Tuesday, September 29, 2009


We spent our last day at the UN chasing a peacock in the garden.
Good times.

"Hey" is Swedish for "Hello"

In an earlier post, I described Dr. Lama as Santa Claus. Little did I know back then that Santa would be taking me up North! To Sweden to be precise. Dr. Lama was invited to speak at a conference on "GCC-EU Relations under the Swedish Presidency of the European Union." The conference took place in Lund, which is closer to Copenhagen (Denmark) than it is to Stockholm. A pretty university town with a grand hotel where they do not help you with your luggage at the lobby.

It was a very short trip, but highlights include:

1) Taking pictures of a truckload of high school graduates roaming the town in celebration of their graduation
2) Being asked to take a ticket to wait in line at the bakery store, even when there was only one other customer there
3) Staring incredulously at a bunch of ducks using the zebra crossing to cross the street at a traffic light. Are they for real? We don't even have zebra crossings for humans, but over here even the DUCKS use them!?
4) Wondering what time the sun is going to set.. never?
5) Taking pictures of the signs at the Copenhagen Airport... Danish is be easier than I thought it was. Or, in the words of one friend "ispeakdanish."

Women's Rights as Universal Human Rights

We charmed our way into the meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. When I think of what we did to get in... never mind that, but how could we resist? Saudi Arabia was up for a periodic review! They gave us official passes and everything ... That's right, so hot right now. I was half expecting to witness a massacre. If you live in the 21st century, you'd understand why, but if you need me to clarify, here's just one fact that I picked up at the Yale University library one evening: In 2000, Amnesty International launched the first ever campaign against an individual country by an international human rights organization. That country was, you guessed it, our one and only beloved KSA.

In short, states are given recommendations on a report they should have submitted months earlier and it is up to the country to accept, reject, and/or take these recommendations into consideration for further examination. At this, the 11th Session of the Human Rights Council, the country under review is given 20 minutes to make a statement, after which other states voice their opinions, followed by NGOs (nongovernmental organizations). The report is then, presumably, adopted by the Council.

Don't believe what the marketing gurus tell you: you don't need popcorn and Coca-Cola to enjoy every feature entertainment. It wasn't all fun and I did, to my horror, fall asleep waiting for our turn to come (not enough sleep- read my previous post). But when the screen signaled that we were next, my ears perked up. The gentleman who stood on behalf of Saudi Arabia (head of the National Human Rights Commission) was extremely well-spoken and poised, in that way that makes you love the Arabic language even more. He highlighted King Abdullah's interfaith efforts and his program for rehabilitating terrorists, as well as recent amendments in the judicial system and progress on women's issues, domestic violence, and the establishment of a department to protect foreigners. I was moved, but still reluctant about the World's reaction, given.. you know...

When he was done, the names of 34 states came up on the screen, but protocol dictates that only the first 10 are given 2 minutes each: Pakistan, Venezuela, Qatar, Algeria, Cuba, Belarus, Bahrain, China, Egypt, and the UAE. What came next was, from my point of view, pure comedy. It doesn't take a genius to guess that one after the other each state spoke in praise; just take a second look at the list of countries who were speaking.

Cuba spoke of KSA's generosity towards developing countries, while China expressed its support of Saudi Arabia's "very responsible attitude and careful study of recommendations. No country is perfect but we are convinced that Saudi Arabia will take all necessary measures." Then Egypt spoke in its usual exaggerated language "Masha'Allah La Quwwata illa billah... 7aga 3azeema" (Praise be to God the Powerful, this is a magnificent thing). Finally the UAE representative concluded that "my delegation expresses its support."

Next up: NGO's. Amnesty International made the cut and with it, an abbreviated version of the massacre I was expecting.

In 2 minutes, Amnesty squeezed in every issue under the sun: the death penalty and the beheading of children, foreign nationals, and terrorists; fair and transparent elections; forced disappearances; the "abolishment of male guardianship as a matter of priority"; and reforming the basic law to incorporate gender equality. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights also spoke up about women and migrant workers and religious freedom and the freedom of association and public flogging. But there were also some random ones like the Indian Council of South America and the National Association of Cuban Economists. Huh? (They were supportive, in case you were wondering.)

