The Ups and Downs

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London: Clean, neat, full of the glory of Western history, organised, lush, relaxed and bustling all at once – London (at least at it’s remarkable epicenter) is everything a city should be. Specific thumbs up to Hyde Park!  Oh, and the tube system…mind the gap!

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Athens: A big thumbs down to Athens. Dirty, downtrodden, and pretty bleak apart from the pockets of antiquity preserved, Athens is an overpriced city worth a day’s visit…and absolutely no more.

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American Tourists: I am done defending my countrymen abroad, and I fear that I am almost just as bad. We really are as loud as we are dumb. The state deprtment issues warnings sometimes, asking Americans to please keep a low profile while traveling in certain places. Well, this would work if: a) we could read, and b) we could get over our inability to gripe about the fact that there are Starbuck’s on every third corner in the world as opposed to every corner! Americans abroad…we stand out worse than John Wayne would in a modern day chick flick.

Flip of the Bird %!@ç!!!!!

Starbuck’s…in every single corner of the world:

Worse in it’s pretentiousness and price than even McDonald’s, there is nothing that kills the excitement of seeing new places and cities more than realizing that your standing under a Starbuck’s while you’re snapping a picture of the Arc de Triumph. Screw Starbuck’s; it’s awful products, it’s cliched marketing, and it’s intetion of passing McD’s as world conqueror.

 

 

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Catching Up: Beirut, Istanbul, Greece.

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I’m sitting in a restaurant called “The Anchor” on the Greek island of Paros. This could not be more idyllic. The bright blue and white tables, the pure white houses with blue doors in the backdrop, and listening to the waves of the Aegean roll in on the coast about 200 meters away…the only thing that is possibly missing are good friends and family from home to share this with.

Since I left Saudi a little over a week ago, traveling has been a beautifully tiring blur of airports, big cities, new friends, food, and one way too long 14 hour bus ride! It’s been great, and I’m looking forward to Santorini tomorrow, then meeting my sister in a few days in London to start the European leg of my adventure.

Here’s a brief rundown of my travels to date:

Lebanon: Beirut was awesome. Truly. A totally mix of culture and aesthetic. Mosques next to ancient churches. History of civil war. People that speak Arabic, French, and English – all equally well. The city is in turnaround right now, with a lot of construction and congestion, but even with this, it’s definitely near the top of my “all time favorite cities” list. Maybe that’s because of the friends I made there, or because the place I stayed in – Gemmayze – was hip to a tee that fit me perfectly. Maybe it because I got a chance to surf (scratch that – tried to surf) in J’bail on the Mediterranean. Most likely, it’s a mix of all that left such a good taste in my mouth. Lebanon is a great place – and the rumors I heard are true: Lebanese women (heck, men too…let’s not be sexist, I’m trying to keep this blog PC! Yeah, right…) are some of the most beautiful creatures on the planet. For any who have an inclination to go, I say do it! 4 days in Lebanon is not enough…

Istanbul / Turkey:  I had my first couch surfing experience in Istanbul and it was better than I could have possibly expected. My host, a guitar-ripping college student named CJ, was the Turkish brother I never had! Our adventures included: jamming on his rooftop balcony, touring the university, “suiting up” for a multi-national dinner party (which was also a blast), and then getting stopped by the police while taking an “illegal” unmarked taxi on the way home. Rest assured though, we had no trouble. (CJ and I are convinced it was our stunningly handsome appearance in suits that got us off the hook). The next day, I went into the European side of Istanbul with CJ’s roommate Baris and toured Sultanhemet, Taksim, and took a ferry across the Bosphorous. The highlight of my day was definitely seeing the Hagia Sophia! In short, it lives up to every bit of it’s hype. If there’s one thing that impressed me about Istanbul, it’s this: the city is monstrous! And I’m not talking NYC or Barack Obama’s ego huge – I mean the thing was literally a monster. One side Europe, one side Asia, Istanbul might as well be it’s own country.

