Sunday, May 03, 2009

Middle East Table Talk

Over the last year, my family has had a succession of students lodging with us from various Arabic-speaking countries in the middle east and north Africa.

Without wanting to reveal too much about specific individuals, it would be fair to say that our guests have all been well connected to senior members of the governments of their home countries.

As we've got to know each other, I've learned a lot of new things, some significant some mundane. Here's a sample of the anecdotes shared around our meal table over the last year by people closer to life in the middle east than I will ever be:

  • Prior to the first Gulf War, it is claimed, the governments of Iraq, Jordan and Yemen made a secret deal between themselves to effectively carve up Saudi Arabia and Kuwait between the three of them. Money was exchanged and deals done, only to be thwarted by the arrival of large numbers of American troops in Saudi Arabia itself in preparation for Operation Desert Storm. Interestingly, I understand, though have not been able to verify this yet, that both Jordan and Yemen abstained from the vote in the UN General Assembly that confirmed the imposition of sanctions against Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. It was well known at the time that both countries provided sanction busting services to Iraq during and after the first Gulf War.

  • Camels - loved and kept in large numbers by Saudis and Kuwaitis - have extremely long memories, especially if mistreated. There are stories circulating about camels attacking former owners, even though they have not seen them for years, as retaliation for a beating given many years earlier.

  • When Sadaam Hussain met King Hussain of Jordan on one occasion, he presented the King with a gold plated automatic weapon. Apparently, Sadaam's gift of choice to foreign heads of state was almost always a rifle or pistol of some kind.

  • When a student living with us failed to reach the necessary grade in an exam which was a requirement for admission to a leading British university in the south of England, he announced that "I pay money" and was shocked when we informed him that that was not how things worked in Britain and that doing so could land him in prison.

  • It is widely assumed in Jordan that the territorial integrity of Iraq is unsustainable and that the country will inevitably split into three states at some point in the coming 10-20 years. Interestingly, I noted on this site in November 2006 that such a solution was a distinct possibility. It is a view that receives absolutely no attention in the western media or in government but is , apparently, widely assumed in Jordan and possibly elsewhere.

  • The cheapest place to take a holiday in the middle east is, apparently, Damascus, where high quality hotels come at a low price. Mind you, Syria is also one of the five worst countries in the world to be a blogger, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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