Thursday, January 6, 2011

A perfect waste of time and dirt

Admittedly, picking up and counting every pre-paid phone card on a 1-km walk to work could be considered a complete waste of time by many folks. I prefer to call it an exercise in anthropological observation.

Either way, I have found something that even my dear mother would consider a monumentally pointless activity. (And she is someone who patiently watched me engaging in numerous monumentally pointless and dangerous activities as a child.)

What I'm doing is moving red dirt from a next-door construction site to a series of small but useless "planters" in front of my own apartment building.

Here's what one of the planters looks like in its current state:

(I call this a "planter" because at one time the building owners constructed about 20 of these square concrete structures and planted mini-palm trees. Naturally they didn't consider how the plants would be watered so all but 3 or 4 of them have died.)

There are three pretty good reasons my enterprise is pointless:

1) Saudi Arabia is vast, inherently dusty, sandy and windblown desert environment...and that's just the cities! (insert comedic rim shot) And there's 2.3 million sq. kilometers of sand and ground up rock on the Arabian peninsula trying to get in.

2) There appears to be very little if any regulation for construction sites so that it's common to see large piles of uncovered dirt, rubble, worker refuse and construction materials that blow up and down the street.

3) Pedestrians in this multi-ethnic neighborhood regard the street and sidewalk simply as places to deposit whatever cigarette butts, tissues, glass bottles, juice boxes, gum wrappers--and phone cards of course--that they happen to find in their hand at the moment and have no more use for.

So this Thursday morning while I was doing my laundry, which is just a few steps from the streetfront, I got the idea to go outside and fool around with the planters for a half hour with pretty red dirt from the construction site next door.

All three planters now have about 2 inches of red dirt and whatever objets d'art I could find lying around as a centerpiece. Thus we have a nice flat rock, a cylindrical block of something or other that reminded me of a ka'ba sticking out of the dirt, and a 6-inch piece of plastic tubing (pic #3) embedded in the dirt with rocks and a stick.

How long will these three planters remain butt- and soda-can free?

I'm guessing a day or two.

I'm also guessing the next door neighbors won't notice that some of their dirt is missing.

Update, Feb. 1: the planters are no longer daily repositories of cigarette butts, tissues and empty water bottles, but people do occasionally drop items in there. Just when I think progress is being made, some noodnink drops a soda can in one of them.345


  1. Jim, I think they look like mini-Zen gardens. It's a good use of public space and I'm proud of you. Alas, I also know that public space doesn't usually maintain itself, but perhaps the "broken window" theory will apply here. Keep me posted.

  2. Ms. Vogt: not sure what the "broken window theory" is but I presume you mean that residents of a given neighborhood are more likely to break windows in abandoned area and less likely when they see that a place is being kept up.

  3. Hey Jim,

    Was looking for an email link--I am a recent MA grad considering a teaching post. I lived in China previously (3yrs several years back), but have never been anywhere in the Middle East. Was wondering if you might be willing to provide some pointers/perspective? If so: cbert (at)



  4. Cary: Thanks for the note. My e-mail address is given (somewhat disguised) in the About Photos sidebar section. I'm happy to provide whatever assistance or guidance that I can.