I learned one important lesson that day and it actually has roots in our Islamic tradition: "Innama al-a3mal binniyyat" (actions are judged by the intentions behind them). All states, with no exception, shelter dreadful human rights violations, some worse than others. The real question is about political will and participating in the process of reform. If you can demonstrate that, you're golden.

And, of course having friends helps.

The report was adopted. Hurray!

Saturday, September 05, 2009

You gotta have faith to keep going

It occurs to me that I might need to explain why it is that at these UN meetings, one must often find ways to pass the time. It's because of the prevalence of two "unavoidables": 1) language nuances and 2) protocol.

I was approached during one of the early meetings of the Committee on "Gender Equality at the Heart of Decent Work" by an ILO representative, with an offer for me to represent Saudi Arabia on the so-called Drafting Committee. She explained to me that the Gender Equality Committee was to produce a set of "conclusions" at the end of the conference and that this drafting committee would be comprised of 5 employers, 5 workers, and 5 government delegates. By agreeing, I would be representing not only Saudi Arabia but the Arab, Islamic world. What's more "it will be a very good experience-- tiring but rewarding." Notice, this woman has just met me but already she seems to know how to lure me. By hiding the word "tiring" in between the much more appealing terms "experience" and "rewarding", she was ensuring that she had my commitment. So I committed. (I then found out that for logistical purposes I wouldn't be able to represent Saudi Arabia but Dr. Lama had to instead so after giving me evil looks for forcing her to do work during the weekend, she accepted. Then she slyly found a way to sneak ME into the committee, as her ADVISOR. I don't know how she gets away with half the things she does.)

Annnyways, we soon found out that this was the first time for Saudi Arabia to ever participate in a drafting committee in the however many number of years that we've been participating at the International Labor Conference. We quickly learned why this was the case.

It was long. I mean, really long. We were cooped up in a room with the other delegates and there were these 15-pages or so that we all had to agree on. And it seemed simple enough to do, except for the language nuances.

Employers it turns out love the word "flexibility". They argue that flexibility is important, that rigidity may create and has created more problems for women in the workforce. So they want to put the word everywhere. But the workers loathe this word. They believe that "flexibility means less work, less pay, and less of a bright future ahead of you." Speaking of the workers, what they do love is strong language. Instead of "flexibility" their favorite word is "precarious" and they want to warn against "precarious" employment everywhere. Employers object to this word because they hardly think that part-time work is precarious. In the end the employers have settled for the term "atypical" which in itself is contentious for other reasons I can hardly begin to wrap my head around. For someone who loves words, this is actually an interesting discussion at first. But after hours of debating whether governments SHOULD, COULD, CAN, or MUST develop sexual harassment laws, it can get a bit.. what was the word she used to recruit me? Oh that's right... TIRING. By 1AM when you've only had half a sandwich for lunch and you've been sitting down in a meeting room since 10AM, it can get a bit "tiring." So no, I don't care if we use the word "sex-based discrimination" or "gender-based discrimination" or "discrimination between the sexes". But there are those who DO care.

It's really long but all of a sudden we were done and Dr. Lama and I, first-timers at any UN event, were jumping for joy. We did it, we did it!

Or did we?

Our faces turn cold when our new friends, from Germany, Canada, New Zealand, and Mexico, explain to us that now the LARGER gender committee must approved of this document and that for the next week we will be discussing every paragraph and every word until some sort of consensus is reached. This is where our second "unavoidable" comes in: protocol. Strict protocol is the only way to control almost 200 people from some 80 countries. And as the Chairman reads each paragraph aloud, the delegates one-by-one raise their hand to argue that a word should be included or a paragraph should be removed in its entirety.

Let us observe a moment of silence in honor of the sheer number of delegates from an impressive array of countries who actually attend every session, simply for the the reason that they believe in the process.

