21 April 2009

Cabbages and kings

I finally bought a bike and last night I BIKED TO THE GROCERY STORE and bought groceries ON MY OWN.  This improved my general well-being by 10,000 points.  

A momentous victory. We all live in villas which are pretty far from town, and we have drivers that will take us where we want to go, but the vehicle options are 1) mini bus and 2) large bus.  Either bus is normally 90% vacant, which is great for needlessly wasting carbon. We must first arrange with the driver where we want to go and schedule the bus. If we want boys and girls on the same bus, must obtain prior permission or call the director of General Services.  Public buses don't come out this far, and taxis can't find our villas (no road names, no address numbers...not that they would help that much...taxi drivers typically navigate by landmarks, not street names.)

Thus, it was AWESOME to just jump on my bike and go.  I can't describe the sense of freedom that has returned.  (Although I very much miss my fixed-gear beast in Boston.)

Life is filling up fast. I'm taking an hour or two of Arabic every day now (I can read like a kindergartener!), plus various other activities.  I'm also sitting in on one of the coolest classes EVER: the History and Politics of Oil in the Middle East.

It began as something I thought I "should" do, a topic I "ought" to know more about, so I dragged myself into it.  And it's orders of magnitude more fascinating than I ever imagined.  The course text is The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, by Daniel Yergin and it's SUPER.  The book does an awesome job weaving an off-the-wall story complete with outrageous characters and all their quirks.  

For example, take Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the first monarch of Saudi Arabia.  He was the Saudi king who united the warring tribes of Saudi Arabia- a desert adventurer, roaming the sand dunes with his camel caravan, conquering tribes, and wedding desert princesses to forge alliances.  (He fathered 50 kids in his lifetime!) Before oil was discovered, he could carry all his wealth with him on a camel. 

When the Middle Eastern oil craze was just beginning, he was initially not interested offers from companies that wanted to prospect for oil, he wanted to drill for water instead, which makes a ton of sense when you think about how much value water has in a desert. 

From all accounts, Ibn Saud was incredible.  Six foot four, charismatic, dashing, everything a king should be. Later in life (after oil discoveries) when he met Roosevelt on the USS Quincy, all the Westerners slept in the cabins at night, but Ibn Saud and his entourage insisted on sleeping in bedouin tents pitched on the deck.  That is so cool.

Saud had an advisor/friend named Jack Philby, aka Sheikh Abdullah, a British expatriot who converted to Islam. He was fluent in Arabic, as well as Persian, Urdu, and Punjabi.  It seems like any time anything important happened between the British and Saudi Arabia, Philby was there, swaying things one way or another. And when the American relations with Saudi Arabia started growing and Britain was fading away, Philby was there, facilitating that change too. (Britain thought there was no oil in Saudi Arabia.  They advised Ibn Saud to take the Americans' money and sell them an oil concession the Brits thought was useless. Boy, they regretted that.)

Philby was an avid bird watcher, a desert explorer, and his son is famous in his own right for being a spy for the Soviet Union. His second wife was a Saudi slave girl. After Ibn Saud died, Philby began openly criticizing King Saud, the next ruler of Saudi Arabia for his wild spending, among other things.  Philby was exiled.  On his deathbed in Beirut, he spoke his last words: "God, I'm bored."

I've learned a ton about World War II, oil companies, OPEC, Iran, and some about the Palestine/Israeli conflict, Egypt, and the evil oil company stereotype (which is both true and false, quite a change from my previous stance of "oil companies are evil, die, die, die.") 

I also learned more about the energy crisis in the 1970's when for the second time Americans had to wait for hours in long queues to buy gas.  President Carter's approval rating dropped to 25%, comparable to Nixon's rating during the Watergate Scandal. For various reasons, Americans viciously blamed Carter for the frustration of waiting in gas lines.  It made me think that when Bush invaded Iraq, it wasn't just for "those evil oil companies." He was also doing it because we Americans, as individuals, demand a reliable oil supply through our actions and habits, and if anything happens to the supply, there's hell to pay.  Yes, I know, gross oversimplification, but the point is that my entire view of how oil works is now vastly altered, and I feel about 100 times more informed than before, which means I'm about a millionth as informed as I should be.


The Prize was also turned into a PBS documentary series, and we watch some of these films in class, which are also super great.  It's absolutely wild to see black and white footage of old classic cars driving up and down sand dunes.  Which reminds me of a story...

There's a highway that runs north-south called the Desert Highway in Jordan, and according to Husam's dad, it was once literally just a swath of desert that people drove on.  Thus, you'd be driving along on the sand/dirt and you might look to your right and see another car driving alongside you, but maybe 100 meters away.  At any rate, back in the day, Husam's dad was driving from Maan to Aman in the north.  He ate lunch, then jumped in his car and started driving on the Desert Highway.  About midway there, he meets another car headed the opposite direction.  

They stop and chat and his dad asks this other fellow where he's going.  "Aman," he said. "No way," Husam's dad replies, "I'm going to Aman, you're clearly lost."  They argued for a few minutes, but in the end, they both continue driving opposite ways.  ...several hours later, Husam's dad ends up (you guessed it) back at the restaurant where he ate lunch earlier in Ma'an.  

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