Saturday, April 26, 2003
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L


When will the Arabs rise from medieval slumber?
Khushwant Singh

IT came as a bit of shock when I realised that I had never had an Iraqi friend. If I had one I would most certainly have turned to him or her to clear my mind about some aspects of the conflict that took place there. I have known Saudis, Kuwaitis, Omanis, Syrians, Egyptians (one is married to a nephew), Libyans but not a single Iraqi. The Arabs I have met have little in common with each other besides race, religion (Islam) and the Arabic language spoken in different dialects. Of the two I befriended and who invited me to their homes, one was from Kuwait, the other from Syria. Both lived in western style, enjoyed their sundowners as they watched x-rated films. Others I met in their own countries were not as westernised as my friends. One thing they shared in common was a strictly segregated society. Their women, even those not veiled, never appeared when their men folk were entertaining outsiders. If the visitor happened to be a woman, she was escorted to the zenana section of the house.

EARLIER COLUMNS
Lies in the guise of war reports
April, 19, 2003
Villain of yesteryear becomes a hero
April, 12, 2003
He has lived life on his own terms
April, 5, 2003
Birthday celebrations that leave a bad taste
March 29, 2003
Why deny ourselves sensual pleasures?
March 15, 2003
Gaumata and the beef-eaters
March 8, 2003
Adopt the country that adopts you
March 1, 2003
When minds donít meet
February 22, 2003
Love in times of war
February 15, 2003


What appeared incongruous to me was that even in countries where women did not wear the veil, worked in offices, served in the police force or the army, they were not to be seen in cafes or night clubs which remained male domains. The only women I saw in night clubs were belly dancers entertaining entirely male audiences. They were scantily clad in two-piece bikinis and contorted their belly muscles and gyrated their large bottoms to the best of music. They came over into the audience and men thrust currency notes in their costumes. Many such joints doubled up as brothels. Though prostitution was, and is, punishable with death, it flourished unabated. More than one official escort attached to me told me of the Arab concept of beauty. "Four things should be black: hair, eyebrows, eyelashes and pupils. Four should be white: skin, whites of eyes, teeth and nails. Four should be red: cheeks, lips, tongue and gums. Four should be small: ears, mouths, hands and feet. Four should be large: forehead, eyes, curve of bottoms and the navel."

Like Indians, Arabs like to do as little hard work as possible. As in Indian towns and villages so in Arab countries, I saw young men loitering about, smoking, gossipping, playing cards as did their elders sitting outside cafes drinking black tea or coffee and pulling at their hookahs. Women were beasts of burden and kept home fires burning. I saw fewer beggars than in our country. I think that was largely due to the fact that most Arab countries produce oil which brings them foreign exchange. Egyptís main sources of income are revenues earned from ships passing through the Suez Canal and tourism: the pyramids and the Sphinx are high on the lists of worldís tourists.

Another trait we share in common with Arabs is boasting and loud talk. Like us, they are given to shouting slogans, thumping their chests, brandishing swords and challenging invisible enemies to fight them. I describe this as the Nihang syndrome. Sikhs have borrowed the word Nihang (crocodile) from Arabic.

There is a lot of formality and display of courtesy when people meet: they embrace and kiss each other on the cheeks. Every dialogue begins with detailed inquiry about each otherís health, health of parents, siblings, wives and children interspersed with thanks to God: Alhamdulillah, Maaz Allah, Inshallah, Maashallah, between long pauses of deathly silence. Only after they are assured that you are as fit as anyone can be, do they get down to talking about business for which the meeting has been arranged. We have remnants of this exaggerated concern for the well-being of others in mizaj-pursee. I have to suffer this formality every time I answer a phone call. No sooner does my caller start enquiring about my health, I cut him short with a curt "What do you want?"

Most prosperous Arabs did not have to work hard to earn their wealth. It came as a windfall with the discovery of vast deposits of oil and natural gas in their desert lands. They did not discover them, nor did they develop techniques of extracting them, it was done by foreign experts. Arabs got handsome rewards for simply owning the land. Almost overnight men used to riding camels and donkeys were riding Cadillacs and Rolls Royces and moved from living in tents to living in marble palaces with hordes of servants and large harems. Sudden unearned wealth turned their heads. They became arrogant.They remain divided into tribes and clans warring against each other, backward, fanatical and feudal ruled over by kings, sultans, sheikhs and military dictators, they have yet to savour the taste of equality and freedom. They look down on people who come to their land to do menial work: Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. In some ways the terrible fate which befell Iraq should be a lesson to other Arab nations.If they mean to survive as independent nations, they have to rouse themselves from their medieval slumber.

Call of the koel

For the last fortnight I have been asking all my friends "Have you heard a koel in your vicinity?" So far not one has replied in the affirmative. I am baffled. In years past I heard them gurgle right through the winter months. By spring, when mango trees were in blossom, they were in full-throated cries in heavily leafed trees. I saw them being chased away by crows in whose nests the female koels deposit their eggs while the silly crows are in hot pursuit of their husbands.

This is usually seen in May and June. But koels proclaimed their presence a couple of months before cuckolding wily crows. Whatís happens to them? First we noticed vultures, including nephrons, disappear, then an acute fall in number of sparrows. City life has taken a heavy toll on wild animals and insects as well. Jackals are heard no more, snakes have vanished, so have the mongoose. We donít hear frogs crock during the monsoon, see no fireflies, moths, beetles and very few butterflies. Are we humans bent on destroying other forms of life?

Cricket limericks

Bodyache, headache, he suffered as never

Experts were puzzled with no clue whatever

A quack came around

And instantly found

Itís a case of hangover of World Cup fever.

* * *

Business it dull, economy not on its feet

Even pubs have lost the rhythm and the beat

It could all revive

We could still survive

If only we could arrange a World Cup repeat.

(Courtesy: J.R. Jyoti, Secunderabad)

UN epitaph

Here lies the coffin of a world body

Initially bold and quite sturdy

It stood for peace and amity,

But became the victim of oneís insanity

It met the League of Nationís fate

And expired before the expiry date.

(Contributed by A.A. Abbasi, Indore)

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