The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.

In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.

Friday, August 19, 2005

You looking at me? 

A comment from a reader suggested that the wording on the Saudi Flag actually translated as "This country may contain nuts".

How unkind. We may be a little eccentric. Perhaps we have a "unique cultural identity". Possibly a little "out of sync" with the 21st Century. But nuts?

What the heck, he's probably right. But there are nuts and there are nuts. Just like peanuts and walnuts and coconuts. So it is in Saudi Arabia.

There are those people in Jeddah. They have a Corniche, so they think they're living on the Mediterranean. They tend to smile and laugh. You occasionally see couples furtively holding hands. What libertines.

Then there are people like me who live in Riyadh. We're more proper. No holding hands. Not a lot of smiling either - what is there to smile about in Riyadh?

Then there are the people from Qassim, pronounced Gass-eem. A district centered round Burayda, 200 miles north of Riyadh. Where Wahabbi (who invented our really fun version of Islam) originally came from. Burayda is described in Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide as the "most unfriendly place in Saudi Arabia". And then some. Remember those old movies about creepy New England towns called Spookyburg or Witchville, where some innocent guy wanders in by mistake, it's all knee deep in mist and the silent locals just stare and don't say anything, the guy ends up next morning as a puddle of ectoplasm on the ground? Well Burayda makes those places look like New Orleans. In Mardi Gras.

So the following article doesn't actually mention Qassim, but there's nowhere else on this planet that it could be.


Imagine a husband and wife who have lived together as complete strangers for half a century.

Believe it or not, it actually happens here in Saudi Arabia. There are husbands, brothers and sons who have never seen the faces of their own wives, sisters and mothers let alone cousins and aunts. There are wives who never showed their faces to their husbands since they have tied the knot a long or short time ago.

Bear in mind that these husbands will only have seen their wife's face for about 20 minutes, at their one and only pre-wedding meeting. Since the wedding, they've remained veiled for their husbands, and for their children, for years, even for decades.

Children should wonder how their parents managed to conceive them when their fathers never saw their mothers. But that s probably just as well because, like their fathers, they haven t seen what their own mothers look like.

Children should wonder? I've always had a little trouble with this concept myself. How do you show affection to someone who's always veiled, how do you share those little intimacies, how do you procreate? Perhaps there are people who would get a bit of a thrill from making love to a veiled woman, but after a few decades it's bound to pall. Let's change the subject.

Some don't even let other women see their face.

This tradition has been part of my life since the day I opened my eyes on the world, she said. Believe it or not, I have never seen the faces of even my closest female relatives my cousins and aunts.
She said every member of her tribe believes it is a great shame for women to uncover their faces at any time, thus there is no chance for a female face to be seen by anyone.

There was however one situation that struck a chord. Husbands often ask wives how they look. They do it because they're genuinely wanting an opinion, most males being clueless about what to wear or what matches with what. (And a nice thing about living in the Kingdom (Saudi, not United) is that you always wear white, so life is simple). Wives, on the other hand, are usually seeking reassurance. When asked "What do you think of this dress / hairstyle / outfit", they already know the answer, they just want the male to confirm it. So you're faced with a situation where there is only one correct answer and at least ten incorrect ones. "I don't know" or "I'm not sure" or "What do you think" definitely don't cut it. Similarly any half-hearted response is dismissed as mealy-mouthed; they want a definite opinion. Yet you're being tested on a subject you know absolutely nothing about. It's like that nightmare you have, where you're doing the oral exam for Mandarin Chinese and you haven't learnt a word in your life. So you desperately try to read the body language to see which way to jump. Get the "wrong" answer and you suffer for your lack of taste / tact / interest or loyalty. Get the "right" answer and there may well be the dreaded supplementary - "Yes, but why do you think that?"

So I had some sympathy for the man who accidentally saw his wife's face after probably 30 years. Although an accident, it posed the unspoken question, "How have I weathered over three decades?". This man would have seen her for a few minutes as a youth, and not seen her face, or indeed any other woman's, ever since. He probably had no concept of skin aging. He'd certainly never developed a technique for giving the "right" answer.

She said she only uncovers her face in total privacy, after she makes sure her husband and children are out of the house.
Only then I can feel free to change my clothes and remove my veil, she said. One day I walked over to the living room with my face uncovered. I never knew my husband was sitting there watching the TV. He saw my face.
She said her husband screamed when he saw her without a veil.

I ran to my room and I locked myself up for several hours. When I came out, he was very angry at me.

No, screaming wasn't the best response. If she looked like the Elephant Man, it would perhaps have been understandable. Or if her face had rotted away with leprosy. Or if "she" turned out to be a trans-sexual. But in this case, assuming a wife who had aged normally, I think a little more tact would have been appropriate.

What is of course revealing about the power relationship there, and indeed throughout much of Qassim, is that he was the one who was angry. He wasn't pinned out on the sand. He wasn't made to spend the next month in the camel enclosure. He was allowed the luxury of indulging his anger.

I asked Mrs A what she thought of the idea of a 24 X 7 veil. She said it would be an improvement, but that I should remember to keep it out of my soup. Ouch.

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