Egypt: Eid al-Adha in Abbassia

Warning to vegetarians: Explicit content and descriptions of violence.

You’ve hopefully noticed I’m not keen on the word tourist. I wouldn’t describe myself as a traveller either, as most of my time is spent getting up at 6am and going to work five days a week like most people. Holidaying expat might be more accurate, or migrant who visits nearby countries when he has time off. But when you have a fixed amount of time to explore a new place, especially one as famous and rich in culture and history as Egypt, it’s a little difficult to avoid seeing the Pyramids and Luxor. So I was more than ready to accept an invitation from my colleague to spend Eid with his family in the district of Abbassia in Cairo. Very much not on the tourist trail. It’s an old district, with old grand European-style houses mixed in with authentic traditional Egyptian families who weren’t looking to sell me anything. The fact that in central parts of Cairo, Giza and Luxor, people who usually relied on tourism constantly tried to lure me in with perhaps the cleverest and sneakiest tactics I’ve come across, it was a welcome break and much needed insight into the other Egypt. The real Egypt.

It began at daybreak in the centre of Abbassia, with mass public prayer in the street, and a general festive feeling. It’s very clearly a happy time, where everyone is extra friendly and generous. I stood in the middle rudely taking my pictures, all the while anticipating the main event of the day, the slaughtering of sheep.20150924_061408

We went to the family home, and I donned the traditional Egyptian gallabia. Commonly known as the thobe in other parts. I could smell the sheep on the balcony, alive and well, perhaps unaware of their fate. Now I say sheep, but if I saw them in Europe I’d most definitely be calling them goats. Once upon a time I thought I knew the difference, but my time in the Middle East has left me more than a little confused about the distinction. Even with fluent English speaking Egyptians I was told they were definitely sheep, and not goats. Bangs and small explosions in the street led us out to partake in the traditional firecracker throwing, at all and anything. Definitely a health and safety hazard at home, but a source of much amusement for the young and annoyance for the elderly in Egypt.

The first ‘sheep’ was brought out into the public abbatoir and the local butcher was called upon to do the deed. The sheep was calmly laid down in the doorway in the street. “Bismallah. Allahu akbar.” The throat, wind pipe and blood vessels in the neck were then cleanly slit, and the blood left to drain into the cobbles. Skinned, gutted and cut into pieces, ready for dinner. A third given to the poor (who literally came up to the family in the street asking for some), a third to their family, and a third for themselves. I have a lot of respect for the compulsory zakat (charity) in Islam. Whether it’s altruistic or not is irrelevant, it serves a noble purpose.

I’d never seen an animal be killed, or even die. I’ve flirted with the idea of vegetarianism for a few years now, going through phases and settling for being a vegetarian at home most of the time, but not when out of the house. It’s actually very difficult to be a vegetarian when outside of Europe, particularly when you’re a guest. My objections with eating meat revolve around agriculture and the environment, rather than murder. Cutting down a lot covers my argument usually, and I can’t fully explain why, but I think it’s better to eat what you’re given rather than cause a fuss. With a nod to my previous post, I always remember the Desert Father’s advice: If you’re going to fast and then make a big deal of it in front of others, then stay at home to avoid looking proud or rude. But anyway, I eat meat. It is different when you eat something you saw die though. I think we desensitise ourselves a lot in European cities. To actually see an animal be killed, and call it a killing, and then readily eat it later on…that’s ethically challenging. I joked that the experience had just turned me into a vegetarian and that I couldn’t put these pictures on Facebook. Then I went in and ate its liver. I know some reading this will see this as quite flippant, uncaring and dismissive of a genuinely important ethical debate, but I’m simply trying to show the conflict and contradictions in my mental battle with vegetarianism. Eating meat is readily accepted in the majority of the world, so it’s easy to not think about it much. I’m pretty sure if the majority were vegetarian I wouldn’t go against that grain either.

Shisha and coffee followed after my Eid gift of ten Egyptian pounds (about 90p?). The hospitality and generosity of my colleague and his family were exceptional. Another example of people treating a foreigner like a member of the family without hesitation. Would I invite someone I didn’t know very well to spend Christmas with me and my family? Probably not.