Greece:  Here’s the lowdown: Athens is pretty much a dump more depressing than the recession it’s currently in (yeah, socialist economic policies work…tell that to the Greeks, most of whom now have the most beat down look I’ve ever seen written on their faces) save for the areas around the ancient sites such as the Acropolis, Agora, etc…

Granted, I’ve only been in Athens a few days, and like any city – it’s got it’s share of vices and virtues in terms of more or less chic areas of town – but my general impression of Athens is: you wouldn’t want to live here. On my list of favorite cities, it’s pretty close to the absolute bottom. Advice for visiting Athens: spend 2 days here. Maximum. See the Acropolis, eat a salad, and get out of dodge.

The Greek Islands – the Cyclades – on the other hand, are definitely in the Top 5 most beautiful places on God’s earth. Words do not describe these places. I spent five days on the islands of Paros and Santorini, and it was ethereal. Paros – less touristy – is quiet, relaxed, serene as the lemon trees growing wild in the hills, and has the true feel of an ancient Greek island. Santorini is, well…Santorini. I was lucky enough to be there before high season hit, and I don’t think anything on earth could convince me to go back to what will be the most beautiful madhouse on earth come July and August. The thing that defines Santorini the most is it’s sheer cliff faces with stark white and blue houses (every house on the islands is white and blue…but far from being bland, it all lends the feel of a neatly uniformed community of beauty) built to look like they’re tumbling right off into the Aegean. A sight to behold. The city of Oia, where I stayed, is also renowned for it’s spectacular sunsets, which, according to some, are the most beautiful in the world. I don’t doubt it.

***For pictures, check my facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/bliebing

Where We’ll Dance Upon His Grave, for all the Madness We Now Crave

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Osama is dead. Are you sure? And even if he is – even if the head of the terrible terrorist snake has been cut off – must we Americans dance on his grave like a bunch of irreverent, heartless, and sadistic fools?  I want to point out a few things that my ignoble countrymen seem to be forgetting.

 First, the only real evidence for Bin Laden’s death is the picture of a burning building in Pakistan, a presidential statement, and the ensuing media circus. If you’re someone who blindly believes anything Becky Roberts tells you on CNN, you need to get out of your lounge chair and start doing some real research. Start with Wikipedia for all I care.

 Second, if you ever bought the lie that 9/11 and the terrorist attacks both before and after were purely a clash of fundamentalist Islam with the Great White Satan that is America, your basic grasp of history needs to be very much tightened. I’m far from an expert, but let me give a broad- brush stroke, hopefully for everyone’s good. 9/11 was never about religion. It was not about freedom. It was a result of political feuding and misstep. It was about the US meddling in affairs not our own. Short story: Osama Bin Laden actually used to be a powerful agent of the US government (fact) many years ago when we were still grappling with Russia. When the Berlin wall finally came down and the Cold War was at an end, the US government basically tossed Osama, having no more use for him. (This is a bit broad and speculative, but I believe fits with the general narrative). Fast forward many years – the Muslim Brotherhood being forced out of Egypt by the US during an earlier revolution – and you begin to see the formation of al-Qeada (which means “the base”), which was comprised mainly of: exiled members of the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of Bin Laden’s formerly US-allied group. What common purpose did they share? A disgruntled anger towards an over-reaching and life-damaging US foreign policy. Enter retaliation.

 Finally, I think many Americans are heinously missing a gigantically glaring concept. I talked to my friend today, a prince in the Saudi royal family. He told me: “I am so happy…everyone here is happy that he is dead!” Politically and ideologically, yes – many a Middle-Easterner is welcome to the news that a menacing political figure has reportedly been destroyed. In many ways, he was just as much of a threat to ME politics as he was to the West. In this much, the world – I believe – has common ground. But here is the massive divide – and this will come back to plague America and many of it’s citizens abroad, I am almost sure. We killed a Muslim man. And believe me when I tell you that there are two levels to this, the latter far more serious. America took out a terrorist, yes. But we also killed a man that many still believed to be a devout man of the Muslim faith. This is a sad and bitter wound in the hearts of many – many who truly consider the faith-based bond of Islam to be a tie closer than all else in the world.

