to neglect the homework you neglected the previous night.

It's basically a free day that simply falls from the sky.

So how come Riyadh kids don't get the day off for a Dust Day?

Sandstorm images were taken March 19, 2010 in Al Malaz district of Riyadh.
Top set -- looking north; bottom set -- looking west toward King Abdulaziz Rd.
All photos by the author.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Caption, My Caption

Saudi students at the “prep” (beginner) level learning English as a foreign language were asked to write a caption for a picture as part of their first quiz of the session.

We had spent a fair amount of time during a recent class writing captions for a series of story pictures from the textbook, such as “Francisco plays baseball”…“Maria listens to music”…“The Garcia family lives in an apartment” and so on. I could have selected one of those pictures to test whether they could remember what a caption is and write a complete sentence about it. But my Saudi stude
nts often just memorize answers from their text. And, if they don’t remember the correct answer they’ll simply write down anything they do remember, even if it’s a totally different picture. So I wanted a picture that they almost certainly would not have seen, one with ambiguous circumstances, but with enough identifiable language elements—men, papers, table, room—to give them something to go on.

I also reckoned that the messy papers on the floor would give me a chance to reinforce the idea of the process of revision and editing from the previous unit.

I would have accepted captions such as “Three men in a room are looking at papers.” In truth, I was ready to accept just about any sort of description that was remotely readable. And as expected, the range of answers followed a bell curve from “it is captain” to “three old men, one standing, two sitting.”

However, there were three extraordinarily perceptive responses.

Here’s the quiz item:

Q3 Write a caption for the following picture (3 pts)




And here are the top three answers, verbatim. Family names have been removed for privacy. I left the original spelling errors intact as a reminder that these are beginning English learners.

“There are three took [talk] about community thing. They try to solve or find the answer for community problem.”
(Ali, Group H)

COMMENT: Not only is this right, it’s exactly right. The picture of three founding fathers of what was to become the United States meeting to draft the Declaration of Independence is in essence a community problem-solving meeting.

“Three people planing [planning] to makes a war. The leader is reading a message.”
(Ahmed, Group F)

COMMENT: I have no idea how the student came up with “war” from this ambiguous historical image but one could say that the logical conclusion of drafting the Declaration of Independence is a call to war.

“Three men trying to write some kind of a law or doing a research. And they look like they are lived before 100 years ago.”(Mishaari, Group F)

COMMENT: Again, spot on. During class discussion, most of the students said that the men were British or French. Technically, “British” would be correct but as I pointed out, this image shows the very point in time at which these Brits were becoming Americans.

I’m not sure if it was a bit of moistness in my eyes and catch in my voice or simply a desire on students’ part to get on with the more exciting business of subject pronouns and gerunds but they were strangely silent as I described this moment of transformation in history.


Other responses that I think are interesting in their own right:

“They are looking for an old papier.” [paper]
(Abdullah, Group G)

“3 people I think old. They are write something. I think they are prences.” [princes]
(Hussain, Group H)

“Ali read the paper. Ahmed listen to Ali. The room isn’t clean.”
(Mohammed, Group H)

“They look befor[e] hundreds year. I think they’re writing letters for money and take a letter and read it. I think they help who can’t read or write a letter, but not free. It’s a job.”
(Saud, H)

I certainly don't mean to make fun of beginning students of English--I'd certainly hate to have my own meager Arabic scribblings exposed to the public eye. Rather, I wish to honor the difficult and rewarding process of writing, reading, revising...and declaring.

Image: Benjamin Franklin reading a draft of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams is seated and Thomas Jefferson is standing, holding feather pen and paper.
Original painting by J.L.G. Ferris. Source: Library of Congress


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Welcome to

I hear that women in Saudi Arabia are planning a boycott—or perhaps it should be “mancott”—of stores that continue to employ only male lingerie salespersons. The two-week mancott is scheduled to start February 13, though I don’t see why it shouldn’t last a month to give it some teeth.

The irony of the situation, for the benefit of those outside the KSA, is that unrelated men and women are not only not allowed to socialize but women must cover head-to-foot whenever an unrelated male is present. As my friend Susie of Arabia points out in her daily photo blog from Jeddah, a law was passed in the kingdom a couple years ago allowing women to sell lingerie to other women. Yet most stores still employ only male salesmen, even for ladies’ intimates.

(photo courtesy of Susie of Arabia, used with permission)

This got us to thinking: If women start taking over the women’s clothing departments, where will the male crossdressers go for their couture needs?

Fortunately, the information superhighway once again comes to the rescue in the form of my new online shopping experience for male crossdressers:

Yes, this is the place for guys to manage all their abaya needs and other unmentionables.

No more sending the little woman out for a size XXL-long black abaya… “and hold the embroidery please.” No more superduper-sized lacy drawers hanging out on the balcon
y clothesline.

Now you can shop for what you need by yourself or with your buds in the comfort of your own majlis.

With the days of being able to just stroll into a store with the assurance that you’ll have a sympathetic male sales clerk to deal with about to become herstory, men can shop with the assurance that no cooties will have come in contact with your little black dress.

And for the ladies who like to crossdress, watch for the grand opening of a new online store just for you…

(Except as noted, all photos and logo or logo parody treatments are the author's)