As a final point, the family I was with had spent several years in Lancaster. I’m regularly worried about Arabs’ experiences in Britain, but I’m very relieved to report that they all loved it, and were keen to point out that the warnings they had about us being cold, unfriendly and unhelpful were proved to be very wrong. Well done Lancaster. Another lesson learnt about me, Brits, and other cultures. Eid mubarak.

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Egypt: Scetis (Wadi el Natrun).

I wasn’t there long, but I sensed it was a place in conflict. In conflict with its neighbours, its history and its country. All the while, sitting there peacefully in the middle of the desert like an ancient monastic Tatooine.

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The Coptics recently had some issues with Da’esh in Libya, and then in Upper Egypt – apparently building a church to remember the Libyan martyrs was upsetting for others. Violent troubles in the region’s history and the treatment of the monks were often mentioned, and politically they seemed a little tense, but in general quite relieved that the current leader was in charge.

I’d randomly met a lot of Christians in Cairo and Alexandria, many more than I was expecting. To my surprise, I found them to be everywhere.

Brother Macarius was a very amiable fellow. A calm and friendly man at peace. He seemed genuinely delighted to show me around. He said he doesn’t meet many Brits, and was delighted to be informed by an English teacher that his English was excellent. He has some family in Manchester, but was slightly taken aback and at a loss for words when I asked where abouts. Apparently, “I have family in Manchester” is enough to please most people.

He gently led me around, telling me how the Coptics claim to be the true descendants of the Pharaohs. Their language and some rites descend from ancient Egypt, and Arabic is the newest influence upon their daily life. This was mentioned to me on two different occasions in the monasteries which implied it must be a contentious issue, or a point of pride to one-up the other guys. He told me about the martyrs, the Berber invasions and his Christian v Muslim debating skills. He was a little surprised when I started to reference some Desert Fathers and practices I’d read about. I’m not sure what kind of people actually visit Wadi Natrun, but I assumed it would be people who know what the place actually is as it’s not exactly on the foreigner tourist trail. But perhaps not.

He went on to confirm that when they say, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” they often (but not always) follow it with, “All are One.” I should have guessed why, as it made a lot of sense when explained. I’ve heard myself several times from Arab Muslims of how the Christians believe in three gods. So in an attempt to dispel this myth, the Coptics explicitly emphasise the unity of the Trinity. When I quizzed him about the theological training of the monks, I was politely informed that knowing lots of theories and ideas does nothing for giving you peace, loving your neighbour or bringing you closer to the divine.

I’m not sure why, but I felt like asking him if the Coptics believed in war. The question was met with a rather surprised and confused Brother Macarius looking straight back at me. “How can anyone who believes in Jesus and the New Testament be anything but a pacifist?” Quite. So no Just War Theory or justification for violence in any context? “We didn’t have the Roman Empire to twist our theology like you Europeans. So no, we don’t believe in violence.” Well good sir, despite the fact you’ve never heard of Benedicta Ward, I do believe I quite like you and your completely sensible talk.

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Iran: Cultural Revolutions

I went to Iran consciously looking for signs of rebellion and protest. As the days passed when I was there it was clear that I didn’t have to look very hard- there were signs of protest and rebellion against the regime all around. Whether it was the aforementioned Zoroastrian symbols on show, or the Tehrani girls seeing just how short their mantows could be, and how much their hijab could fall off, it was quite obvious that lots of people had different ideas from that of the government. In history, Persian culture spread to the surrounding areas despite numerous invasions. It was Persian culture that triumphed, and not the conquering peoples’. It doesn’t seem too dissimilar to modern day Iran, where their rich and sophisticated culture is seeping through the cracks in the Revolution’s restrictions.

…In Isfahan, under a bridge, an elderly gentleman starts to sing. He sees me, singles me out and sits me down next to him in the middle of everyone. Mortified, I politely sit and listen to his love songs. He tells the gathering crowd that they must show the foreigner how welcoming and friendly Iranians are. He says he can only sing one more because the police will come soon to move him along. Embarrassed, out of my comfort zone and slightly wary of the fact undercover police are probably mingling amongst the crowd, I silently listen and appreciate his gesture of goodwill and kindness to the blondie in the crowd. Singing under bridges is an old Persian tradition, where people gather to sing and listen. These days, public gatherings of this nature are frowned upon and the gent knew this only too well. But still he sang. He sang to me…

