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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Saudi Man about himself and Saudi Arabia

photo credit: L. Kofiah

Bismillahi ar-Rahmani ar-Rahim 

I came across a blog of Lou Kofiah not so long ago. What captured me first- was a wonderful design - no wonder - he IS a graphic designer, what impressed me more - was the way Lou writes and expresses his opinions. I decided to contact him through the contact form on his blog and boldly asked for an interview! He agreed and - believe me - he is professional and sticks to his word - I got the answers to my questions within a few days! He also sent me his photo - taken while he was skiing in Dubai! So, first time on the blog - interview with a SAUDI MAN!  

Umm Latifa: Lou Kofiah – a Saudi, a man, an artist, an architect, a graphic designer, a professional… Perfect English. A very good writer. This, let us call it - basic – information everyone can retrieve from your Haphazard blog… Can you tell us more about yourself, your upbringing, background, education? 
Lou Kofiah: I can honestly say that I came from a fairly average background. I lived in a half-Saudi home, like many others from Jeddah, and ‘am a byproduct of the Saudi public schooling system (from grade 4 all the way to college). I had my fair share of childhood drama, but none to the extent of labeling me a special case. I was very fortunate to have a very influential strong mother who was backing me up in every single experiment I went through (successful and failure alike), and it was a major contributor in the way I came to be. I can say that if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.
Socially, I was seen with a different eye, being a half-Saudi, and was stereotyped for being different. I didn’t feel different, nor was it a factor that affected my view of the country or others with me. It didn’t even have an effect on the type of friends I had growing up. I had the chance to meet a fairly wide spectrum of people and cultures, and it gave me insight to how diverse this country is (despite the general monochromatic view many, including Saudis, have).

Umm Latifa: What for blogging? Why do you blog and who do you want to reach? Do you write for yourself, for a change? Why in English?

Lou Kofiah: Blogging, in my opinion, is your personalized public expression of “you”. You get the chance to express your ideas, dreams, fears and randomness with a collective public. You’re not bound by what your childhood peers think of your stories/ideas, but with a more global and culturally diverse look into your life from your point of view. Before, I had several different blogs, which I used to dedicate my personal thoughts and poetry. Now, it grew more to be my unified platform for my opinion in text format, and with the advances of Internet and social networking, I get the chance to reach many (increasing the feedback).
Although, until this day, most of my readers seem to be the silent spectator type whom rarely comment, but it didn’t stop me from expressing. I know that someone out there is reading (both by hunch and to the stalking-technologies of Google analytics lol). Having my opinion expressed, in that direct raw way, made me realize that I am part of a huge crowd of opinions that can be directly accessed, and discuss among each other. It’s like a big playground. No middle men, no hear say, if you want to know what a certain person thinks or how he/she reacted to something in their culture or the world in general, just type their address and you’re set.
Of course, the cases of alter egos can rise with such tools, but it depends on where YOU stand on what YOU believe in.
The reason why I chose English, despite being criticized for it, is mainly because of 4 factors:
1) English is an alien language to me, but between different cultures and opinions, it’s the language of choice and the most common linguistic denominator in a way.
2) Its still the most dominant programming and coding language, and its usage is the best utilization (for now) of all the features provided by the internet. Writing in English just makes it simpler.
3) We are increasingly being part of a universal culture with a universal view on each other, whether we like it or not. So instead of leaving my life open to interpretation and translation, I’d rather be heard and experienced in a way I can control.
4) As a digital graphic designer, English is very mature in its communication when compared to the current state of Arabic typography. But since it’s not really my field of interest to turn the table around, I try to make the best of it.

