Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dating in Saudi Arabia

A caveat before I start. Part of the goal of this blog is to stay away from the blatantly personal: the tales of my daily routines, frustrations in the office, and my private life. However, this is too illustrative of a story to hold back - if you want a good idea of what life is like in Saudi Arabia, this is the best I can give you. Some identifying details have been changed to protect the reputations of those involved and to ensure that they can continue to defy the authorities. And, as always, this is just my personal view and in no way represents what the US government thinks about the religious police. I'm not even sure what our official policy is in that regard...

Nothing's easy in Saudi Arabia, especially if it involves appearing in public or the opposite sex, so it shouldn't be a surprise that dating is a logistical nightmare here. I could have taken the easy route of dating someone in the embassy community, but having seen a few intra-embassy relationships disintegrate very publicly, I thought it wise to avoid that. I could also have sought the affections of someone at the US military installation 45 minutes away from the embassy, where there is a population of largely unmarried officers looking for distractions as desperately as we are, but due to security restrictions and transportation limitations, arranging to visit the base by oneself is surprisingly difficult. So I took what is clearly the easy way out - I found someone outside the embassy community. And not only that, I found a non-American from a country whose nationals are usually assumed to be basic laborers in Saudi Arabia. What this means is that anywhere we go, we automatically look out of place - white women are always associated with European embassies or with the big military contracting firms, and he is always assumed to be a laborer, no matter that he's an educated polyglot with a white-collar job.

About the only thing we can do in public in Riyadh is go to dinner at one of the handful of restaurants that aren't patrolled by the religious police, individually known as the mutawwa (volunteer) or collectively as the haya (commission, from the official title of the Commission to Prevent Vice and to Promote Virtue). Mutawwaeen are easy to spot - they don't wear the iqal (the black cord on top of their headdress), they have massive beards, and their robes fall to the mid-calf, as opposed to the ankle-length robes most Saudi men wear. I wanted to show you a full-length photo of a mutawwa, but such photos are surprisingly hard to find online.

A room full of mutawwaeen (angry glares are standard issue for them).

A normal Saudi guy.

In theory, a mutawwa by himself (no females work in this position, unsurprisingly) can't arrest anyone without an accompanying policeman to enforce the order. In practice, the mutawwaeen have been known to travel in packs, to chase down suspects by car, to shut down by noisy disruption any event they deem sinful, and to launch public campaigns to discredit people who challenge their authority. Better yet, these are just the "official" mutawwaeen who work for the CPVPV - there are also vigilante bands of mutawwa wannabes who aren't actually employed by the Commission but who take on those prerogatives anyway. What we're left with is a group of government employees whose job is to enforce a phenomenally strict code of social behavior and gender segregation, and a group of unemployed louts who think that the government isn't doing enough to enforce this code. Every week there are new reports of mutawwa going overboard somewhere in the Kingdom, so here's a selection to show you what's been in the news recently.

On a more personal level, here's the story of what happened to a friend from the embassy. He was out with an American, non-diplomat friend for a ride around town. Evidently they'd just turned up the radio to hear some song that both particularly enjoyed when three cars appeared from a side street and boxed them in - one in front, one behind, and one forcing his car against the curb. My friend, being a diplomat, couldn't be arrested, but his friend wasn't so lucky, and she was booked for the crime of being alone with an unrelated man and for dancing in public. (We're still waiting to hear how she'll be sentenced; if her charges are reduced, she shouldn't face any lashes.) One mutawwa asked them both where the third person in the car was, the person in the back seat that all of the mutawwaeen had seen. The two of them were very confused, and denied that there was another person in the car. Ah-hah, you're wrong, said the mutawwa. The Devil was in the car with you.

The most common crime with which the haya charges people is khulwa, or being alone with an unrelated person of the opposite sex. Basically, a man and a woman can be alone together if they are A) married to each other, B) siblings, C) parent-child, D) grandparent-grandchild, or E) aunt/uncle-nephew/niece. Pretty much any blood relationship farther apart than that - two first cousins, say - is fair game for marriage, and thus it's illicit for those two people to be together unchaperoned. Now, if this is the level of scrutiny applied to two people from the same extended family, you can imagine what people of different ethnicities experience. We're clearly not related, and in the Saudi racial hierarchy no one can conceive of a white family consenting to their daughter's marriage to someone with darker skin. Therefore... there must be some sin going on behind the scenes if the two of us are out in public together. It's like all the joys of interracial dating in the American South, but with the added chance of being arrested by the Taliban.

It must be said that a lot of Saudis despise the haya as much as the Westerners do - and in truth, they're much more likely to deal with them than I am. The only reason I'm likely to run into them is because my relationship doesn't make sense - there's no way they'd believe we're married. Two white people out at a restaurant together? Not a problem, it's just Americans or Brits being themselves - just ignore them and they'll go away soon. Among college-age Saudis and recent college grads (especially those who have studied abroad), the mutawwaeen are a sign of the forces holding back Saudi progress. The haya is openly vilified and mocked in many publications, from national papers to student blogs. Even many religious conservatives disapprove of them, believing that a police force whose goal is to enforce public morality undermines the moral motivation to obey religious commands. However, the haya still has a lot of public support outside the cities and among older generations everywhere, who see the changes happening in the cities as a threat to social stability.

