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Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Joys of Saudi Television

Saudi Arabia has changed a lot in recent years. I remember it was only in 2005 that there was an article in the papers about a man from Qassim who came home to find his wife watching TV. He filed for divorce on the basis that she had been able to see men on TV! Yes, really. The court had to explain to him that under Shariah law seeing a man on TV does not amount to infidelity! (Mind you, having coffee in Starbucks with someone you're not married to, does according to the laws of khulwa.)
I also remember watching a cookery programme on Saudi TV – a series in which the female chef was totally veiled and also wore black gloves (so she probably came from Qassim). It was so weird seeing a black blob hopping around the kitchen! The stove was absolutely filthy - probably afraid of getting her gloves dirty! Just the look of her cookery made you think you'd go down with chronic food poisoning!
Never did I think in those heady days that I would end up as one of KSA2's main English language news anchors. I was driving on the way back from Dubai to Riyadh – a 1000km journey - right in the middle of the Empty Quarter when my mobile phone went (the Saudis believe in being able to use their mobiles anywhere in the Kingdom, even if it is over 200kms to the next settlement). "Bonjour. C'est Monsieur Breeaaaaan Sawlteeer n'est-ce pas?" Well, luckily my schoolboy French came in dead useful and I was able to strike up a happy conversation with this guy who, it turned out, was responsible for making up the rotas on the English language TV station, even though he had learned French rather than English when at school.
It turned out that there were plans for KSA2 to go global, using satellites to beam their must-watch programmes into homes in Europe, America and Australia and someone had woken up to the fact that KSA2's news readers weren't up to much, certainly not on a par with other international broadcasters.
I was the Breeaaaaan Sawlteeer who used to broadcast on the BBC World Service yes? Yes I was. And you have trained announcers yes? Yes said I, forgetting to explain that they had been radio announcers, not TV. Good. Please come to our studios tomorrow morning.

So the next day at the allotted hour I blagged my way through the security apparatus and ended up in an office overlooking the TV Tower which dominated the old town.

Show me what your announcers are given to read, I requested and on doing so was in no way surprised that they made such a dog's dinner of the evening news. I spent the next three months training the newsroom on the rudiments of writing a news bulletin, and then started off training the announcers. It wasn't long after that that the inevitable request came for me to put in an appearance in front of the cameras.
Most of the equipment looked like stuff that had been discarded from the BBC over 20 years previously. (Not far out in my assumptions I later learned.)

Worst was the autocue pedal which regularly broke down while on air such that the words rushed up off the screen, or even started rolling backwards. Some of the newsroom staff insisted On TYPING EVERYTHING IN CAPITAL LETTERS which meant that many of the stories about American forces were a constant battle when trying to work out whether US meant 'us' or 'U.S.' and even to this day, if you want a good lesson in how NOT to read the news then tune in to KSA2.

I well remember one bulletin when the guy on the control desk was being let loose for the very first time. The 11pm news went OK and I think that’s when he started to get cocky. For the 1am bulletin – a 20 minuter – he missed the out cue of one of the VT inserts and let it play on…and on…and on until unceremoniously chopping it in mid flow. By then all the “timings” were well out. I then introduced a VT from Turkey. Nothing. Just my pretty face on screen.
“Go on” the editor said in my earphone. So I went on to the next story. Wrong! I was chopped mid sentence and the VT is played in. OK. I pick up at the start of the next story again and carry on. 15 mins later as all the timings are well out I get the message over the earphone “Cut all remaining stories.” So I drop the last three and lead in to the headlines.
“That’s all we have time for now, ladies and gentlemen. So to end the news let’s take another look at our top stories …..” and I sit…and wait … and look pretty… and continue to look pretty … and continue to continue to look pretty … and it dawns on me that the guy outside in the control room has no idea what is happening. The editor is obviously not up to much either (I found out later that he had given instructions to the rookie and then walked out of the studio leaving him to fend for himself.) And believe me it’s very lonely sitting on camera smiling at an unseen audience with nothing to say, having no idea what is going on and knowing the world is wondering also what is going on!
