Sunday, April 16, 2006

A Tale of Three Cities

Dr. Khaled Batarfi
Dr. Basim is a prominent Saudi lawyer. At one time he worked for the World Bank in New York. We all envied him. What a position he held in the capital of capitals of world capitalism!
But then he suddenly returned and sat a law firm in Jeddah. Now don't get me wrong; I expect our brightest to come back home after they finish their studies abroad. We need them. But for a Saudi to represent us in such a great institution is an honor to be upheld.
Thinking he was just homesick, I was critical. He should have stayed longer to get more experience and prominence, I told him.
It wasn't homesickness that brought me back, he calmly explained. "One day I was hurrying down a Manhattan street on my way home. Then I realized that there was no reason to hurry. I had no family waiting for me, no date or appointment and wasn't hungry. I slowed down and was pushed over by the guy behind. He was cursing at the sudden slowness. When I asked him why the hurry, he was disgusted. Only oldies, handicapped and tourists would walk the way I did, he snapped.
I put my back to the wall and stopped to watch the human traffic. It was 5.30 p.m, and most people seemed, just like me, on their way home. They all hurried. They all ran. Why? I asked myself. Because that is the rhythm of life in New York. We chase our tails to survive.
We run in vicious circles, until it becomes the norm. You compete with yourself if you don't have a competition.
Do I need this? Can I survive with a slower rhythm of life? Not in such a capitalist city, I decided. Then and there I realized I must go home."
In three weeks I had been to three different cities. London, a favorite of mine, showed me how we can be modern, capitalist and preserve a unique culture, all at the same time.
Dubai, tries hard to follow on the same footsteps. Problem is, like most Gulf states or cities, they jumped from tents to towers without the necessary progressing trip in between.
Then I went to Tunis. Even though a French colony for centuries, they progressed much earlier. Still, they haven't gone down as far in the capitalism and consumerism road as have London and Dubai.
The rhythm there was refreshingly relaxed. I spent most of my money in seawater and mineral springs spas-much less in the elegant but relatively few, small and expensive shops and malls.
The Tunisian heritage is very much preserved. The social life is largely intact, even in cities. People are going about their lives with much easier breath. They have plenty of time to chat with you on the street, to take you home for dinner or to sit with you at a cafe for sweets and a cup of tea.
Here, in Jeddah, where I live, things are changing ... fast. Malls are erupting everywhere. Materialism and consumerism, symptoms of free market and capitalism, are gaining ground even with conservatives. More and more, we measure people and achievements by numbers rather than merit. Less and less we find time to reflect, enjoy our gifts of family and friends and take breaks.
It doesn't have to be one way or another. We don't have to live in tents or work half a day. We don't have to live in jungles of cements and asphalt, either. What we need is a balance. Once we decided on that, we could formulate a vision-as a nation and as individuals. Our cities, our homes, our lives could be built upon that.
One thing we can't afford: To rush down the road without an objective, without a plan, without even a map.

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