 Now, it gets a bit personal for me. I live in Saudi Arabia, the heart of the Middle East and the center of Islam. Many of my close friends are Muslim. Watching the news today, I almost feel I owe them an apology on behalf of my excited, but sadly simple countrymen.  I know many of you are feeling very patriotic today…feeling a sense of closure to the wound of 9/11. And I hope that there is substance to that, though I remain skeptical. I hope America can heel. I hope the families of the victims find solace. But not like this, not in this way.

 

As if oblivious to the whole Muslim community, Americans seem to find it appropriate to wave crass “We Got Him” banners in New York City, play the bagpipes, print “Rot in Hell” on newsstand headlines, and chug beers to the chant of U-S-A, U-S-A! And to top off the whole sordid mess, I’ve just now read some YouTube comments on celebration videos, one of which eloquently quips: “Islamists can take their backlash and shove it up their ass.” This comment, and many like it, represents everything that is wrong with the American monoculture that our obscene excess has sadly created. Wake up and smell the rest of the human race, and while you’re at it, take a moment to ask yourself:  Must we dance a drunken jig on the man’s grave?  Must we pound our chest in bigotry? Really?

Catch Up

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Sorry for the bit of blogorooskie (yes I made that word up) silence from here in Saudi. Life has been busy, mixed with new adventures, re-hashing of old ones, new faces, hidden places (including a rock-climbing wall inside – yes – a MALL), and everything in between. It feels like life is not progressing, but that’s a deceitful feeling – and is almost never true, least of all here.

So without trying to be cool, glib, glossy, or even coherent; here’s a few random highlights from the last couple weeks:

2nd Dive Trip to Yanbu:

The Thamer Habis posse took off two weekends ago for a trip up to the fresh air and clear(er) water of Yanbu. Staying at the just-posh-enough-to-be-rad-without-breaking-the-bank Radisson Blu again, we feasted on a seafood buffet at night, the only downside to which was: Waleed Rafia’s never-ending elephant jokes (which I countered with my Dad’s duckfood joke, hahaha!), and Milos Djonic’s repeated threats to cut off his air supply underwater the next day if he told one more elephant joke…which of course he did.

We also got a chance to see the old town of Yanbu (see pictures), which was rustic, ancient, and creepy all at the same time. Thamer showed us his grandfather’s house…about a hundred times (haha, sorry buddy), and then made an impressive impromptu tripod out of stones and a brick (that my American ingenuity supplied) to take a group picture in front of the house – which I assume he will soon show his grandfather, proudly pointing out that he has finally succeeded in bringing the white man to Yanbu!

Thamer's granddaddy's house!

 

On the way out to dive the next day, Thamer pointed out his grandpa’s other house; a beachfront, palm-tree enclosed villa. It was then that we all came to the conclusion that the title of “the MAN” needed to be transferred from the younger Habis to the elder. Sorry Thamer – you can have it back someday I suppose…

Under the Sea:

Animals never cease to amaze me and make me laugh, and this is doubly true under the blue! It’s surreal – like a real life “Finding Nemo” (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again). The personality that some of these creatures have is just amazing. From the playfully shy clown fish, who dart in and out of their anemone like they want to play an underwater game of hide and go seek, to the disgruntled blue-spotted manta ray who ruffles and shuffles off through the sand bottom when he’s been stared at long enough – I actually think that the real underwater water is ten-times more hilarious than “Finding Nemo” could ever be.

I checked another animal off my list in Yanbu when Mohammed, Ben the Second (my Austrian twin), and I spotted the ever-super-smooth SEA TURTLE, as he was cruising along the reef next to us. As fate would have it…Mohammed’s camera flashed “lack of memory card” as soon as we tried to snap a photo of Mr. Turtle shimmering in the sun! I guess sometimes the best things just have to be stored in the old cranial backlogs for good. After staying a casual distance away from us for a few minutes, our mate the turtle glided off into the blue yonder, as casually as he appeared.

More to follow…

Yours Truly...ok

Al Ahlam Marina

Old Yanbu

The Gang, the posse, the motley crew...

Anti-Religion Contradiction

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*This is not me trying to push a belief system. This is a few collected thoughts that have been brought on by the fact that the country in which I work is one of the most religiously and culturally dogmatic places on earth, while the office in which I work is inhabited by admittedly rank atheists. What a great combo!