Eventually after 17 seconds – a lifetime – the headlines are faded in and I can continue to the end of the bulletin. The rookie is mortified and turns to face away from me when I exit the studio. The sound man has a good snigger and the VT guy has already disappeared. I smile and wave a hearty shukran as I walk out and go back upstairs to the newsroom which is deserted except for one of the editors who hasn’t even watched the bulletin as he is busy on MSN Messenger to a girlfriend on the other side of the world.
The next morning I went over to the TV station where, I was told, there was money waiting for me! This is the big moment I had been waiting for for over seven months. To actually get paid! Wow! Saudis, I should explain, hate parting with money, whether it is their own or somebody else's.
Now they have this system whereby you have to search for your name on hundreds of sheets of paper and find a number scribbled next to it. You then go to the cash office in the next corridor, quote the number and ask for your pay. So easy … you’d think.

Mustafa has given me a scruffy piece of paper (given its size, I think he was saving trees) with seven numbers scribbled on it. 867, 395, 410, 310, 775, 543, 109. And I was given instructions to go to the cash office where there would be a pile of money waiting for me. So I went along to the cash office where a scruffy bedou gabbled away in Arabic and shooed me away. What to do?
I went upstairs to the newsroom where the female (morning shift) editors were packing up. One of them offered to accompany me and translate. We went to the cash office. Wrong cash office! They had decided during Ramadhan that TV staff should get paid from a special TV cash office whilst radio and Information Ministry personnel could still get paid from the old cash office. We eventually find the new office back in the TV building.
The cashier bursts out laughing. “You’re not a woman!” he says pointing at me. You’re quite right, I reply. (What else would I have said?) “But now you go to the women’s cash office?” Turns out that someone “upstairs” has decided that keeping me waiting for seven months for my pay is a bit OTT and I should be fast tracked … and the only way to fast track someone is to enter them as a woman as they get paid quicker than men (don’t ask me why!). So I have been made a temporary woman!
I go with Tabasum to the female cash office. Ooops – there is a muttawah [religious police] raid on right at this minute so obviously I can’t go into the cash office. Tabasum goes in instead and comes out five minutes later to tell me that all of these numbers have already been paid out. Obviously the westerner is trying his luck trying to cheat the system but as the cash has been signed for (very sorry, we can’t read the signature!) I must leave empty handed.
Hoards of muttawah (oh, OK, three, but it still feels a lot) shout to Tabasum to cover her face and she turns away pretending not to understand what they are screaming. She takes me to see Mustapha, the newsroom fixer. He takes me to see Khalid, the cash office fixer. He bashes away at his computer and I am returned to male status once more. I am given a new number. Will this get me some money? Oh no. Maybe next week inshallah.
He bashes away on the computer again. Another number is produced. You take this to information ministry cash office and they give you money. Ahh. That’s better. I walk over to the Ministry building. “La la. Mafi hinah!” Back to Khalid. “Did I say Ministry? La la. I meant TV cash”. Back to TV cash office. “You’re not a woman then?” He opens a huge drawer stuffed full of wads of notes and lifts one out. This for you, he says. (A good feeling). And I am now led to believe that the other number that Khalid has given me will reward me with great riches next week (inshallah) – in fact possibly seven months’ worth of riches.
A few days later it was the visit of King Abdullah to the UK. I was on shift when he had his state banquet with Liz & Phil-the-Greek and because it was all happening right up until transmission, my long bulletin at 1am didn’t get the autocue script until seconds before going on air – in fact I was convinced I would have to read the whole thing off paper – but in the end up it came and I ploughed straight on in…with such gems as “the relationship between the Kingdom and the Queendom is..” (I was able to sidestep that little one!) and another: since the historic meeting between HM King Abdulaziz ibn Saud and Sirchil in 1945”. Sirchil? 1945? Ah. Easy (but they don’t ‘alf make it difficult when you’re least expecting it!)
Another time I had arrived back in Riyadh again, at a time the OPEC heads of state summit was disrupting traffic and the lives of the populace. The next day, I got home, made myself a lovely plate of mince and onions with macaroni and was just about to sink my gnashers in when the phone went. Saudi TV. “Hello Mr Brain. Keif Halik?” (oh oh they want something!) “Are you in Riyadh?” (they definitely want something) “Would you be available this evening at short notice?” OK. It’s a fair cop. Do they want me to read the 9pm or the 11pm news? It appears that one of their announcers who was due in at 9.30 is now not able to make it. Could I cover for him? (Ah. So it’s the 11pm.) Sure. No problems, say I feeling expansive. Is it both the 11pm and 1am or just the 11pm?
