Look Back in Arabia

In a few days I'll have been here for six months.

The first three crawled by like a depressed snail on barbituates stuck in treacle. The last three trundled past amiably enough, and I've no idea what the last six will be like.

A twelve month contract - no compelling reason to cut it short, and the option of renewing it at the end. So, what's good and what's bad about where I am?

What's good:

  • Money.

    I'm getting UKP1000 a month, which elsewhere wouldn't be great, but there's no tax and I can save 95%.

    Food and drink is cheap - the 5% of wages goes on little luxuries like biscuits and squash. I get a small but adequate hotel room effectively free - in exchange for teaching the owner's sons.

    So after a year, I should have 10,000 - enough to invest in something or other, so if I live to be an octogenarian, I might not be a destitute octogenarian.

  • Food.

    British food is rubbish. You don't realise that until you go elsewhere.

    The Lebanese can make an excellent three course meal out of little more than herb leaves, bread and a slice of meat. That, plus vast amounts of every variation you could imagine on milk, yoghurt and cheese.

    If you're lactose intolerant, don't go near a Lebanese resteraunt. Your mouth will love you but your stomach will want a divorce.

    A simple Jordanian salad will leave you wondering exactly what alchemy transformes tomatoes, olives and various chopped greenery, sprinkled with lemon and/or lime juice, into something you could happily eat all night.

    The same for the bowl of humus next to it, topped with olive oil and served with bread to mop it up with. The bread itself is a pleasure to eat on it's own - which is not something you'd ever say of even the best bread in a western restaurant.

    Shauerma is grilled strips of chicken, wrapped in a very thin, oily bread, served with pickles and chopped vegetables. Potatoes when they appear are generally in the form of french fries, wrapped up with the chicken.

    Most of this is, I admit, basically carbohydrates swimming in too much oil. And all the drinks are astonishingly sugery - I get looks of surprise when I ask for tea without sugar.

    Not a good diet for an overweight diabetic, you'd think. But I've been living on this stuff for nearly six months - and I've gone from morbidly obese to almost thin. With no more exercise than climbing a few stairs.

  • People.

    Hospitality is important in Arab culture, but behind the obligation to be nice there's...actual genuine niceness.

    I haven't once felt threatened or unwelcome here - and this is a small town monoculture backwater, not a cosmopolitan metropolis.

    The equivalent of a small town in Iowa, I'm the first British person - and the first atheist - most of the denizens have ever met. Culture shock has yet to occur, on either side.

    What's bad:
  • The weather.

    Winter is three or four months of the year, starting November, and the rest of the year is Summer. Yes, there's no need for more seasons in this part of the world.

    Winter isn't just cold, it's bloody freezing - sub-zero and snow is common. Summer starts hot and gets hotter - up to 45 celsius in June.

  • Health.

    I wake up every morning with a new insect bite, and spend most of the day with the dry scratchy feeling in the lungs that's my common reaction to it. There's raised red itchy lumps coming up and going down all the time, all over.

    I haven't had a normal bowel movement since arriving. A combination of constant low-level fever and the incredibly oily food mean constipation is not something I ever expect to have here.

  • Bureaucracy.

    The government doesn't get its money through tax. Instead, it charges extortionate amounts to do anything for you besides providing electricity and water.

    If you want to run a business, employ someone, rent a room, travel outside the country, have a medical, own a mobile phone, drive a car, open a bank account or anything else involving paperwork...there's a mountain of paperwork, and a row of bureaucrats to stamp it, once you've written the cheque.

    If you want to start a business in two years, go through the system, paying the fees. If you want to start it in three months, bribe the bureaucrats and call in all family favours. If you want to start it tomorrow, make sure you're a millionaire.

    What's next?

    The general plan is: Stay another six months, have a little holiday back home, and select another country.

  • Gnobody Gknows

    There is an atheist movement in America.

    We know it's a genuine movement, because it's developed it's own fashionable nonsense.

    They speak of a four-way distinction:

  • Gnostic Theist - One who 'knows' that a deity or deities exist.
  • Agnostic Theist - One who only 'believes'.
  • Gnostic Atheist - One who 'knows' there is no god.
  • Gnostic Theist - One who only 'believes' it.

    The terms are not exactly clear, and not consistently used, but it seems to come down to this:

  • Gnostic Theist - One who believes, and can't imagine disproof.
  • Agnostic Theist - One who believes, but is prepared to imagine that they might be wrong.
  • Gnostic Atheist - One who doesn't believe, and can't imagine that there might one day appear some good evidence or argument for god.
  • Agnostic Atheist - One who doesn't believe, but doesn't dismiss the possibility they might be wrong.

    It's an incredibly unhelpful distinction. Because 99.9% of atheists are 'agnostic' in this sense, and so are 99.9% of believers.

    This 'gnostic'/'agnostic' distinction doesn't describe the belief itself, but an attitude towards hypothetical future evidence.

    This makes no more sense than dividing vegetarians and meat-eaters according to whether they think they might change their eating habits if the nature of meat were to change.