In Tehran, I went to the theatre. I can’t say I used to go a lot at home, only a handful of times I think, but the absence of some kind of sophisticated, domesticated culture in my life made me jump at the chance. Picture the Iran we think we know from the news. Now picture a European theatre with educated professionals, students and liberals. If I’m allowed to make judgments based on appearance, the Tehrani crowd was filled with the latter. I could’ve been in London. I had no idea what they were saying, but I felt very comfortable and inspired by the existence of the performing arts there. I tried to follow what was going on by the (very well performed) expressions on the actors’ (and actress’s!) faces. The title was Calvin and Castellio’s Revolution. I saw Christian monks, lots of weeping, and an obvious challenge to the Catholic authorities in the story line, but it was a little difficult to piece it all together. I knew about John Calvin, but that was about it. What was slightly apparent is that it resembled modern day Iran and the Mullahs. After the show, it was pieced together for me…

“It was about the Catholic Church sentencing a writer and also a physician for his controversial writings and beliefs. The writer, Michele Serveh, thought of God as a source of mercy which contradicted the priests’ image of Him. The priests considered all people as natural born sinners who should have their sins removed through asceticism and self-restraint from carnal desires.  In the court, the priests explicitly condemned Serveh for his merciful view of God and talked about how the expansion of this belief would be a threat to the Church and everyone.

Sebastian Castellio was a lawyer. At the beginning of the play Serveh asked him to accept his case, which he did at first. However, after a few days and as a result of the pressures imposed on him by the priests, and the threats of taking away his pregnant wife, he decided to decline the case.

At the end of the play and after the execution of Serveh, Castellio realises what a mistake he has made and decides to change his path and make up for it. Thus, he goes to the priests who are having dinner around a table covered with a red table cloth (symbolising blood). The layout of the table and seats was similar to ‘the last supper’. It was there that Castellio declares his anger for their incorrect deeds as so-called men of God. He says: ‘I have decided to be your Judah, although, I do not see any Messiah at this table’.

John Calvin was one of the priests who had great influence on the attorney and their verdict.

In general it was talking about inquisition, about how the authorities can use religion and fear of God as a means of oppressing people, and about the authorities’ fear of people gaining awareness (through books, or any other means).

The interesting point is that even in the brochure of the play the director clearly writes: ‘The approach used in this play is intended to create a situation where the audience find themselves in the time of the original event’.”

Quite shocking that this kind of thing is allowed to go on in theatres. I’m told it’s fairly normal for the theatre to be controversial, subversive and revolutionary. If it was a book or a film, it’d be banned. But in the theatre…voilà. There’s more than a little hope for Iran. If this section of modern Iranian culture is anything to go by, revolution is happening again. Not like the last one that was hijacked by the current powers that be, maybe they can’t trust that kind of revolution again. This is more like a cultural revolution, where the authorities are realising that they just can’t make people behave in the way they want. In nearby lands, I get the impression that the status quo is generally supported by the masses because it’s their culture. In Iran, I got the impression that it isn’t supported as much because it isn’t their culture. I was told that in the last couple of years there have been signs (e.g. with dress and theatre) that the authorities are simply starting to give up. It’s depressing to see such a sophisticated lot, cultured and educated, be put under such restrictions in life. Despite not understanding a word, the trip to the theatre was the most interesting evening for me. I’ve been to the majority of the middle east, and this was the most inspiring side of humanity I’ve seen in any of the countries. Perhaps it was patronising of me to not expect this. But the fact is I didn’t expect it, and I was very happy to discover it. It showed me a side of Tehran that completely contradicts the negative western image of Iran, and showed me that cultural rebellion is alive and well, and the future of Iran might not look all that bad. I think a healthy society is one that can, with a wink and a smile, show two fingers to the authorities. It seems that certain segments of society are doing just that. Viva la revolución

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I don’t normally go in for souvenirs. But I couldn’t resist…

Calvin

Iran: Armenian Orthodoxy

My Christian tourism in Isfahan was an unexpected bonus (Christmas trees!). Whilst looking at pretty churches and cathedrals can become very samey in Europe, there’s something magnetic about seeing them in majority Muslim countries. It’s no doubt because they don’t exist where I live, full stop. Iran on the other hand, has a decent sized Armenian community, and some very old churches. I think it’s the political implications of churches in Muslim countries that interests me – and yet another example of how very different Saudi Arabia is from most of the surrounding countries. So a little unwisely, that was the angle I went for when talking to a man in Vank Cathedral in Jolfa, Isfahan. Incidentally, I believe Jolfa comes from the area lots of Armenians fled from during the holocaust, and were given sanctuary in this part of Isfahan, so it’s named after them.