“La, La, you don’t understand, He was going to cover the OPEC summit. Now you can do it yes?” Er, what exactly do you mean “do it”? Do what?
“Oh you just have to introduce the programme, interview the guests, give some background about OPEC. That kind of thing. Mafi mushkillah. We know you can do it”.
Now just a moment there. You want me to present this evening’s analysis programme on OPEC? Yes that’s right. And when does it go out? 9.30pm (it’s now 6.30 pm). But I don’t know anything about this OPEC summit. I have been too busy to see the news today or yesterday. Mafi mushkillah we have a researcher for you. How long is the programme? Only 1 ½ hours! What !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Well against my better judgement I finally agreed and got changed into my glad rags. Pink shirt with a pink spotted blue tie. And though I say it myself I felt quite dapper. (In fact it was even commented on in the studio. “Not everyone could wear that and get away with it!” I was told.)
I managed to drive like a maniac and got to the studios by 7.30. Can I see what your researcher has got together for me? Answer: one page of the Saudi news bulletin. And this has got to fill 1 ½ hours????????? Are you mad? Ah we know you can do it Mr Brain.
I need to do my own research. I’m off to the news room. Oh sorry Mr Brain. The internet is down. But inshallah it will be back up again soon. What????????
So who am I interviewing? We have three guests for you. Yes, but who? They will be good guests. Yes, but who? Inshallah we will find out shortly (it’s now 9.10 and no sign of any guests.)
So I have the prospect of going on air in 20 minutes with no background to the summit and no idea whom I’m interviewing. Mafi mushkillah. We will tell you of course when we know. Don’t you know? Don’t worry Mr Brain. All will happen. Please to go in the studio.
I’m shepherded into the studio. 9.25. No guests. 9.28 no guests. We are told they have left the hotel. Inshallah they will be here soon. Just introduce the programme and we will bring them in when they arrive. Hey! No way! (I know what inshallah means in this place!)
9.30 comes and goes. At 9.40 an American Egyptian walks in. Do you know what is going on? he asks me? Nope. Nor do I. At 9.47 a Lebanese woman walks in. Do you know what is going on she asks us both? Nope. At 9.50 we are on the air. (Hey, what happened to interviewee no 3? He’s sitting in Cairo, I’m told with 10 seconds to go. No idea what his subject of expertise is. Come to that, I haven’t much idea what the other two can talk about either. But now we’re live!
Asalaam aleikum and welcome to a special programme yadda yadda yadda … say I and we’re off. Turns out we also have an ex Oil Minister of Kuwait on the line (kept waiting for 45 minutes as no one tells me he is there) plus there are three inserts from the Saudi Foreign minister and some vox pops etc.
And amazingly it all seemed to go OK. I dug right down into the depths of my memory and regurgitated Sheikh Yamani and the 1973 oil crisis (it helped that I had made a programme on this very subject some 30 years previously!); and remembered the book I’d read on the fall of the Shah in 1979 and was able to B_S my way through the programme. And before I knew it, 70 minutes had passed and I was wrapping up.
The interviewees said how impressed they were, and how well they thought it had gone. The producer who had avoided me at the start (wonder why!) came in to bask in reflected glory. And the biggest compliment came from the female interviewee. Not only was she managing editor of a business magazine in Beirut, but also of an events company in Bahrain. Would I be interested in chairing an international conference for them in the near future? She would eMail me with the details. (She never did.)
Ahhh. Saudi Television. Eat your hearts out BBC/CNN/Fox etc

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Delhi Diary

The Brain and his Delhi Diary
Another extract from Sushmita Bose's Blog that I wrote for her in May 2009

Are we at the airport yet? The taxi driver smiles, pointing out to Sushmita that we're still in Dubai. We won't be in Sharjah for a little while... and you'll know when we are.
