Friday, April 11, 2014

Don’t get too excited about Jeddah’s new aquarium

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 24/1/2013
 hate to be a wet blanket, but I wonder how long it will take before someone decides that the SR 250 million aquarium on Jeddah’s Corniche is not in public interest and needs to be closed to make sure no families engage in hanky panky.
The Fakieh Aquarium is a wonderful, long overdue project that will be home to an estimated 7,000 marine animals consisting of more than 200 species. Imagine exposing thousands of Saudi and expat children to sharks, dolphins, sea lions and an up close and personal look at reefs.
But as with many good things designed to provide entertainment and education for families, there are elements in Saudi society that deem these kinds of attractions as moral corruption.
A case in point is the small dinosaur exhibit recently shut down at the Al-Othaim Mall in Dammam. Scores of families flocked to the exhibit. But according to several social media websites, sometime during the day some people burst into the exhibit area and turned off the lights. They sent panicked children and mothers racing for the exits. Some children became separated from their parents and were traumatized during the chaos. These people were alleged to be officials of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Haia).
The Haia later released a statement denying they closed down the exhibit, yet plenty of images and eyewitness accounts posted online told a different story. It seems the conservatives truly believe that having fun on a family day out can be too much of a good thing.
It’s come to the point that we as a society find ways to deprive families of having places to have fun together.
Now, wives with husbands, and mothers with fathers and their children can’t spend the day at a dinosaur exhibit without being harassed. The behavior of the some people — if indeed they are guilty of what the exhibit attendees allege — diminishes the concept of the family.
The motives for shutting down the dinosaur exhibits are murky. It could be the whole mixing thing. It also could be the exhibit covered prehistory, which sends the ultra-conservatives into a tizzy. Whatever the reasons, certain individuals in positions of religious authority treat Saudis and expats as if they are children who have no brain of their own.
It’s kind of like the silly notion that the new female members of the Shoura Council must be segregated from the men to prevent immoral behavior. Really now. The Shoura Council consists of the top minds in Saudi Arabia. Professional men and women in their 40s, 50s and 60s and possessing postgraduate degrees apparently can’t be trusted to be morally upright. When women are selected for council committees, will they be segregated as well?
Should all interaction between male and female council members be conducted via closed circuit television? It pretty much defeats the purpose of giving women an active role in Saudi society.
It’s this kind of thinking that puts public educational exhibits in jeopardy. Once moms and dads walk through the Fakieh Aquarium hand in hand with their kids in tow, someone will find it objectionable and recommend the facility’s closure.
Not long ago, it was announced that 56 Saudi children and young people won awards in eight international mathematics competitions in 2012. The children competed against the giants in science and technology: Germany, France and Italy. The kids won the first Arabic medal in physics and won distinction for solving medical and technical problems. They also performed well in international scientific and engineering forums. They competed in such prestigious competitions as the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and the International Exchange of North America.
Those children are the result of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah’s dream of a new generation of Saudis possessing knowledge. It was accomplished by dragging those kids out of the dark ages and into the 21st century.
By closing down dinosaur exhibits, and other events like book fairs and literary club readings, the more crude actors in Saudi society are simply dragging Saudis back to the dark ages.
I’m sure those so-called guardians of morality find it attractive that entire families sit in front of the television or video games getting fatter and dumber by the day instead of learning about the origins of birds, the migratory habits of dolphins or the writings of contemporary authors.
Keeping us brain-dead is the ultimate weapon of control.

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