Umm Latifa: You are quite vocal about women rights in Saudi Arabia, and you seem to be a strong supporter of granting Saudi women rights they are supposed to enjoy in accordance with Islam. Why? A lot of people think, Saudi Men are concerned only with their own wellbeing. Is it really a rule and you are an exception?
Lou Kofiah: I believe in citizenship. My spirituality played a factor in influencing my thoughts and beliefs, and my consideration of different backgrounds and culture helped me consider the differences between people. Coming from a big family, with many women relatives, helped in maturing my view on what they go through. My conclusion, which didn’t contradict neither my spiritual or social analysis, that there is no preference or privileges for a Man over Woman that fairly justifies any difference in the rights they receive. We differ in some aesthetic duties, true, but our chromosomes shouldn’t control what we receive as citizens. It’s our level of dedication, care, and contribution, to society that controls the kind of citizens we are.
It’s true that the Stereotypical Saudi is still there in many scenarios, and it didn’t come out of nowhere. That doesn’t mean I should adhere to it, nor is it a reason for me to give up what I believe in or settle for the stereotypical norm. It just happens to be that that norm is being questioned and reconsidered progressively; I prefer to be part of that motion forward and embrace change.

Umm Latifa: Recently we face a growing number of campaigns initiated by Saudi Women – work is worshipcitizenship for Saudi women. Do you think these movements could have an impact on the “mens’ world”? Can women without support of men achieve anything in Saudi Arabia? 
Lou Kofiah: The odds of women changing society on their own, sadly, are unfair and difficult. Its not impossible, there are situations where women took the lead in iconic changes in society. However, society and the social-influenced system is designed in way where contribution is limited for all citizens, let alone the sexually discriminated citizen (because of tradition, culture and/or a narrow understanding of religion). So, it becomes a unisex duty for citizens to help each other achieve a common goal. Women aim to achieve the right of equal citizenship, and I aim to do the same for my fellow citizens. I have mothers, sisters, and relatives who I want to help. What kind of citizenship would we be aiming for if we didn’t look out for one another? 

Umm Latifa: How would you comment on a statement: “women mean nothing in Saudi Arabia”?
Lou Kofiah: That sentence is true and false. True in a sense that those women are disregarded in many social and political aspects, but False in thinking that they’re completely removed from the social equation. Women in Saudi are partial citizens, and it’s that awkward status that is causing them grief in the most logical demands and the most basic struggles. I refuse to swallow it as “that’s the way it is” because there is no such thing as a partial citizen. When looking at international laws in general, and the Quranic law of Islam in specific, most of their God-given rights and civilian rights are disregarded for social, cultural, and/or traditional reasons, none of which stand clear on the prohibition and its validity. If you can’t convince me of a law, you won’t find an easy time enforcing me.
What’s funny is, in society, mothers are given the highest and utmost respect. This weird alienation of women shows that there’s a flaw in consciously realizing that she’s a woman in the end, so what’s the point of fighting what we’re socially obliged to respect?
That contradiction, and many other examples, shows that society needs more awareness about each other, than the system needing to immediately intervene. Still, government can play a role in causing major unquestionable change, but it’s the government’s distant stand points that make that change more up to us, the citizens.

Umm Latifa: I asked a few foreign women, how would they describe Saudi men. “Bad reputation. Extremist. Misogynists. Players. Lacking responsibility. Lazy. Controlling. Jealous”. Quite unpleasant labels stuck to the backs of Saudi men. How do You perceive Saudi men, what are your friends, relatives like? How can you describe an average Saudi Guy?
Lou Kofiah: Like I said, the stereotype didn’t appear out of the blue, it has some grounds to it. However, it would be foolish to generalize a stereotype as the ultimate situation, or else we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place. 
“All generalizations are dangerous, even this one..” –Alexander Dumas
The average Saudi can’t stand the test of time, because the elements that make that Saudi average are always changing. So far, thank God, change is towards a more moderate socially aware individual.
And like I previously mentioned, I was blessed (well, almost blessed) to come across many different parts of the social spectrum. It gave me, and others, insight on what we’re dealing with, but always fueled the passion to find and establish common grounds between us. Still, fighting the norms of yesterday is social-cultural-tradition evolution in its basic form. Am glad am part of the generation spear heading the change. Not as fast as we hope, but several times faster than 5, 10 or even 15 years ago. Can’t blame me for being greedy for faster change, though. Especially when some struggles are an opinion-away from reform.