It’s difficult to tell if people are angry or not when everything’s being translated, but I think he was a little annoyed at my British ignorance. After we’d established that they were indeed Orthodox and not Catholic, I asked the obvious question (to me) about government interference in their religion. I felt I got a disgruntled answer, and I was a little embarrassed in all honesty… He wanted to know why on Earth I’d be asking that question. Couldn’t I see how open the church was? Tourists were popping in and out, Muslim and Christian, Iranian and foreign. The wall art was in good condition, and people were marvelling at its detail and colour. The shop sold Christmas items, icons, rosaries and various Christian trinkets. What part of all this makes me think I should ask a question about government interference?

He had a few things to say about Britain and the way we (don’t) educate ourselves. Paraphrased, the Armenians had Christianity before Britain did, but we seem to forget that Jesus wasn’t English. There were a few choice words about the Armenian Holocaust too, when Britain couldn’t help out because, “our boats couldn’t reach them.”

It was refreshing to hear a Christian Iranian so anti-British whilst pro-Iranian at the same time. My stereotype of Iran beforehand led me to believe it would be the staunch Shi’a regime guys that would be like that, which I’m sure they are, but this man’s church was selling Christmas cards. It’s hard to disagree with him when he claims we’re lied to about Iran. I guess it isn’t nice to hear negative propaganda about “those Iranian Muslims” when there’s clearly a safe minority of people who belong to an older version of the same religion most western countries have come out of.

But anyway, I apologised on behalf of the Queen and he laughed reassuring me that history had nothing to do with me. I’ve no idea how I would have been made aware of the situation of Iranian-Armenian Christians if I hadn’t travelled there. As far as I know, the Daily Mail hasn’t ran that story yet.

I took a peek in the shop and without a hint of cheekiness wished the girls there Merry Christmas. It’s remarkable how much I think Saudi culture influences me even when out of the country. I wouldn’t have thought ten years ago that me saying, “Merry Christmas” in public would be a source of amusement.

…Round the corner in the Church of Holy Bethlehem, Gregorian-style music played softly in an old decorated church with evidence of the sun god “Mehr” on the outside walls showing the influence of Persian culture on Christianity in the past…

As a final note, I also went to a Catholic Church in Tehran, which had an Irish priest, on Christmas Eve for their Midnight Mass. I only stayed an hour, but it was filled with Armenians, Iranians and foreigners – mostly with their heads uncovered. They had a musical nativity thing going on, and it was all very…normal…I think that actually broke the stereotype of Iran and Christianity more than Vank Cathedral.

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Iran: The Shi’a

…I arrived in Iran at the end of Arba’een, the 40 days of mourning for the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. They say that a single tear shed for Hussain washes away a hundred sins, which by my reckoning means that lots of people I saw have enough sin credit stored up for a month long bender. Black flags line the streets, it seems, every street. I apprehensively look out for a different kind of black flag in Saudi Arabia. The minute I see one is the minute I leave. So I had to initially remind myself that these aren’t the same black flags flying over the border in Iraq. The complete opposite in fact. It reminded me once again that even though I’ve been in an Islamic country for almost two years, my ignorance of “Islam” still gets me when I see stereotypical signs of what I think is violence and evil. The media even affects those who try to not let it affect them…

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…In the Shah Cheragh Shrine in Shiraz, with its spectacular glass decorations, men sit praying, crying and beating their chests. There was a certain performance element to it all. I wasn’t quite sure what they were doing at first. I can’t honestly say I was convinced anyone was genuinely crying, but they were certainly doing their best to squeeze a tear or two out. A man came and sat next to me and thought it was ok to ask questions about me, but be offended when I asked one about him. It turns out he’d lived in Jeddah for a while, and was just wondering what I thought of Iran before I came. He answered his question for me before I could get a breath out. “Negative no doubt. The West likes to spread negative propaganda about us.” I bit my tongue at his generalisation of The West, because he was probably right this time…

