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Jeddah, Medina, Locusts and the great End of Ramadan controversy

In the last few weeks I have spent a bit more time in the eastern side of the Kingdom as my work schedule has involved several journeys over there. Jeddah is like Riyadh in many aspects, a big, noisy Arabic city with more mosques than you can shake a stick at, its hot and dusty and full of feral cats. But at over 1,000 kms distant there are a few noticeable differences. As it is on the Red Sea coast there is a definite sea-front and the temperature is a few degrees cooler than Riyadh, but there is a noticeable humidity which more than offsets the heat advantage. There also seems to be a slightly more relaxed dress code for women there, the percentage of ladies who don’t wear a full hijab appears to be greater, possibly in the region of 7 or 8% compared to Riyadh’s conservative 1 or 2%. That’s my impression anyway, someone somewhere might have done research on that, I would be interested to know.

Jeddah has some interesting buildings to marvel at, and I hope to see these one day when work schedules permit. These include the old houses in the Al Balawi district built with coral and clay cement, the coral was dredged from the Red Sea and dried and used in the way that gravel is used in cement in other countries. Certainly the houses look interesting, and are UNESCO World Heritage listed. There is also King Fahd’s Fountain, off the corniche and with a water projection/blast height (what is the correct term for this?) of 1,023ft / 312m which is higher than the Eiffel Tower. This fountain allegedly is the tallest in this respect in the world, beating the better known one in Geneva by some distance. Another place recommended for tourists is the ‘Floating Mosque’. Built off the Corniche it is indeed a pretty looking mosque, but it doesn’t really float, it’s on a platform supported by piles sunk into the sea bed.


The floating mosque.                               


A sign seen on the Corniche, not erected for health and safety purposes. (The nearest country across the Red Sea is Sudan, 200 km distant)

Jeddah is visited annually by millions of tourists, and its airport ranks amongst those with a high tourist quotient, however you will have already guessed that this is religious tourism for pilgrims going to Makkah. But things are changing, Jeddah recently announced a cultural festival. Here’s an excerpt from the Saudi Gazette:

“Authorities have announced issuance of instant e-tourism visa for the visitors of the ongoing 40-day ‘Jeddah Season’ festival. The visa will be issued within three minutes with a condition that the visa applicant shall buy ticket for any one of the events of the festival.

Raed Abu Zinada, general supervisor of the Jeddah Season festival, said that this exceptional initiative will contribute significantly to revitalizing the national tourism sector in general and will support the Jeddah Season festival in particular. “We are pleased with this generous initiative which reflects the keenness of the wise leadership in everything that would improve the tourism sector and their keenness to keep pace with the new development requirements. Today, tourism is a key driver of the national economy and an important component of the economic diversification that the Kingdom is looking forward to achieve,” he said.

Abu Zinada said the visa issuance was linked to the purchase of tickets for any of the events of the festival. “Through the purchase of a ticket, the applicant can obtain tourist visa immediately and within three minutes, by signing in on the portal after completing some minor procedures through following simple instructions,” he said.

The festival’s organizing committee announced that the launch of e-tourism visa, which specifically targets visitors to the Jeddah Season festival, aims to highlight development opportunities and shed light on the Kingdom’s features as one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

The approval of the e-tourism visa comes in an effort to boost the flow of tourists and visitors to Jeddah, the Bride of the Red Sea, and push for the success of the first edition of the Jeddah Season festival, which began June 8 and run through July 18. The festival is featuring wide variety of events and activities targeting various age groups of families and individuals alike in an effort to support the operation and management of the events sector as one of the most vital industries that enriches the economy. It also designed to draw attention to the position of Jeddah as one of the major seafronts with unique features in terms of its seashore, arts, and originality and diversity of its cultures.”

So, if you are someone desperate to get a Saudi Arabia stamp in your passport, there’s your opportunity. Not yet declared are what these “minor procedures and simple instructions” are, and indeed what the cost of this tourist visa will be. There may be some restrictions to accompany it, such as confinement to Jeddah City area too to prevent people trying their luck with an unauthorised entry to the Holy Cities, entry to which is tightly controlled. So, I had a look at the website, and found nothing of use at all. Maybe it’s a “coming soon” facility. Inshallah.