(For those interested in the final draft of the conclusions, you can download the PDF file: http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---relconf/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_108259.pdf (Last accessed September 5, 2009; title: PR No. 13 - Report of the Committee on Gender Equality - Sixth item on the agenda: Gender equality at the heart of decent work (general discussion))

Lost in Translation

A crazy thought came to mind one morning, as I flipped through the 8 channels of simultaneous translation that were being streamed to us individually via funny ear-shaped headsets. Before I share my thought with you, I must say that the accessibility of these languages is an ideal time for me to test my Spanish, maintain my French, acquire technical words in Arabic, and- when I need a break from the discussions- to start developing a taste for the sounds of Chinese, Russian, German and Japanese.

It so happened that at that meeting, a Korean government representative was speaking in Korean about gender equality in his country. And it occurred to me then and there that there are actually more than 8 languages spoken at the UN. I found my eyes growing wide as I remembered that half the time the delegates weren't speaking in English, such that, even if they were speaking in one of the 8 languages, these languages are then translated into each of the other languages. This isn't just a simple translation from English into 7 other languages.... And the questions came popping out so fast I couldn't control them: How does this translation business actually work?? Are there translators on standby who translate between Korean and Russian and between Korean and Arabic and between Korean and French, and then between Russian and German and between German and Spanish, and between Spanish and Chinese, and between Chinese and Arabic? There are about a billion UN meetings occurring at the same time and each meeting needs translations back and forth between all these languages. HOW MANY TRANSLATORS ARE THERE!? Is it possible that these translator speak 8 languages with enough fluency to translate between them all? And this doesn't answer my question about languages like Korean and Swahili that are not the of the mighty 8!!!

Or do the translators translate from other translations? Such that the translator speaking English on Channel 1 is translating from Korean, and then Mohammad speaking Arabic on Channel 7 who also happens to speak English but not Korean translates from his English friend on Channel 1?? etc etc??

Other delegates have different ways to pass the time, in case you're wondering. In front of me a delegate's head has just jerked back, waking him up from his short slumber. Snoring is not a rarity at these meetings by the way, due to a combination of painfully redundant protocol and exhaustingly lengthy days that roll into nights, culminating over a period of 3 weeks into sheer exhaustion and aching feet.

But you know what my favorite part is? When someone cracks a joke and 30 seconds later, the delegates laugh. I can only imagine the speaker's relief in knowing that his joke wasn't lost in translation, but simply delayed.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Enter the Arabs

The items on the agenda came to a close and the chairman of the employers’ session ended our meeting 20 minutes ahead of schedule. The Arab employers (including Dr. Lama and me) stayed behind, as the orderly Europeans, efficient North Americans, humorous Kiwis, lively Latinos, and colorful Africans exited the hall. Up next was a closed meeting for all Arab delegates across the tripartite system. (Remember the tripartite? Yes, exactly: employers, governments, and workers)

Enter the Arab workers and Arab government representatives, who leisurely make their way into the hall, chatting and hugging and exchanging warm embraces. A chubby man with a bushy moustache and a stack of documents cradled in his arms hands me a round metal button emblazoned with the words “Freedom for Palestine”. As I begin pinning it to the lapel of my suit jacket, Dr. Lama taps me on the shoulder with a grin. “Halla shoofee il far’I” she says in her Lebanese Arabic (Wait ‘til you see the difference). 20 minutes past 6PM and I’m still waiting to see the difference. Except, well, that’s one of the differences. Why haven’t we started yet? At the front of the hall, the delegates are shuffling around until they finally settle on a North African to chair the session.

He strikes the desk with a .... *sifting through my mental dictionary* .... not a wooden hammer but a... gavel, that's it. A few moments later- ok, a few MINUTES later- we are called to attention. The meeting's purpose is to prepare Arab representatives to participate in the general meetings and in the specific committee meetings with a unified approach, wherever possible.

It doesn't take long for the Palestinian conflict to take center stage, replacing the international employer's focus on the financial crisis. The workers announce they've planned a peaceful protest for Palestine in a week's time. A harsh word is directed at the essentially mute government representatives/spectators, with a plea that they also attend. A strategy is proposed, that each Arab delegate mention their concern for Palestinian workers and employers as a top priority alongside any other nation-specific points.