…In the street, lots of women wear the hijab and mantow (a covering/dress that should come down to the knee, and worn on top of trousers), and depending on the town there were also lots of women wearing the chouder (a full body covering leaving the face exposed but nothing else). In Tehran, the hijabs were falling off the backs of girls’ heads, and the mantows were riding up their legs as high as they thought they could get away with whilst wearing skinny trousers underneath. Even Jeddah looks very conservatively dressed compared to Tehran. I had culture shock upon seeing women. Again…

…In Naqshe Jahan Square in Isfahan I took a peek at Friday prayers. I was searched going in and told not to take any pictures. The back pocket came in handy and I was able to sneak a couple of pictures in none the less. Religious group mentality can be very eerie. Talking/praying/shouting in unison seems to give off a cult-ish/hypnotic effect. The man was talking about their dislike of the Gulf States and the Western nations for exploiting their oil. The hundreds of men sat down in lines in the second largest square in the world all obligingly chanted, “Death to Israel! Death to America!” They stood up to pray in the Shi’a style, with their hands up and their muhr (a small stone) on the ground to place their heads (and sometimes noses too) on when they prostrated themselves. I later stole one from the Grand Mosque. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little unnerving. I find things like this interesting, especially politically, but I couldn’t help but feel like the blond white guy standing up next to them, watching them all pray whilst I took sneaky photos when the police weren’t looking, hoping that a “Death to Inglistan!” chant didn’t take off. I’d have said I was German if they’d asked. We all the look the same anyway…

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…Everything closes early in Iran, starting from about 10.30pm. The police kindly help you out if you forget. There isn’t a curfew, but it naturally clears the streets since there’s nothing to do when everything’s shut…

…I spoke to a Mullah in Isfahan who approached me to ask him questions, not the other way around. I wasn’t particularly interested. He said people usually ask about hijabs and terrorism, which I thought quite bold of other tourists. I don’t care to think about those things these days, so opted for the politically safe, “I live in Saudi Arabia, so why are you different from them? Why do you have 12 Imams? I live near Ismaelis who believe in 7 Imams, what’s that all about?” He politely informed me of some basic distinctions that I wasn’t particularly listening to. I was just looking at his turban and confused why his English was so good. Am I racist for calling it a turban? It looks like a turban, but I’ve probably annoyed someone somewhere. There was a moment of agreement when he accused the US of hypocrisy when they accuse Iran of human rights violations, until we realised after that he might have been implying Iran doesn’t have any. Clever how he skewed the conversation from Saudi Ismaelis following 7 Imams into a slur against America’s human rights record…

…In Kashan, a very religious town, we arrived the evening of the anniversary of the Prophet’s death. Well, I thought it was Mohammad’s death, but it was to be the anniversary of Imam Reza’s death two days after, and it seemed they were rolling it into one, with lots of Hassans and Hussains thrown into their lamentations. Men and boys had mud on their clothes to show their state of mourning, green lights dimly lit up the alley we stopped at to watch two lines of men facing each other listen to a preacher tearfully remember the Prophet (and Reza, and Hussain, and Hassan…). In time, with well practiced swings, they beat their chests in unison at the required moments. Shoulders hiccoughing up and down, faces scrunched up waiting for tears to start falling. I still didn’t see any, and their wails didn’t convince me. I can’t help but think this has become a trait for the Shi’a, a ritual that they just do even if they’re not really sad. I felt uncomfortable standing near the middle, as I think anyone would who’s not taking part in a ceremony. I edged in a bit after a few minutes when I realised I could get a better picture that way…

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…I thought I’d hear more about how Shi’a are better than Sunni, but I didn’t. Maybe I spoke to the wrong people. The dislike of Arabs seems to be historical and political rather than doctrinal. They tell me in Saudi Arabia that Shi’a aren’t Muslims, and interestingly I now understand that a growing number of Iranians agree, and see Shi’a Islam as a blend of Persian and Islamic culture brought about partly due to rebellion against the Arab Invasion…

