Sunday, January 22, 2012

It is the system

Arriving at Jeddah airport is always an experience.

The first thing that strikes you is given that this is the entry point to Mecca and Medina, the most sacred sites in Islam, focus of the Hajj, you might imagine a state of the art facility to enable the pilgrims to pass through with alacrity and a taste of desert hospitality.  Alas, however, the airport is a fading monument to 70s utilitarianism with the systems and facilities to match.

This time the computer system decided to freeze over my eyes. It would not process the picture. I was sent back to wait with no idea how long this process would take. The immigration official was apologetic, shrugging and saying, 'It is the system' as if this explained anything and everything. There was no way to amend, correct or thwart the system. I needed to wait and I did for almost two hours before my dazzling or demonic eyes passed muster and I was waved through, wafted on my way on a wave of further apology.

I was struck by one more example of how we express our dependency on 'the system' as if it were not made by us, out of complex choices, but had materialised fully formed to be both our aid and stricture.

I was reminded of how we talk about the 'market' as if it were a deus ex machina grinding out its results as  they were facts of nature which cannot be contradicted when in reality it is an artefact created by human hands and can (and is) amended, moved and shaped by them.

It was, also, a reminder of how in such situations you are both the 'victim' and an irritant - a sign of failure. The immigration officer (possibly unusually for immigration officials) wanted to be a humane presence and he could not because trapped in 'the system' - made by us but not by him. He was so glad when I went away to sit down, and wait. He was so glad when the system delivered me up so he could see me through.

I had not realised how 'closed' Saudi Arabia is. My charming host at the Islamic Development Bank, a Bosnian, explained that though he could invite his parents to visit, he could not invite his brother (even though he was working for this important global institution initiated by Saudi Arabia).

I do not expect that 'closure' for any society truly serves its purposes - the letter of the law is served but not its spirit - the spirit that blows where its lists- is confined and constrained.

It occurs to me, by analogy, that our tendency to defer to the system, made by human hands interpreting the divine, is another form of dependency that displaces responsibility for finding a renewing vulnerability to the divine's presence.

We need to free to be human - and many systems deny us that.




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