"But remember!" the chairman asserts, "In these ILO meetings, there is a time limit on your participation. How many times have we heard our Arab brothers going on and on about national problems and only when their time is up, as they are asked to finish their comments do you hear them yell out 'And also don't forget our brothers in Palestine!' This is not acceptable. Who will listen to our cry about Palestine if we only mention it when our time is already up?"

And so the meeting ensues, casually, smoothly. Support is bestowed upon the delegate who calls upon the ILO to make Arabic an official language alongside English, French and Spanish. (This would mean that all official documents would be provided in Arabic during the ILO meetings) "We have asked for this time and time again", the man states, "and I think this will be our year."

It begins to approach 8PM, when the meeting will officially come to an end.

I tend to doodle in these meetings and here I am making abstract shapes as I hear a man in the distance asking us to support his nomination of a Filipino delegate to chair another committee that he's involved in. He explains that the Arab vote would help this filipino colleague, who would be an excellent chairman, not to mention that his views are friendly to Arabs. Why not, I think to myself. But apparently there are many who find this particular suggestion offensive to their senses.

"Are there no Arabs worthy of such a position?" a voice exclaims. I drop my pencil, dear God please tell me that we are not going there. Another voice speaks in support of the first voice. "I agree, there are many qualified Arabs!" My intestines start to boil, I catch my tongue to prevent myself from yelling out "Ya hubul what does this have to do with anything? There are no Arabs running for this position!" The meeting has gone slightly out of control as it degenerates into the usual sob story of... I'm not sure what exactly, but it sounds familiar. Optimistically, reassuringly, thankfully, a dozen other voices condemn the first voice in more eloquent, albeit irritated responses that appease my internal organs.

8:10PM and the crowd starts getting restless. We start eyeing the gavel: Mr. Chairman, will you end the session please? The workers are not so conscientious. Some start filing out of the room already as the Chairman bangs on the table incredulously trying to restore order. "I have not ended the session yet, I have not ended the session yet." The workers get a bit rowdy. Meanwhile more hands are raised suddenly remembering that they have more pressing things to discuss.

I shake my head in dismay, reminded of what the Chairman had just been saying about bringing up important issues at inopportune times.

Just as the gavel is about to make contact with the hard surface, these heavy words fill the space:

"I would like to remind my esteemed colleagues about the plight of your brothers and sisters in Iraq. Have you forgotten about them with your emphasis on the Palestinians? Please remember to mention the Iraqis."

I'm sure the majority sympathize but we're already half way out the door.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Word of the Month: Tripartite

"It is in times of crisis that the world most needs a strong International Labor Organization."

It was Gibran Khalil Gibran who brilliantly described joy and sorrow as "inseparable" in his flawless work, The Prophet. Khalil writes: "When one [joy or sorrow] sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed." Surely enough, the International Labor Organization's 90th anniversary, a supposed time of joy, is no exception. Sprawled through the main corridor is a magnificent red carpet with dates etched on it in white, starting with 1919, 1920, 1921 all the way up to 2009... an exquisite gift from the Chinese delegation honoring the Organization's 90 years. But as we enter the first meeting of the International Organization for Employers, there are no balloons or cake in sight. Instead, the mood is somber as the following words permeate the hall: "This is the most severe crisis we have experienced yet, since nobody here was in business during the Great Depression of the 1930s." As if the Global Financial Crisis isn't enough of a buzz kill for any celebration, our "daily bulletins" are marked in bold font with a daunting Swine Flu alert: "H1N1 VIRUS: If you experience any flu-like symptoms, such as fever, cough or sore throat, you should excuse yourself from the conference immediately and stay in your home, hotel, or residence."

As I take a swig of my vitamin-enriched water, an employer from Venezuela raises her hand. Her voice is frantic. "I am concerned about free enterprise in my country," she begins. "Property is being CONFISCATED by the government!!! Or nationalized, depending on what word you use," she adds sarcastically. "Venezuela is a dictatorial regime that has concentrated all power in its hands. Housing and personal goods may be next. There is no talk of new elections. And Venezuela has threatened to pull out of the ILO. This may be the last time that we attend this conference. I urge you to look into our matter and put it on the agenda."