Umm Latifa: Let’s talk about marriage. Do you think it is easy for a man to get married in Saudi Arabia? What do you expect from the marriage? What is your idea of a husband-wife relationship? A lot of people assume, women are slaves of their husbands in Saudi Arabia – do you agree? Can a marriage in Saudi Arabia be described as a slavery?
Lou Kofiah: Because of factors like relative-marriages and the parental favoritism of arranged-marriages, marriage and finding a spouse isn’t difficult. However, society’s capacity to marry one another, fully realizing the rights and duties, is still an issue. The cultural and geographical backgrounds play a factor in how serious, or healthy, marriages are, and society is still adapting to understanding marriage as a two-sided partnership. Preconceived notions of what marriage should be, or what a spouse should do, based on examples both sides got used to growing up, is still the leading cause of divorce. Our rates of marriage are equal to, if not toppled by, our divorce rates.
And because of factors like: sexual discrimination, partial citizenship, and culture’s view of females in general, marriages tend to be a split between happy endings, and typical sad endings.
However, marriage doesn’t land a woman into automatic slavery. In Islam, she can ask for a divorce, and be granted one, once she can prove what makes this marriage problematic for her. In Saudi Law, that still exists, but for cultural/traditional reasons and the general lack of knowledge of law and religion, many tend to never consider that law as an option. So, you can say that because of that culture problem, it becomes technical slavery, but more awareness about cases like “Samar Badawi” is helping society realize where they stand and what they legally deserve.

Umm Latifa: One of the readers of my blog, asked a very interesting question recently, regarding religious police (hai’a): ‘Do you really think, Saudis need religious police to guard their morality? What would happen if it was dissolved? Would Saudis stop controlling themselves and KSA would be bursting with acts of immorality?”.
Lou Kofiah: The Committee of Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue, the Religious police, is a clear representation of one of the problems in Saudi Arabia. Not in the establishment, or the original noble concept of the committee, but in the mentalities of the people functioning under the committee itself. Like I said, many Saudis have a problem defining the lines between what’s cultural, what’s traditional, and what’s purely religious, which leads to the inevitable clashes between the mainstream society and the committees school of thought. Which ends up in a very awkward place for a society that doesn’t understand its religion, and a committee that doesn’t understand as well. Thus, problems rise.
As for social morality, Islam asks all Muslims to Promote virtue and prevent vice (in peaceful forms and in advice forms). That promotion has guidelines and laws in Islam itself. Rendering some of the actions done by the committee, and their core beliefs, a complete opposite to how things should be carried out religiously.
There’s a common belief in Saudi that we love to create problems and then try to find solutions for them. The concept of the religious police (as an entity) is not heavily emphasized in religion as a social must, since all Muslims are asked to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice. Somehow, society developed an unhealthy dependency on the committee, causing a divide between those who think the Police are useless, and those who think the police are extremely crucial.
The committee should’ve been a social NGO or an Awareness committee, instead of giving them more responsibility when it’s clear that the mentality of the country as a whole is problematic on where it stands on religion. It’s like asking for trouble. Which reflects on another part of Saudi, which is the love to break down the responsibilities into different divisions, instead of multitasking them. When the tasks overlap, that’s where it’s a problem more than a solution.
As for the government of Saudi Arabia, and where it stands regarding this issue, it’s not really clear. At one point, some decisions aim to limit the authority and influence of the Religious Police. At other points, some decisions seem to give them even more power and influence.
We are in a stage now where complete reform is needed, and a careful look into anyone’s background wanting to work for the committee. Having a kind heart or love for the religion isn’t really a good enough reason to defend the wrong doings of the committee, excuse them, or hire more of them. I believe if the government doesn’t feel that reform is a must, and doesn’t notice the damage to Islam’s image their faults are causing, then the government should dissolve the committee’s duties into the proper channels (give the policing and law enforcement work to the actual police, for example).
Saudi won’t break into immorality if the committee is gone. Jeddah is one of the cities where the influence of such a committee is minimal and hardly seen. But not all cities/villages in the kingdom are as open minded or progressive as Jeddah, so you can see where the problem lays. The committee and its socio-religious ideologies are like a broken bone that you still need (if healed properly); yet it hurts to have them around in their broken status. Why keep a broken bone if you don’t want to fix it? Or cant? That doesn’t mean other parts of Saudi would fall into chaos as well, but society still sees them crucial in a way, due to society’s mentality or the heavy media+government support. Their existence, or lack there of, is a control factor in who’s winning the reform debate (and the consequences of winning that debate, and the reaction to it).