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Let’s get one thing straight: everyone is religious. Some people live for their job. Some people live for the latest pair of Nikes on the market. Some live for the hometown football team. Some live for the feeling of fresh powder snow under their skis, and some live for the adrenaline rush of anything from base jumping to scuba diving. Some live to see the world – others for the world to see them. Some people live for politics. Some people live for Buddha and his lovable belly. Some people live for Jesus. Some people live for the sound of shredding on a Les Paul, others live for the sound of silence. Some just live for themselves.

But no matter what it is, make no mistake – you are worshipping something.

Religion, one of the oldest buzzwords in the world, and second now only to the gratuitous overuse of “racism” in today’s verbal marketplace, actually has its origins in the Latin religio, which literally means “to bind.”  So, despite the common misconception that religion is a belief system in God or the supernatural or Jesus or Mohammed, religion is actually a simple word for a simply universal human trait – and that is: to be mentally, emotionally, spiritually – or all of the above – bound by something, someone, or some idea in this life.

See, religion is inescapable. Humans are inherently religious beings. So for the atheist to snidely say, “I am not religious,” is a statement as bogus as Michael Jackson’s skin tone. The atheist is religious. He is bound to his belief in the absence of God just as equally as the Muslim is bound to his belief in God’s permeating existence. Interesting.

5 Reasons Saudi Will Remain Silent…For the Most Part

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In just a few days, on March 11, a “day of rage” has been declared in Saudi Arabia. While I’d love to see certain mores of Kingdom society change, along with a revamping of a mostly corrupt government, a significant revolution seems highly unlikely. Personally, I’ll be diving somewhere in the middle of the Red Sea on said day – but I don’t think I’ll miss much. Here’s why.

The Kingdom Flag

Comfort breeds complacency:

Saudi Arabia, as many know, is an extremely wealthy country. Oil, the historic King Faisal, and the uber-company Aramco have together made the peninsula insulated with a heavily layered and dispersed wealth almost second to none in the world. And now that wealth is lavished across the Saudi spectrum. Sitting at coffee with students from Jeddah’s Batterjee Medical College several weeks ago, I was astounded at just how unequivocally rich many Saudi families truly are. After one young lady nonchalantly showed me her 12,000 riyal ($3,000) Louis Vuitton handbag, she went on to tell me that this was by far the norm at the medical college. “For anyone to carry something that’s not designer…it’s an embarrassment,” she said. Another student went on to say, “my boyfriend was trying to decide what color car to buy…he was getting a 2011 Audi. I told him not to decide, to just buy two. So he did.”

The people of Saudi are not desperately eager for change like those of Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. They simply have too much to lose. After all, spending your weekends driving the Ferarri to the Red Sea beach house doesn’t exactly give incentive to quibble.

Fear Factor

“They’ll take you to where…you will never see the sun again.” This was Shakur’s response to my question: “Why don’t you guys push for change?” Like Shakur, a college student here in Jeddah, most of Saudi’s young generation – though eager for change and progressive in the outlook – are simply too wary to incite the kind of spark which might spread an Egyptian-like fire. And the fear becomes even more ingrained as news of the atrocities in places like Libya reaches their ears. Egypt was one thing. Libya another. And a revolution in Saudi could be more extreme, more violent, or anything in between. The youth of Saudi might blog all day long about women’s rights, democratic reform, and a more open marketplace of ideas; but when the rubber hits the road, they’re not so sure that people like Prince Nayef wouldn’t throw them under the tank treads.

Dutiful Dogma

Saudi is the Islamic state, and the folks here take that responsibility seriously. They see themselves as the protectors and purveyors of true religion. They are the last castle in a Middle East swarming with Westernization, progressivism, and change. I’ve actually been surprised to find that many Saudi actually dislike many of the mutawa imposed mores – like every shop in the country closing for a half hour 5 times a day for s’allat (prayer) – just as much as I do…if not more. But here’s the catch: they dislike them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they disagree. To the Western mind, this is a conundrum. I think, “well if you don’t like something – change it.” But the Saudis, the truest followers of Islam, feel much more of a sense of duty to their religion, even to the point of dogma. Though they may dislike, and even disagree with royal policy here, they see it as simply a means to the end of holding up the purity of the religion. And for that worthy cause, they sacrifice. For that worthy cause, they remain dutifully silent.

