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, March 03, 2006

Just when you thought it was safe..... 

.... to go back into the Riyadh International Book Fair. The throb of the Toyota trucks' exhausts recedes into the night air, the "Imam University Gang" have finally left. It's time to get back to some civilized discussion about books, perhaps even meet the authors, just as happens in the real world.....

And indeed, Wednesday was the day for women writers. We could actually get to meet women writers, have them sign the books. This is great! This is what Saudi Arabia should be like! Are we finally, at last, making some progress? Let's hear the story, as recounted by the "Arab News".

Women for the first time in the history of the Riyadh International Book Fair were allowed to meet their fans.
These inaugural book signings, which occurred on Wednesday — the day reserved for families — were not announced in advance like the ones for men authors. Nevertheless, fans of poet Fawziyah Abu Khaled and novelist Ala’a Al-Hathlol flocked around tables for a chance to meet their literary heroines.

I wish I'd been there. But....

Despite the lack of publicity for the occasion, another group showed up to greet the women writers....

....Uh, oh....

Men, some of whom were visibly wearing badges identifying themselves as members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Ugh! But perhaps they've come for the books? Sorry, forgot, they can't read. And even when they pick their noses, still the words don't make any sense. So what will they contribute to this literary gathering?

The commission members, on the other hand, went about their work. They raised their voice demanding that the two women cover their faces. The women were modestly attired, wearing abayas and headscarves, showing no hair.

That is something they are good at, raising their voices. That, and picking their noses. But shouting at women makes them look kinda tough.

So how did the authors react?

“It is really humiliating to be treated this way,” said Ala’a Al-Hathlol during the signing. She said that throughout her book signing, some commission members kept coming up to her shouting. She is a Muslim, she said, and no one has the right to judge people and treat them in such a manner.

Theologically correct, Ala'a, but they can't even read the Quran. And they certainly don't like being corrected by a woman, especially one who can not only read, but also write. Anyway, she stuck to her guns.

She ignored the shouts from them and continued to sign her books.

Like the ranting bag-lady next to you in the subway train, best ignored. They have a limited attention span if no-one takes notice, like every five-year-old, so they got bored and moved on to another target.

Later, it was poet Fawziyah’s turn to receive a dose of verbal attack. During the interview, some men were standing in front of the book-signing section yelling at the poet, telling her that if she was an educated woman she wouldn’t be sitting in front of men showing her face.

No, guys, it's actually the other way round, if anything. Anyway, the security guy, who was of course powerless to do anything about them, had some useful advice.

“If you argue with them they won’t go, just don’t answer them back,” a security man said to Fawziyah.

That's true. After all, because they have acne, crooked teeth, bad breath, a dirty thobe, spindly hairy legs, and endearing habits like adjusting their genitalia and gobbing onto the sidewalk (sometimes simultaneously), they sort of crave female attention, but never seem to get it. So when they "chat you up", don't encourage them. But self-restraint can be difficult.

Finally, she could not take it any more and told the men politely that she is wearing an abaya and covering her hair. She told them that many Islamic schools do not oblige women to cover their face.

True again. But they never went to that school. At their school, they used to put the yellow brick on top of the red brick, then the blue brick on top of the yellow brick. Then the bricks fell over, and they had to start over again.

Time to put her in her place....

The men replied to her that she was wrong, that covering the face is a must.

....and a practical solution....

One man blocked the entrance to the signing area, shouting at the book fair organizers to erect a partition.

So the idea is that she signs the book behind the partition. Presumably you toss a book over, she signs it, and then tosses it back. Sounds fun. Well, Saudi fun.

But one woman observer has had enough of all this....

“Why are you harassing her? She is a poet signing a book. What’s wrong with that?” asked one of the women standing next to Fawziyah.

If there's one thing the Muttawa can't stand, it's getting a stream of verbal from a woman, especially a woman with obvious "attitude". It's bad enough that she's not locked in at home, cooking for her husband, minding the children, being a good wife. Instead she is out in public, obviously without a male relative, and has the temerity to question a Muttawa in the execution of his religious duties. Time for some straight talking....

Mind your own business, woman,” replied one of the men.

There you have it. International Book Fair meets Religious Policeman. The twenty-first century meets the seventh century. The Enlightenment meets the Dark Ages. Which will eventually win?

I have a dream. Our Muttawa wins a lottery and goes on an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii. He suddenly comes across Beth, of "Dog the Bounty Hunter" fame, in the street. Shocked by her immodest attire, he tells her to "Cover up, woman." Beth is having a bad-PMT-day. Will it be the Mace, as an aperitif, or will she just go with the fists?

Then I wake up.

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