Umm Latifa: Some people do think, Saudis still live in Middle-Ages… Could you tell us what changed in Saudi Arabia during last 20 years – from your perspective (for better, for worse – technology, development, society)? How do you feel, when you hear foreigners “pushing” for a change in Saudi state or criticizing Saudi customs and traditions? Do you feel offended?
Lou Kofiah: Saudi is transforming technically and physically in a slow pace, every 10-15 years there’s a moderately a new and improved Saudi compared to 10 years before. Mentally and culturally, the pace is faster, every 2 to 5 years kind of fast. However, not fast enough to realize problems and solutions, but not slow enough to the extent of deeming it on a standstill. The clash between the progressive mind and the culturally stubborn mind is the main causes why some incidents end up presenting Saudi as a backwards culture. Mostly deemed so by the citizens themselves who are not satisfied with the way things are, or might be.
The blurry lines and little awareness of culture and religion, sometimes, plays a factor. When progress is needed at points, because of that lack of awareness, can be seen as sacrilegious and dangerous. Fortunately, especially with advances implemented by a higher authority, the back-and-forth problems disappear faster than they regularly do. However, at points, the government doesn’t intervene as much as healthy progress demands, and thus the struggle stretches the timeframe of milestones.
As for your last question: If the “push” for change and attack on a certain tradition or custom is standing on valid logical and legal points, and doesn’t affect where religion stands on the issue, why would I be offended? We are trying to put our name on different maps, so a mature understanding of scrutiny shouldn’t stop us from embracing a global culture, and global understanding on where we come from. That is, in a way, the aim of government attempts like KAUST, but society is still selective.
Saudi Arabia is still the only country that bans women from driving, for example, and it’s mostly a social issue. But like Dylan says, Times are a Changing..

Umm Latifa: Since I remember, I was always interested in people’s expectations and dreams. What is your dream? What do you want from your life and what do you want to achieve? What do you thin, you have achieved so far? Can you say: “I am happy with my life”?
Lou Kofiah: I can’t say that I am fully happy, because life is still in an early stage for me to make such a claim. Life is a struggle, and nothing good comes easy anyways. I would be a bit more optimistic about “happiness with life” if society was leaning towards progression more than it already is, but am actually happy to be part of a phase in my country where my generation is spear heading the change.
My achievements, personally and professionally, are heading towards a good place al-hamdulilah, and so far I am not completely disappointed. The disappointed is usually because the country is not really tapping the piles and piles of hidden potential in its own citizens, causing many of them to shut down or simply leave.
As for me, I already set two imaginary timelines in my head. One for how much struggle I can take to help my country, and be part of whatever change I can be part of. The other is for me leaving this country for professional and personal gains that seem to be further down the line at the moment. I am allowed to be selfish to a certain extent. Yet again, I am standing here with the same passion fueling me to push for change, and I am eager to better fulfill my skills into their final stages.
I don’t really discuss my dreams and ambitions openly, but if I can look back at my life from my death bed and smile, I already achieved what I wanted insha’Allah.

Umm Latifa: On a footnote, maybe you would like to add something?
Lou Kofiah: Other than your wide-scope questions, and the book report I wrote above, I think we’re good here lol..

If you have any questions for Lou - good news! - he agreed to answer them - through the 
to this post! 
(for a few days of course)
Thank you Louai, for time spent and for your willingness to share your views and opinions with my readers. Wish you all the best and in sha Allah, may your dreams come true


Anonymous said...

Hi Lou,

Very interesting interview:-) Lou, can you give some examples of what exactly Saudi men are doing to improve life of women in Saudi Arabia? Are there any public protests or something like that? Anything more then just talks? Can you also share your opinion on mixed marriages Saudi-non Saudi? I understand you are coming from a family like that so definitely you have knowledge of what kind of compromises must be achieve in order for mixed marriage to survive?