But back to the restaurants. Thankfully, some places in Riyadh owned by people so powerful that the haya can't afford to offend them, which means that in a precious few spots - mostly the big hotels - there are restaurants where the tables in the family section aren't hidden away in individual booths and where we can be seen in public together. However, getting to these restaurants isn't easy for me. He can't come pick me up at my house, because getting into the DQ after working hours is very difficult for non-diplomats - the Saudi soldiers who work the gates try to keep the general population away from us as much as they can, and it's six-five, pick `em whether that's for our own safety or to keep our dirty Western morals from rubbing off on the locals. And bringing me back to my house after dinner? Absolutely out of the question - the Saudis would hold him until the haya arrived to arrest him for being out with me. Unfortunately for him, my diplomatic immunity would protect me - but the same doesn't apply to him, and if the mutawwa were in a particularly bad mood, he could be deported for his crime of driving me home from dinner. (Also, most of the major roads have random checkpoints, and we'd raise suspicions there for all of the above reasons.) So, when we plan a dinner out on the town, I have to take motor pool to the hotel and call when I'm ready to be picked up to go home. However, you can imagine how this makes me look to our motor pool drivers, a sweet group of men who are not the most highly educated people in the world: every week, a young and unmarried woman goes to one of the big hotels by herself, and she always looks happy and sated when she's picked up three hours later. Telling them that it's the tryptophan from dinner that makes me so sleepy doesn't really seem to work. Motor pool gossip has already had me married off to two embassy personnel and dating three or four others, just since I got here in August; however, once I started going to my weekly rendezvous - I mean dinners - at different hotels in town, the gossip has utterly ceased. I think the drivers believe something so horrible is going on that they can't even discuss it.

The logistics inside the restaurant are pure tragicomedy. We always try to find a table that affords us a view of the front door but that doesn't put us in the direct line of sight from the entrance, so that we can detect and evade any bearded threats. The waiters - always expatriate workers, usually Filipinos - refuse to make eye contact with me and ask him what I would like to eat for dinner, as if making eye contact with me will call out the mutawwaeen hiding in the lamps. (Interesting side note: our word genie comes from the Arabic djinn, a supernatural creature in which most religious Arabs believe, because the djinn are mentioned in the Qur'an.) A few times we've had close calls, where we'd see a mutawwa in a place we thought was safe, and he'd sprint off to the bathroom in the middle of a sentence. I can't fault him for a that; the worst the mutawwa can do to me is yell at me, and since they generally don't speak a word of English, I can feign ignorance, wave my diplomatic residency card, and just walk away. We try to alternate paying for meals, and I haven't yet decided which is worse: when he pays, I get a look of admonishment from the waiters, who assume that I'm a prostitute; but when I pay, I am clearly a wealthy Westerner using him as my playboy. Even when we deal with no Saudis (or indeed, any Arabs or Muslims) in an evening, it's clear that all of the staff in the restaurant have absorbed some Saudi ideas about what is appropriate and what isn't.

Luckily, I can usually get him into some of the parties that happen within the embassy community, so there at least we can have a semblance of normalcy. Last weekend we went to a party at a Saudi friend's house, just outside the DQ, and we decided that we were so sick of the restrictions and sneaking around that he'd drive me over - I'd ride home with other embassy people once the motor pool shift had changed, so no one would remember that I hadn't taken embassy transportation to the party. Since it was so close, I didn't bother putting on an abaya - we'd be between the DQ and his compound for a total of four minutes, maybe. As we left the DQ, it started to rain, and by the time we exited the highway, it was coming down in buckets. While we waited a stoplight, he turned to me with a huge grin on his face. "You know the haya is never out in the rain, and the checkpoints aren't manned when it rains. Let's go for a ride around town!" So off we went, giggling like idiots at our unspeakable bit of rebellion in driving around together. We did a huge loop around the city, driving through residential neighborhoods so he could point out where mutual friends lived and showing me sites that I'd heard about but had never had any reason to visit - the most famous restaurant in the city, for example, which has no family section, so I can't go inside. At one point we hit a low spot in the road and hydroplaned, nearly hitting another car with the same problem. We both looked out the window and froze - the car was filled with bearded men with no iqals, glaring at us for crossing into their lane. I don't think either one of us breathed until the carload of mutawwaeen turned onto another street, after which he quietly turned his car towards our friend's house.

Update, 1 May: Today we decided to be bold, and we tried a restaurant that isn't in a hotel but in the posh area of Riyadh. We timed our meal for 3.30 PM on a Friday - between prayer on a day when most people are at home with their families or at a mosque. The meal was wonderful (seasoned, perhaps, with risk) but when we got ready to leave, the sunset prayer had just started. Not a problem, our waiter assured us - the front door will be locked, but go out this side door. This is pretty normal; you can stay in restaurants if you're already there when prayer starts, and someone loiters nearby to let you out if you're ready to go. But when we tried the side door, it was bolted and barred shut, as was the front door, and the keys were with the wait staff, which had completely disappeared. Seriously - we were the only ones in the restaurant, and I could see my car out the front window, waiting for me. We finally found the kitchen and went out through the back door between the refrigerators, which luckily was unlocked. I darted around to the front to catch my driver and saw the reason why this restaurant was more stringent than most - the large mosque across the street that I had failed to notice on my way in. Whoops.


  1. When I finished reading this, I noticed I was holding my breath and my pulse was noticeably higher. Oh good gracious, that's scary....

    I was recently eating dinner with some friends and talking about dating predicaments in Saudi, in vague terms, as I'd heard them from you. We all agreed that Living in Japan would never be worth complaining about in comparison. (I'm sorry that I can't give you any better consolation than that...)

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