My eyes open wide, this is serious stuff. How can she talk so openly without fear of reprisal from the government she represents? It is then and there that I understand the meaning - and value- of the term TRIPARTITE. The International Labor Organization prides itself on being a tripartite United Nations agency, meaning that it brings together representatives of 3 parties from each of its member states: governments, employers, and workers that all have an equal voice in the Organization's proceedings. For a long time, Saudi Arabia was not welcomed into the ILO because the government did not recognize labor unions, thereby violating the tripartite principle. The Venezuelan woman who was speaking out against her government was officially sent here from Venezuela. But she is an employer, representing the private sector. The government has no control over what she says within these walls.

Finally, I start to feel less like a freshman who has entered a graduate seminar without have completed the assigned readings. The system starts becoming clearer and perhaps Dr. Abdullah notices. "You can say whatever you like here," he explains. We represent the employers of Saudi Arabia and the Chambers of Commerce. We are separate from the government delegates."
Hmmmmm...... I think back to my time at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. Although the Jeddah Chamber is the official business club for employers and the only real non-government organization in Saudi Arabia- or so I was told on my first day of work- in actuality, it felt like a funny mix of all three parties. Although it catered to the private sector, it continued to annoyingly resist the efficient productive nature of business enterprises. At the businesswomen center, we operated like an NGO but still sugar-coated our arguments with government lingo.

I can't imagine how to begin working uniquely from an employer's perspective. Governments aside, the rift between employers and workers here is larger than I imagined. Given the financial crisis, the workers' unions have been talking about the need for a "new international economic order." On the other side are the employers. Their response to the workers is embodied in the following words "It's 2009, not 1970. This isn't the first crisis we fix. The workers' bench has forgotten that crises are cyclical. This is not the end of the free market or capitalism."

Dr. Abdullah slips me a piece of paper and asks me to choose a Committee to participate in during the next 2 weeks. These are specialized sessions to set labour standards and develop policies dealing with topics that have been singled out as particularly important for this year. HIV/AIDS in the workplace, the Application of Standards, the Financial Crisis, and.... my heart skips a beat...

Gender Equality at the Heart of Decent Work.

The stars are aligned for Dr. Lama and me. This is the FIRST time since 1985 (I was hardly a year old!) that gender is on the agenda! With joy sorrow and with sorrow joy. This is pure joy! The first meeting begins at 11:30AM.

Monday, June 22, 2009


June 1, 2009

Arrivee a Geneve. La receptioniste coquette smiles and glances at my passport from behind her desk at the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, located just a few steps away from the glorious United Nations Office with its 3-legged chair statue.

“Vous-etes avec la mission de l’Arabie Saoudite?” [Are you with the Saudi Arabian mission?] the receptionist asks me politely. “Ummm.. Oui [yes]” I reply. And just like that, I am transformed. Unknowingly, the receptionist has managed to conjure up that awkwardly familiar, nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m sure you know what I mean, that uncomfortable phenomenon of 2 worlds coming too close together. It can be a different situation that triggers it for each of us; in my case it’s the formal Saudi world of right and wrong, of protocol, of pushing cultural boundaries, of worrying about appearances and externalities. To deal with it in Saudi is one thing and to find it collide head first with my other world is another; the other world of travel and being myself and wearing whatever the heck I feel like wearing and, most recently, the sheltered 5 months debating and contesting and researching within the walls of the “Academy” at Yale.

As I started unpacking my summer dresses and pulling out my sneakers and beachwear (my suitcases that I was bringing back with me to Saudi for the summer holidays), I revisited the age-old question for Saudi women abroad; The Head Cover: To wear or not to wear? I recall the message I received from Dr. Lama Al-Sulaiman inviting me to join her with the Saudi Delegation at the International Labor Conference. [Dr. Lama is one of the women who were elected to the board of the Jeddah Chamber in 2005- a.k.a my former 'big' boss at the businesswomen center]. I couldn’t believe my good fortune and excitedly prepared a few suits and light scarves. Geneva. The UN. Saudi Arabia. Work and Gender. OMG OMG OMG. YAY. I call my mom. “What will you do exactly?” she asks. “I’m not sure but I’ll be Santa’s Little Helper. And when Santa is Dr. Lama, you know it’s going to be good!”