Regards form Dubai

Lou K, Saudi Arabia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lou K, Saudi Arabia said...

Hey Natka :)

. Saudi youth in general, over 60% of the population are under 30 years of age, are increasingly getting involved with awareness campaigns and programs that aim to widen the narrow scopes of society in regards to rights and freedoms, despite the gender. More towards equality, and less towards any kind of sexual discrimination.

. Saudi Arabia has a taboo law, and a strict weird fatwa, banning and forbidding any sort of public expression or acts of civil disobedience. Ever since the events of March 11th failed protest, there are more national guard on the streets banning any kind of suspicious gatherings. At this point and stage, coming out with a banner is typically asking to be jailed for several months. So, as a counter measure by the youth themselves, awareness campaigns and intense blogging and newspaper articles are slowly easing the restrictions and allowing some good energy to pass through. Still difficult, and the government doesn't seem to make it any easier.

. As for mixed marriages, it depends on which part of the country you're in. In the western province, cultural point of view towards mixed marriages is much more relaxed and open-minded towards it. However, central areas are deeming it unneeded and doesn't look good on your Social Resume'. This is partly because of culture, but majorly because the dozen paper work and legal complications and other similar hoops you have to jump through with the ministry of interior, just to get an approval to marry someone who's not Saudi. These marriages still happen, but they're nationally frowned upon because of the legal work.

I hope that answers your questions, and say hi to Dubai for me.. I'll be there in Abu Dhabi for the ComiCon convention :)

Anonymous said...

I appreciate you and what you have said about your country. You don`t hide problems and you seem to be open-minded young man. It definitely helps people from outside your country to understand more about Saudi Arabia.

It is said people in Saudi Arabia are so devoted to their tradition and proud of it. But we also know that this tradition causes sometimes injustice (women`s rights). Is it possible to change some rules of social life and not lose the core of tradition?

Best regards,

Lou K, Saudi Arabia said...

Hi Ordonija..

Being proud of certain traditions and customs is something we all have in our different cultures and backgrounds. I agree, when a specific tradition or practice stands in the way of adapting to new social needs, they do cause a problem. They cause a problem to Saudis themselves..

In an interview with Barbara Walters, King Abdullah himself mentioned how the country stil finds a hard slow time in adapting to needs that may not work well with certain traditions.

You'd be surprised how many injustices and wrong doings are committed in this country, framed with religion, while its pure tribalism or culture's influence on how we see life. We are struggling in changing that, and hopefully soon enough before our kids come to life :D

Thanks for your kind words :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you Lou for your replay. Definitely more men like you are required in Saudi! I am actually very surprised how honest you are about your country.

Have fun in AD:-)

Lou K, Saudi Arabia said...

Our eyes are critical of everything, except of our own. I don't see a problem facing reality, and others should know they're not facing it alone.

Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Lou,

Very interesting interview. I ve been interested in SA since I met two gays coming from Jedda to Istanbul(where I live)to have some fun(as they said). Interesting that two homosexuals told me that actually they miss women company, and they are obviously not interested in sexual aspect of such contact. My question is: as mixing genders is forbidden outdoors, do people do it behind their door? Do people spend time together in mixed company? for example two married couples and some single friends of both genders eating dinner together in same room not seperated?
Do young people try to rebel in this way, in their own households?

best wishes


Lou K, Saudi Arabia said...

Like i said to the previous comment, it really depends on where you are in Saudi Arabia. In Jeddah, where i was born, and some parts of the east, where i studied, people are pretty relaxed and liberal about their view of these gatherings..

Psychologically, i can understand where the "rebellion" part can be seen, but people are acting out in adaptation to new norms, not really in countering a specific culture.. It's actually growing into a norm by popularity, but still like you said, it all can be seen as "rebellious" in a way..

More and more stores, restaurants and malls don't segregate any more.. They do brush against the norm's bad side, but that's growth they'll have to live with, not really a concern at this stage..

Virginia Fortner said...

Thank you for your honest comments. As a returning educational consultant to Riyadh area, I found a lot of "old friend" feelings for sights, smells, and sounds I found strange a year ago. Blogs like yours help us balance our expectations and self-centered views.

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