He's right. Within minutes, as we cross the unmarked border into the second largest of the Emirates, the traffic snarls to the proverbial snail's pace, indicative of one of the biggest problems of trying to reach Sharjah Airport, which is home to the cheapo airline that I had the temerity to suggest to Sush we try out for our break in India.
To the uninitiated, Sharjah is known in some quarters as the armpit of the UAE - not unfairly, one has to admit. It's the only one of the seven Emirates which is "dry" and is renowned for its massive traffic jams, its hundreds of labour camps, its thousands of heavy lorries and equally heavy industries. Not a place one would immediately think of to spend a holiday.
But we've booked on Air Arabia to fly to Delhi, saving some 600 dirhams each (around Rs 8,000) on the Emirates price. Oh God - I won't last two hours here, Sush declares as she surveys the scene once we have finally arrived. Despite the traffic we have made good time and actually get there 15 minutes before the flight opens.

We are shown to a queue for early check in - but it's miles long and 20 minutes later we have shuffled only about two metres by the time I discover that by joining the Mumbai check-in we can be through in no time as they are happy to process us for Delhi.
The loos stink, Sush informs me, having checked out the plumbing once we are airside. Believe me, this will be the first and last time I come through Sharjah Airport! Even I have to admit that Sharjah's standards fall somewhat short of the dizzy heights of what Sush has come to expect of an airport. But there's one very good way of cheering her up.... We head for the food court. A choice of Indian, Chinese or McDonalds. No contest. With a reasonably good Dosa inside her insides, washed down by a coffee that appears to be the right colour at least, Sush is once more a happy bunny and heads for the Duty Free, where with obviously well practised ease she eventually returns clutching a number of plastic bags.
They sell booze in duty free! she informs me. (I am surprised, for as I think I might have mentioned, Sharjah is a dry state.) But there's a sign saying it's NOT for Muslims, so I guess that's alright. I wonder how they can tell what religion you are, she muses as we make our way to the gate.
We go through another security screening. Sushmita manages to set off all the alarms and is ushered into a tent where a cacophony of electronic squawks informs us that the female frisker is taking no chances with our beloved heroine.
Better check out the loo before we board the flight, as I don't want to be caught short once we're in the air, I am informed; and as she minces across the gate lounge, a hundred pairs of hungry male eyes avidly follow her route. One particularly greasy individual turns round to me and gives the thumbs up with a knowing leer, as if to say you've struck it lucky kid!
Air Arabia leaves on time and in our welcoming announcement we are informed that the cabin crew between them speak English, Arabic, Korean, Russian and Ukrainian, but alas... no mention of Hindi or Malayalam, so the vast majority of passengers have not the slightest idea what is being said.
We are given landing cards to fill in where it informs those interested enough to read the small print on the back that each passenger can import 2 litres of whisky or wine (no mention of gin, brandy or vodka) except for those under ten years of age. I half expect to see swarms of tipsy ten-year-olds being supported by their younger siblings when we arrive.
Time for a little sleep before landing in three hours' time. The crew turn up the heating to ensure the right soporific conditions are met and Sushmita curls up like a pussycat and is soon purring away contentedly.
In no time the lights come up again and we prepare for a bumpy landing. The stewardess informs us that mobile phones should not be switched on until we are in the terminal, but her announcement is drowned out by the Nokia theme emanating from every corner of the plane.
We wait for the HSBC-sponsored swing bridge to allow us off, but the HSBC controller is obviously still fast asleep and instead we climb down the steps into the cool of a beautiful Delhi morning and into an old beat up bus that struggles to make it into 2nd gear before depositing us around the corner at immigration.
Here we are met by a posse of officials wearing face masks and we all have to fill in forms stating our seat numbers and whether we have come from anywhere with suspected swine flu. Sush can't remember any of the flight details and puts down the first figures that come into her head. The medic affixes an official looking stamp confirming her details and I start to worry that should she go down with the dreaded disease, there will be no paperwork to show that I am the most likely passenger she passed it on to. Ah well, I must be brave!
I go to change some money. Four UAE bank notes from me exchanged for 117 notes depicting the Mahatma in a thick wad which I can scarcely fit in my pocket, let alone my wallet. I am reminded of that famous one-liner from Mae West: Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me? Well, I'm obviously pleased to catch up with our heroine once again as I discover her by the Duty Free (where else?) and together we set off into Incredible India.