…I didn’t see as much of Islam in Iran as I do in Saudi Arabia, so it’s hard to compare. But it’s very plain to see that Islam in the Gulf is far simpler. Shi’a traditions made me think of all the superstitions some Catholics around the world have brought into their religion, to incorporate older traditions with the invading Christianity…

…But anyway, I didn’t convert…

Impressions of Iran

Every time I leave Saudi Arabia, it takes me a few days to adjust, no matter where I might be. Small things interest me, normal things that I’ve gotten used to not seeing. More detailed things are to follow, but for now, here are a few initial thoughts:

Iran is clean (I couldn’t help but think “Japan-like”), the women are stunning and try their best to push the limits of the law with regards to dress, there are lots of Peugeot 206s on the roads, they have trees and fallen autumnal leaves that you can kick like a kid.

I attended a ‘couchsurfing’ discussion entitled ‘Power’. Men and women mixed in a cafe openly discussing anything around that topic that took their fancy. It seemed that people were interested in open debate and nothing seemed to be taboo. There was a little debate about how normal this was when I asked. The conclusion seemed to be perhaps a little unusual for Shiraz where we were, but not Tehran where we were heading. They seemed interested in Scotland and its vote against independence. I confess, that was how I introduced myself. It’s not a lie anyway, and a “Mexican” was also there. A blatant American.

A man in a hotel asked me why I was standing next to the heater because I should be used to the cold in my country. I told him I lived in “Arabistan” in the desert and his reply was priceless. “What…with…the Arabs?” Incidentally, “-istan” is Persian, and shows the influence Persia had on the wider region. It just means “the land of”. Afghanistan is therefore the land of the Afghan people, Turkmenistan the land of the Turks etc. We’ll just leave Pakistan I think.

Zoroastrian symbols are visible in every town I went to. I was a bit ignorant about this before I went, I didn’t realise it was legal to still be a Zoroastrian in Iran. It seems that people who display the symbols mostly aren’t, but it’s a sign they are proud of their heritage and culture, and is a legal two fingers to the current regime. The visibility of the symbols implies there are a lot of people waving a lot of fingers in rage against the machine.

Iranians are smart, even the men selling things in the bazaars and street stalls were generally well-presented. They are “civilised,” which isn’t a pleasant word as it implies others aren’t. However, it was the word that sprang to mind looking around. They have culture, education and a sense of decency that other places don’t. It really makes you wonder why on earth we’d villainise a people when they’re clearly the same as us in many respects. It became more and more apparent that the actions of the powers that be (mainly the former power that was) did a lot of damage to their image, and Iranians feel it, and are uneasy with it. I would be horrified if a section of the globe tarred me with the same negative brush as western political leaders, past or present.

I often wonder about those first few days out of Saudi Arabia, as I never know if it’s culture shock of entering normality again, or culture shock of the new place I’ve arrived in. I saw a lot of history, and I’m not going to repeat it on here, look it up yourself – it’s ancient, rich and fascinating. As the dust’s begun to settle a bit, and now that I’m back home, I’ve decided to comment on a further three things: The Shiite Islam (double i^^) I saw, the Armenian Orthodox man I met and Iran’s subversive cultural revolution I witnessed…

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A Local Voice.

It’s been a while since I had a post written by others, so here’s one from a friend of mine.

“My name is Faris Abbod Al-Hilal. I live in Khamis Mushait, Saudi Arabia. I’m a student. I’m interested in cars, bikes and electronics. I like to play video games.

In the future, I want to find a good job and have a family with children. I hope to build my own business, maybe selling things or fixing cars. I want these things to be happy. I’d like to go to places like Japan, the UK, Moscow and Morocco. I want to go to Japan because of its electronics and because everything there is new.

Saudi Arabia is good. There are good people here. People are happy here and try to help you if you have a problem.

War worries me at the moment, the war in Syria in particular. In Syria, they kill people for no reason, which is bad. I’m also worried about pollution, such as carbon dioxide emissions.

It’s good to make new friends because they can help you and try to make life better. Also, you won’t feel alone.

I want to see less pollution in the world and peace between people and countries.

It’s Ramadan now. It’s good because it makes your body strong and cleans it. It makes you think about poor people.

The weather’s good here in KSA. We have nice places like Mt. Soudah. You can go on desert safaris for a few days too.

Thank you, and I wish to see you in KSA sometime soon. Try to be happy!”