Neighbors / Cleaning Rags to Riches

Hana Uthman's private employment agency has a new task: Recruiting Saudi house maids. It is a real revolution. Just as Saudi men do not clean streets or polish railings in Riyadh's and Jeddah's shopping malls, it is equally inconceivable that Saudi women should scrub floors in their neighbors' homes. But economic pressures have forced 30 Saudi women from poor neighborhoods to get jobs paying 1,500 riyals (about $400) a month - 300 riyals above the official poverty line.

In an interview with Al-Arabiya TV, Othman explained that the women undergo a meticulous selection process and professional training. Their employers agree to keep men outside the homes while they work and to maintain their social rights.

She added that about 100 more women have applied for jobs and that more and more Saudi homeowners are starting to prefer Saudi women over foreign workers, who need to be flown in, as a cost-cutting measure.

To sate growing demand, a special decision by the Saudi labor minister was required. It has taken two years ago, following in-depth debates over whether Saudi women should engage in such a "lowly profession."

Saudi Arabia's perception of itself underwent a dramatic cultural change in 2002 when King Abdullah, who at that time was still crown prince, paid a historical visit to poor neighborhoods in the kingdom and officially admitted that poverty was a problem.

Until then talk of the poor was severely prohibited for fear of tarnishing the state's image.

Following that visit, Abdullah announced he would allocate several billion riyals for building proper homes for the state's poor. The declaration was only partially fulfilled and according to estimates published since then in Saudi and United Nations reports, nearly a third of Saudi Arabia's 16 million citizens live below the poverty line.

In 2005 there was another information revolution. A short documentary film by Saudi journalist and poet Trad al-Asmari titled "My salary is 1000 riyals," contained the testimony of a Saudi citizen who described how he had to support his family on a pittance. He could not take additional jobs because his regular workday lasted 12 hours.

The film caused a public debate and the Saudi Shura Council, which acts as the country's legislature, decided to hold a series of debates in order to prepare a plan to fight poverty. It is impossible, the dignitaries said, that there will be so many poor people in such an affluent state. The regime has a responsibility to take care of them.

However, even these decisions did not help. Last April the council received data showing that a quarter of the state's citizens still lived below the poverty line, and that some 600,000 families needed the aid of welfare allowances.

The state, which is ranked ninth in the world in terms of its defense expenditures, is unable to provide all its citizens with a proper standard of living. According to UN figures published last year, Saudi Arabia is ranked 71st among 135 in pediatric malnutrition. It ranks 55th in poverty, one slot after the Philippines and only two places before Syria.

Saudi Arabia promised to allocate $2.5 million for an international summit on feeding the world that the World Food Program will hold in Rome this November, but at home it is still fighting the expanding enclaves of hunger.

And as expected, when the report on employing house maids was published on the Internet in Saudi Arabia, many users welcomed the daring move, but just as many people wondered why a state so rich in oil forces its daughters to work in such a "degrading" job.

Some suggested leaving the women at home and paying them to maintain their own homes.

The battle of Algeria's memory

Ahlam Mosteghanemi's books have not found a respectable place in Israel's public or private libraries. She is absent from the literary scene here, even though she has sold some 130,000 copies of her book "The Chaos of the Senses" that was published in 1997, and a similar number of copies of her first book, "Memory of the Flesh."

The Algerian writer is the daughter of Mohammed Cherif, one of the leaders of that country's battle against France.

Mosteghanemi, who writes about the period of Algeria's war of independence, recently burst into the Internet with a new initiative. She has proposed forming "The Party of Amnesia"

"Whoever wants a party that has no memory, no bleeding history and no fiery slogans is welcome to join us," she wrote.

The party's aim is to fight, "Memory's imperialism and emotional aggressiveness that the past has towards us. We make no promises to accord ministerial positions. We just promise to remove the yoke of disappointments ... Dear people, you have no redemption except from amnesia," she writes on the new party's Web site "All of us are equal in the face of forgetfulness."

The party's charter suggests women adopt the motto: "I shall fall in love fully believing that eternal love does not exist. That is how I shall acquire immunity from shock. I expect anything from my lover. I shall not cry because of a man and there is no man worthy of my tears. Whoever really deserves them, will not want me to cry. I shall love like a woman loves and forget like a man forgets."

So far 181 women have signed the charter that was published at the end of July.