Next stop for me was to Madinah (Medina), the second holiest city in Islam. The Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) is buried there, and his mosque is visited by millions every year. 


The Prophet's Mosque

For me though, I was visiting the new Haramain Railway station and the nearby rolling stock depot for work-related purposes. The city centre of Madinah is haram (restricted) so I was not permitted to go into there. How can I explain to you what there is to do in Madinah? An online trawl of touristy things in Madinah revealed that there is a city sightseeing bus which promises unmissable things to do there. Unbelievably, this is a genuine open-top tour bus such as you can find in other major cities! I will paint the picture of things to see in Madinah directly from the tour bus website: “Explore Al Madinah religion and history with City Sightseeing from the comfort of our stylish red buses. This city invites visitors and pilgrims to delve into its heritage as the second holiest city of Islam. Take the Green Line across 4 strategically selected stops. At Bus stop 1 you will find Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (The Prophet's Mosque), with its amazing massive architecture and beautifully arranged lights, it is built where the Islamic prophet Muhammad used to live and is currently buried. It is believed that, if you visit the mosque, your prayers are never rejected. Hop off at Bus stop 2 to visit the Al Baquee cemetery, which holds much significance as many Muhammad's relatives and companions are buried there. It is located south-east from The Prophet Mosque, which can be seen from the cemetery.

If you're really into learning more about the history and religion of this holy city, take the Red Line and hop on and off as many times as you like. The tour will take you to the grounds of the Uhud Battle, which took place when The Prophet left Al Madinah with a Muslim army of only 700 to defend Madinah from invasion. On this route, you can also hop off at Al-Noor Mall and Abu Bakr Road, which stands out as the city's key landmarks for visitors to enjoy a unique and luxurious shopping experience. Go on along the Red Line and be overwhelmed by the Masjid al-Qiblatayn Mosque, where The Prophet received the command to change the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca, or by the Quba Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the world. Let Al Madinah and its cultural and religious heritage amaze you! Book your ticket online today!

Obviously restricted to Muslims, no sightseeing for me then. But in Madinah, I came across something else which I had never seen in any quantity before – locusts. These are similar to grasshoppers but seem to be larger and are a brown-beige colour. Several areas where I walked were thick with them sitting on the ground with a density of 3 or 4 per square metre. I didn’t squash any as they hopped out of the way before my foot landed, but there were a few close misses. The roads were liberally coated with flattened locusts, which probably diminished the wheel/tarmac adhesion and therefore reduced overall safety. 


Mr Locust

I have read of swarms of millions of locusts forming and destroying all plant life in their path, and I wonder at what stage / density locusts start to swarm. Having no experience on this matter, there did seem to be an awful lot of them, so I have done some on-line research to get some understanding. Here’s what I found:

1)     Locusts are edible, and for Muslims are halal (the prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) was recorded as eating them)

2)     They normally live solitary lives, but in certain conditions become gregarious and can form swarms  

3)     The desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) is notorious. Found in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, they inhabit some 60 countries and can cover one-fifth of Earth's land surface. Desert locust plagues may threaten the economic livelihood of one-tenth of the world's humans.

4)     A desert locust swarm can be 460 square miles in size and pack between 40 and 80 million locusts into less than half a square mile.

5)     Each locust can eat its weight in plants each day, so a swarm of such size would eat 423 million pounds of plants every day.

Facts 3, 4 and 5 are courtesy of National Geographic. By my back-of-envelope calculations, a density of 4 locusts per square metre as seen in Madinah gives 4,000,000 in a square km. That’s approximately 6,000,000 per half square mile. So my observations suggest that density was not yet near a critical mass, but it should be something that the authorities are starting to deal with. Next a snippet from the UK’s Daily Express online:

“Swarms of the destructive grasshopper locust were spotted this week crossing the border between Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Swarms of locusts were seen descending on the town of Tafilah in South Jordan, which is a hub for olive and fruit agriculture. According to The National, the situation was dire enough on Monday, May 6, for Jordanian authorities to deploy the airforce to spray pesticides. And on May 3, Locust Watch, the official locust swarm tracker of the United Nations (UN), has warned springtime locust breeding has intensified over the past few weeks in Saudi Arabia and Iran”. Hmmm.