Not a bit like I was expecting. I have been to Mumbai and also to Bangalore. Both those environments assault the olfactory nerves with their own strong characteristic odours, but not so Delhi. The traffic is a lot less manic too; and the cows wandering in the streets don't have their horns painted bright yellow as I witnessed in Karnataka. It feels almost like a different country.
Sushmita has persuaded one of her hapless friends - "Tiger" - to get out of bed at the crack of dawn and pick us up from the airport - a true gent and a saviour, and I am eventually deposited at a hotel I had booked just two days previously. The hotel can find no mention of my booking, but never mind sir. You can have an executive room and we will move you tomorrow into the room you think you booked with us. I get the impression that this is a regular occurrence with them and when I finally have to sign in to a massive tome that would be just perfect for pressing wild flowers, I begin to understand that computerisation of their booking system is not high up on their agenda.
I am shown to an executive suite - well that's what they call it ..."matchless in its understated elegance" ... (mine is the Greek Suite, so called, I suspect, because it boasts a picture of a statue with half its arms chopped off) and I begin to worry what their ordinary deluxe room will be like (perhaps a picture of a bar of soap?). Will its elegance also be understated? One of the tea bags on the beverages tray looks like it might have been used a few times too many, but I tell myself that as I'm paying only half the rack rate for this piece of real estate heaven in Delhi I'm in no position to complain.
Meanwhile a friend in Kashmir who was due to fly to Delhi to join us has discovered that a curfew imposed in the run up to the election means she can't get a flight out of Srinagar until the next day. Ah well, we can at least hope she will make it to Sushmita's BIG PARTY.
That evening I am taken to a slap up meal at Oh! Calcutta - the best Bengali restaurant in town I'm told. Don't ask me what we ate - Sush will have to fill that bit in, as I insisted she do the ordering. (The girl dun good!) But I'm left wondering if the restaurant is named after the town itself or after the 1960s Musical? I refrain from telling Sush what the origin of the musical name was as she is far too young and innocent to know about such things. (Hint for you ignorant shameless guys out there: try saying it fast and translating the resulting French into English!)
Sush, with Tiger's help, decides to teach me a few words in Hindi in the hope they might come in useful during my stay. When negotiating the fare with a cab driver, you should show him respect by calling him B.C., she patiently explains to me. (Of course, dear reader, it's not pronounced that way, but I have great difficulty spelling it in Hindi, and I am assured that it is normally shortened to this abbreviation). I try and commit to memory, but am sure I will forget by the morning.
The next day I leave Sush in peace and hire a car to show me the sights of Delhi. The driver decides he wants to take me on a tour of the factory outlets and promptly deposits me at a Kashmir carpet shop. No. No shops. I want to see Delhi, not carpet shops, I tell him. He starts to sulk and I wonder if I should use my recently gained knowledge of Hindi to cheer him up, but decide against it. What if he answered back, what would I say next?
So we take in the Bahai Temple, followed by the Qutub Minar, the Akshardam Temple -- (you want lunch now Sir? I take you to good restaurant, yes? No thanks, says I, wondering how much commission he has arranged with this particular joint... and he goes back into sulk mode) - Humayun's Tomb, Raj Ghat, Lal Qila (and all the time the driver stares ahead giving monosyllabic answers).
And then a miraculous thing happens. I get back to the car after seeing Red Fort only to find the driver has disappeared. He eventually reappears 20 minutes later with a load of shopping. He is 'devastated' that I have been kept waiting (do they get points deducted for not looking after their customers I wonder?) and when I ask to go back to the hotel he insists we go via India Gate. Of course I choose just that moment to forget my treasured new Hindi word, so instead of 'I say B.C. I insist on being taken to the hotel as I asked', I instead smile sweetly and come up with something along the lines of 'I say old man, would you be so good as to take me to the hotel as I asked?' We drive around India Gate and head for the hotel.
