Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Freelance Life

Having been in business for myself for over 30 years, I still enjoy what I do and find it interesting. To be sure, while there are challenges, after more than three decades there is little that throws me for a loop. Yet if there is one area that constantly bedevils my professional life, it is that most mundane of headaches, scheduling. As a solo practitioner, I'm constantly juggling my time to maximize it. It seems that everyone wants me when I'm already busy, and no one calls when I'm sitting round twiddling my thumbs. Fortunately, I have incredibly understanding clients who enable me keep several balls in the air, and are willing to roll with the limitations of my one man band.

All of which brings me to Saudi Arabia.

Now, you might think that that's mighty hard pivot. However, my life as an independent contractor leads me to sympathize with a certain group of like-minded individuals in that dessert kingdom. Those in question are highly skilled and in demand, and as such have the challenge of handling multiple gigs, getting from one job to the another in a timely fashion, all while trying to perform quality work for their clients. True, I am in the communication business, while they are in the execution business. Other than that, however, it's the same thing.

First, a little background. The Saudi monarchy holds the Koran as its constitution and only law. And like strict constructionists in this country with our Constitution, that country's courts apply a literal interpretation of the book as statue. In practice, that means that judges dish out punishment based on medieval ideas of right and wrong, along with associated penalties. Hence, they believe (and practice) in cutting off the hands of thieves and stoning adulterers.  

Now, while most Muslim scholars disagree, the kingdom has also generally held that the one and only proper way to put someone to death is by beheading. And if there is one area in which they are liberal, it's in how often that punishment is meted out: more than 75 executions in each of the past 2 years, for offences from murder to rape to armed robbery to drug trafficking.

But here's the problem: there is a shortage of swordsman. According to a report in the Saudi daily Al-Youm, there have been "shortages of official swordsmen or their belated arrival to execution yards in some incidents." That has led to delays and "interruption in regularly-taken security arrangements" when the executioners' skills are required. As such, a joint Saudi committee composed of "representatives of the ministries of interior, justice and health is mulling the replacement of beheading with firing squads for capital sentences."

There are several ways of looking at the issue. Leaving aside the high rate of executions itself, the West has routinely condemned the Kingdom, an important ally, for the barbarous method it employs to dispatch the guilty. On the surface, the proposal deals with the practical issue, and also plays to Western sensibilities. A more cynical point of view might note that with unemployment in the Kingdom running about 12.2%, this might also be looked at as a job creation measure, as a "firing squad" requires multiple gunman, as opposed to a single swordsman. In that light, it's an economically attractive shift.

However, from the aforementioned freelancer perspective, it's an unwelcome advance. It's yet another example of modern technology supplanting age-old craftsmanship. But some aren't standing still. In an interview in the Saudi newspaper Okaz, a swordsman named Mohamed Saad Al-Bishi says (as translated from the original Arabic via Google Translate) "the implementation of the provisions will not convert it to the unemployed." That's because Al-Bishi had the foresight to take weapons training, and so is adapting to new opportunities, and in fact sees a future bright enough that he has brought his son on as an apprentice. He does, however, acknowledge the problem: "This profession is not desired by many, despite the salary and personal reward we gain from it."

Yes, we are both freelancers, Al-Bishi and myself. Our concerns, challenges and joys with the job are not that dissimilar at the most basic level. But in lighter moments me and my ilk might allow that what we do is mercenary at its heart. In light of this news from the dessert, perhaps that's one metaphor we will stop using.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has been freelance for over 30 years, and has never hurt anyone. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter 

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