I’ve known for a few weeks I’d be joining the delegation so why am I only now apprehensive about my attire? For one, I didn’t think we’d be neighbors in the hotel that’s for sure. And Dr. Lama has to yet to arrive. How will we interact with these Saudis [pause for dramatic effect] who I imagine to be conservative male government folk? So yes. Apprehension.

Is it all in my head or a reflection of reality? I guess I’ll find out tomorrow!!

June 2, 2009

7AM and I’m up! 20-minute yoga, 30-minute workout at the hotel gym. Pray, shower, floss, eyeliner, shirt, pants, suit jacket. Honey and Toast. A peach.

Hotel Lobby, 9AM. The other Saudi delegates are staying in a different hotel and we are to meet them at the ILO.

“Oops I forgot my head scarf upstairs,” I tell Dr. Lama. “It’s OK,” she answers. “I decided we don’t need to wear them.” Her rationale is that the event is not a media spectacle and that we’re not in the limelight, attending as participants and observers and not official speakers. A headscarf when we don’t normally wear one is self-imposed, perhaps more complicated, and definitely contradictory, since we’ll likely keep it around our necks at one point or another. The fact is, the government doesn’t have a stated position on the matter (not yet anyway and who knows for how long). It shouldn’t be taken for granted that some of our Saudi businesswomen pioneers set the precedent of not wearing the ‘abaya abroad, unlike many of our Gulf compatriots, having adopted the suit and scarf ensemble when traveling with international delegations. So we’re not being too scandalous (this word seems to always find its way into my blog!) and for now we’ll enjoy the obscurity and hope to pull it off.

Simon Says No Scarf, so no scarf! I feel good. And ready. Yalla now what? Dr. Lama turns to me: “I can’t come with you to the first meeting but I’ll meet you there. Here is Dr. Abdullah Dahlan’s number. When you arrive at the ILO office call him and he’ll come meet you.” I can do this, I coach myself. I’m strong, smart, independent, terrible at directions but it’s just a short trek down the road and to the right.. or to the left or something like that.

Somehow, I end up on a bus and not too much later I’m shaking hands with Dr. Abdullah Dahlan, formerly Secretary General of the Jeddah Chamber (it seems everyone has had a foot in the Jeddah Chamber at some point!), former member of the Shoura Council, and currently a writer and long-term representative of employers at the International Labor Conference. He presents himself with confidence in his matching tie and handkerchief and delivers a warm, welcoming greeting to his new protege (me!).

Out of the corner of my eye I see the jet-black hair of a tall woman in a short dress strutting into the building. I laugh to myself as I enter the conference hall and see bare arms, low-cut blouses and big hair. My previous inner monologues now rendered ridiculous, I take my seat comfortably next to Dr. Abdullah in the front row as he actively participates in the discussion on behalf of Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, speaking in elegant Arabic that is translated instantly into 8 languages and received by the other delegates via headsets. After the session, he exchanges embraces with international colleagues whose respect and friendship he has fostered over 27 years of attending this particular conference. I turn my attention in awe to Dr. Abdullah’s jovial approach and appreciate his mentorship of me. He purposely introduces me to every Jose and Mohammad and encourages me to speak my mind and participate whenever I see fit.

“Dr. Dahlan! We’ve both been here for 27 years!” One European delegate exclaims. “This means we started attending when we were 15!” The 60-something-year old men chuckle and I take in the moment, trying to make it sink in that I’m at one of those conferences I once imagined to be the ultimate “cool thing to do when I grow up.”

I’m already here? What? Praise the Lord! God is Great!

IT began as a field diary for my summer in Jizan (2006) under the title "Watch Out Bubba Gump." Now I'm not sure what it is... but I do know it's time for me to start writing again.