Good news awaits. My friend has arrived from Kashmir and is on her way over from the airport. Just in time for us to get picked up by Tiger and taken to where it is all happening. Sush has been working her fingers to the bone all day preparing for the party and we are let loose on scrummy biscuits topped with cheese, cucumber, tuna and tomatoes; the drinks flow freely;
Sush obviously chooses her friends from the best-looking people around (so great to know I'm in good company); the music blasts out to the night air. But alas like all good things it must come to an end and with tears in their eyes Delhi's beautiful people must be homeward bound. Tiger kindly insists on being a taxi driver (hey guys ... he's the best!) and at last I am snuggled up in my room of understated elegance dreaming of the morrow.
The morrow comes, but the Brain sleeps through the allotted hour of awakening and all his plans for the day go poof in a cloud of smoke. Instead he and lately-arrived friend make plans to cover ALL the must-see sites of Delhi that had been missed yesterday. Instead of an air-conditioned car with bolshy driver, we enjoy the open road in auto-taxis (note to non-Indians: these are the same as tuk-tuks in Sri Lanka and bemos in Indonesia, except that they run on gas and, it is said, are better for the environment!). We go to see the Tughlaqabad Fort ruins in all their splendid glory. We head for the India Gate, posing for pix, shoot up to the President's residence, pass the High Court, and go for some lunch in a restaurant that our auto-taxi driver takes us to. On to Safdarjang's Tomb and thence to the Jama Masjid. Surely we have covered everything there is worth seeing in Delhi by now?
No? No! For as we are at the Masjid, one thing I am told that should never be missed is the best Moghul cooking in Delhi - nay, India! Karim's boasts a continuous line of chefs dating right back to the days of the last Moghul emperor and it draws visitors in from far and wide. We take a rickshaw from the masjid and on arrival are shown to a grubby corner of a grubby restaurant and given grubby plates to eat off. But forget the superficial veneer. The grub (very un-grubby) is excellent. What a perfect way to end a first stay in Delhi.
So how did I find Delhi, your blog-readers are all agog to find out...... Weeeeell, it wasn't what I was expecting, that's for sure. There are some fabulous places, without a doubt, spread over a vast sprawl of a city with some beautiful areas surrounded by some not-so-pretty ones. The people I met were, as I just knew they would be, both charming and in many cases fascinating (and that goes especially for Sushmita's circle of friends).
But I wasn't expecting the blatant rip off-of foreigners in every conceivable situation, starting with the fact that almost all monuments charge, say 10/- for nationals and 250/- for foreigners. That's a whopping 2500 per cent for god's sake! AND they even charge an extra 25/- to take in a video camera to many of the monuments. Hotels have dual rates too; and the taxis, well I suspect the way they rip off visitors is similar to every other city in the world. But having a cabbie demand 800/- that costs anyone else 150/- (I end up paying 200/-) once again sticks in the throat. Even at the airport they don't accept Indian money from foreigners in the Duty Free shop (though it's OK for Indians apparently). And for me, this constant demand for extra money put a dampener on my entire stay in the city. When a city contrives to make its guests feel so unwelcome, one has to ask oneself why one would bother visiting it in the first place.
But a PS - when I came down to pay my hotel bill I was asked to fill in a questionnaire by a well heeled assistant in reception. I mention on the form that the food is well below standard and that over half the items on the room service menu are unavailable. At that point it descends into that famous Monty Python sketch where one person after another comes to apologise. First the sub manager is called, ringing his hands in woe; then the manager, promising he has never had ANYONE ever complain before. He simply cannot understand it. The Head of F&B is then summoned to explain himself. Can I give chapter and verse of EVERYTHING I found wrong with the food. (I don't have the time as I have a plane to catch!) And finally the owner of the establishment who is overwrought with guilt and contrition turns up and, I swear, looks as if he is about to burst into tears.
My bill is snatched back out of my hands and recalculated. Suddenly the room rate which had already been cut by 50 per cent has another 500/- taken off for each night's stay. A further 1200/- is deducted as a goodwill gesture. 250/- is knocked off my airport taxi bill.... (Maybe I should have mentioned the bathroom?)
Oh, and I never did get to find out what the picture with a bar of soap looked like as the hotel had waived the very idea of moving me to an inferior room. So perhaps all is not as bad as it seems in the state of India!