Finally, as I have explained before, the Islamic year follows the lunar calendar with the new month starting when the new moon crescent has been spotted. For further details please see my blog dated 19th May 2018. This year the end if the holy month of Ramadan and start of Eid l Fitr was proclaimed on June 4th rather than the anticipated 5th. This event was not widely reported within the Kingdom, but attracted attention from some selected media outputs elsewhere. Here’s what the UK’s Morning Star on-line journal had to say:

SAUDI ARABIA’S decision to celebrate the end of Ramadan today has caused controversy among Muslims throughout the world, with many countries saying the holy month of fasting should have lasted a day longer. The festival of Eid al-Fitr begins when scholars sight the new crescent moon, which Saudi authorities claimed to see minutes after sunset yesterday.

But, astronomical data suggests it would have been nearly impossible to observe the new moon from almost anywhere on earth last night, calling into question the credibility of Saudi scholars. Saudi’s neighbour Egypt said it was unable to sight the moon and that Muslims should continue fasting until tomorrow.

The ruling by Egypt’s grand mufti Shawki Allam is significant because Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque is regarded as one of the premier seats of Sunni scholarship. Other large Muslim majority countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia have also dissented from the Saudi sighting and will celebrate Eid tomorrow. The controversy has also caused a split among mosques in Britain over the lunar calendar.

The co-ordination committee of mosques and Islamic centres in London followed the Saudi moon sighting. But Birmingham central mosque and several other prominent places of worship announced they would celebrate Eid on Wednesday. The debate has disappointed astronomer Imad Ahmed from the New Crescent Society, who had arranged public moon sightings this evening. He said Saudi’s moon sighting was “impossible” and would have marked a “new world record.” Mr Ahmed is working with the Royal Observatory in Greenwich to promote the Islamic tradition of using local moon sightings to signal the start and end of Ramadan, rather than rely on Saudi pronouncements.

So, are the Saudi moon-sighters incompetent? Of course not. There’s an article from the online “New Muslim Journal” which explains that this is an Iranian plot to discredit them, and this easily explains how this happened. I reproduce the article written by their correspondent Shoaib:

Fake News Video Lies Against Saudi Moonsighting

A video being spread on social media currently claims Saudi Arabia got the Eid moon sighting wrong. It begins with a professional looking rotating Globe which deceives the most naive viewers to believe it is an actual News Channel. Then a worried man appears, in what looks like a borrowed suit, who explains in the strongest of Iranian accents possible, falsely announcing that the Saudi Arabian moon sighting was wrong. In the bottom left we see the name of who is speaking for “Shia waves” and in the top right hand of the screen we see “Imam Hussain” written in English under an Arabic logo which also reads “Imam Hussain”. Its pretty obvious by now what it going on. [There is then a link provided for the video].

If the signals were not clear the video is a fake, the “reporter” goes on to make preposterous claims; that the planet Saturn was confused for the crescent moon. To back up his lies he falsely claims that Al-Arabiyya and Al-Jazeera have reported this as well and that it has caused anger in many Muslim nations.

If anyone was labouring under the illusion that this wasn’t a lie, he generously hands out more of them “Saudi government officials has reportedly apologised to their nation and said that they paid One billion and six million Riyals as kaffara (expiation) for the entire Saudi nation” – a claim of something which again, simply did not happen.

This is nothing new. These lies have always been thrown at Saudi Arabia by those who disagree with the nations ideology or foreign policy. In 2011 rumours were spread and every year since.

[A photo is shown] On the left you can clearly see the moon which was seen is Saudi Arabia, as reported by Jaag TV of Pakistan. For the sake of reference I’ve included what Saturn and Venus (the bright one) look like in the sky. A question arises: How could anyone confuse the two?

Wait. Rub that. The real question is why would anyone accuse Saudi of confusing the two? Why would someone go to such a length to spread lies against Saudi Arabia? Is this part of Iran’s ideological attack on Saudi Arabia?

No comment.






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