(Stories of Daily Life in Saudi Arabia)
by Unda DeVeil
A short introduction. Stories of every day life in Saudi Arabia, as seen through the eyes of a British woman living there, may interest some of you. I hope so, as it is my intention to write something witty and amusing as well as to give an idea of daily life in a totally different culture and lifestyle.
My love is like a red red rose.
I wonder how much money is spent each Valentine's Day in the UK? Or around most countries of the world on 14th February, for that matter. Heck of a lot, I'll bet. All those cards, red roses, chocolates, lingerie, perfumes and hearts, not to mention fluffy wuffy cuddlykins things and teddy bears.
Quite a bit of money is spent in Saudi Arabia too, even though the whole thing is absolutely HARAM (taboo, banned, not allowed).
And that's what made the bouquet of red roses I received all the more special. Because they were haram. As was anything red, heart shaped or linked with Valentine's Day.
Just before 14th February I was at a local shopping mall looking for a Valentine's card, and after wandering around for a while, I noticed a distinct lack of cards, not to mention the colour red being noticeable by its absence. Quite the predominant colour in most other parts of the world during the first half of February, and yet the exact opposite here.
There were very few greetings cards about, not only specific Valentine's cards, but anything remotely suitable for the day. Yet I knew I had seen some just the previous week, and now I had come back to buy one there was hardly a card in the place. When I asked the shop assistant he looked embarrassed, shuffled a bit and mumbled something about cards not being available, they were away for a few days.
Looking for gift wrapping paper was much the same. There was every shade of yellow, green and brown on display, as well as grey, blue and white. But not a hint of red, pink or burgundy in the place. Then there was the total lack of Valentine's decorations throughout the mall - no giant hearts hanging from above, no glittery cupids dangling at every doorway, no special window displays with huge boxes of luscious chocolates or "say it with flowers" slogans. Even the ladies underwear from M&S had disappeared!!!
Now that's spookier than a spooky thing, I thought.
But things happen differently here, and it's all down to the Muttawa.
The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (officially known as the Muttawa, aka Religious Police) have a busy time of year on their hands. Just like at Christmas and Easter, mid February keeps them busy as they go about their business (which in my book is the business of spoiling everyone's fun). Ever present, wherever you might be, the Muttawa glare, stare and sometimes follow. They occasionally shout, try to be scary, but are not allowed to touch. They have the power to arrest only if accompanied by a policeman. They are a strange looking lot, wearing ill fitting robes too short above the ankle and sandals at least 3 sizes too big. They are easily recognizable through their generally scruffy appearance, unlike most of the local men who strut like peacocks, priding themselves in their immaculate appearance.
So come February, the Commission issued a warning to all shops, and those selling red gifts, gift wrap, cards, chocolates and teddy bears were given three days to clear them off the shelves. All florists were ordered to close for three days, the third day being Valentine's Day itself. Shops, hotels and restaurants were warned not to stage any special activity on Valentine's Day, and round the clock patrols were conducted to impose the ban. Drivers were warned against decorating their cars with anything red or any Valentines associated item (nodding cupids on the parcel shelf? perish the thought), and schoolteachers warned their pupils not to wear any item of red clothing on 14th February.
The reason? Valentine's Day, named after a Christian patron saint for lovers, contravenes Islam and has no place in the Muslim world, say our friendly Muttawa. They say that the rules have been geared to enlighten the young people of the dangers of blindly following worthless foreign customs. The objection to this Western practice is because it allows relationships between men and women outside marriage.
So there we have it. But as with all things which are forbidden - they are available at a price. Those guys with the roses, hearts and chocolates to sell under the counter made themselves a small fortune again, just like they did with the Christmas trees!!
It's crazy. It's Saudi.