It’s a Shia Thing

Common knowledge here in Saudi is that most of the chatter for change comes from the Shia end of the Islam spectrum. Within the Kingdom, there are two main denominations of Musilms: Sunnis and Shias (also referred to as Shi’ites) – the latter being by far the minority and looked on as incorrectly radical by the heavily Sunni population. Many of the Shias are located in the northeastern part of Saudi, in cities such as Dammam, which has already seen small protests and some arrests by the authorities. Other speculation is that these folks in the East are being influenced ideologically and politically by factions in Iran to the north, where the Shia sect has a much stronger hold. In short, many Saudis look unfavorably upon the Sunnis and will go against any and every effort made by the former, simply on principle.

Long Live the King

Finally, and when it comes right down to it, many Saudis simply have too much honor, respect, and even love for King Abdullah to consider making a stink. Students at Jeddah’s Technical and Vocational Institute tell me: “King Abdullah…everyone loves him! He is a good man, and like a father to his people.” And they are not exaggerating. Rooted in Islam and faith in Allah, the people of Arabia wholeheartedly submit to the idea of the divine right of kings. Simply put: the king is king, he is king for a reason, and he wouldn’t be on the throne if Allah didn’t want him there. And it’s worked out for them so far. King Faisal made them rich. King Abdullah keeps them safe. Sometimes he even gives them random holidays from work and school…and annoucnes 37 billion dollar injections into the economy! It’s not hard for a young generation to love a man like this.

King Abdullah, the Beloved

“But what happens when King Abdullah passes?” I asked, further pressuring. “What happens if the next King…maybe Prince Nayef, ends up being bad, or doing things you don’t like?” The intelligent Shakur once again answered for the class: “Well, we have people to represent us to the king; but if he is still bad…well…what can we do? He is king after all…I mean, God put him there for a reason, you know?”

Lovely Ladies?

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I was perusing a random photo album on Facebook when a sudden realization hit me. The party picture clutter – as I non-affectionately call it – consisted of absolutely nothing but about a hundred and fifty rearrangements of what’s basically the same damn photo: two girls kissing on a guy that looks like he belongs on a bad remake of Jersey shore while all three proudly display the always classy Bud bottle; girls smacking each other’s asses like a bunch of Amsterdam window hookers; or my personal favorite – the “girls get in here!” shot – where a gaggle of drunk chicks gather around, squeeze cleavage together, and make their best “I’m not drunk” face while some schmingus gets caught in the background sipping on a brew and unabashedly checking out the aforementioned line of what today seems to pass for ladies.

To quote one of my Saudi friends, the thought suddenly flashed through my mind: “What in the hell?!”

Look, I’m no saint, and I’m definitely not the Catholic school fashion police; but I’m starting to realize that what passes for good old Western feminine decency these days is anything but. I’ve spent the last 5 months living in the Middle East, boundlessly debating and defending women’s freedoms – emblazoning the glorious virtue of America upon the young impressionable minds of Arabian youth, only to be suddenly stopped short in my tracks when my student caught sight of some Facebook pictures. “Whoa, American girls dress like…how do you say…ah yes – prostitutes….Nice!” He said with a sly grin creeping across his face.  “Wow,” I thought. He has a point.

Now some of you are probably out there ratcheting up all kinds of malice against my criticism and welling up with a mental “how dare you” speech, but just wait a minute. Look, I’m all about personal freedom, expression, and, heck, even some glitzy posh fashion every now and then. It’s cool. It’s human. It’s feminine – when done right. So girls, be free. Be expressive, and by all means, challenge your far less lovely counterparts of the male species to keep up. But just remember that if you feel the incessant need to drink like an Irish dock worker or dress like you’re trying to make Playboy models look modest every time you hit the town, you’re not free – just insecure.

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