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.
Mrs. A says that after we’ve been out shopping for a while, I develop a Shopping Face. She says my expression goes blank, my eyes glaze over, and I withdraw into a deep and secluded part of myself. When that happens, the only cure is a cup of coffee or, better still, a drive home.
She’s mostly right. Except that in my imagination, it’s not necessarily a secluded place; it could be a mountaintop where I survey the peaks and clouds around me, but it could be watching a soccer match, or even sitting in front of my computer. Anywhere but in that shop.
The onset of Shopping Face varies. In electronics or computer shops, for some reason, it never appears. Also, call me sad, but not in stationery shops, because I can’t resist all those virgin pads of paper, and folders, and marker pens, and all that lovely stuff. When it’s shopping for food, or clothes for the small A’s, an hour is about the limit. But it makes its appearance soonest in shops for “ladies’ things” – you know, clothes, accessories, perfume and especially underwear. It’s the latter that’s the greatest problem for me. I look round and see other men also both bored and embarrassed, wishing they were somewhere completely different.
So why go there? Well, in most countries, we can choose not to. We can go and have a coffee, sit in a bookstore instead. But in Saudi Arabia, it’s different. You see, in the perfume and lingerie shops, the assistants are all men. That’s right, men selling ladies’ underwear. So most husbands will feel they need to go in as well, either to keep an eye on the men intimately discussing intimate garments with their wives, or else because their wives want them to, because they otherwise don’t feel completely safe. And there’s a healthy (or unhealthy) dose of cultural prejudice tied up in all of this.
Because, ask yourself, what sort of man would want to work all day in a lingerie shop, selling underwear to women? We will all have different answers to that, depending on our own cultural prejudices, but they won’t be complimentary. And in Saudi Arabia the answer is, almost exclusively, Lebanese men. Look into any lingerie or perfume shop and you will see Lebanese shop assistants. As we have prejudices about virtually every nation in the world, it won't be a surprise that we have strong prejudices about our fellow-Arabs, the Lebanese. We see them as "smoothies", louche, French-influenced, into all sort of Haram
entertainment, particularly belly-dancing and cabaret-singing, although their cooking is quite good. But there has now grown up around these Lebanese shop assistants a whole web of urban folk-lore, often contradictory; they are sex-starved, they are gay, they are eunuchs, they are transvestites, but given half a chance they will grope our women. Not that there has ever been a recorded case of that happening, of course.
But it now looks as though the days of the Lebanese lingerie shop assistant are numbered.Retailers to Meet Over Issue of Hiring WomenThe Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) is planning a seminar on Wednesday to explain the Cabinet decision on hiring Saudi women to work in shops selling lingerie and other products for women….In June 2005, the Ministry of Labor announced a timetable for employing Saudi women in shops selling women’s clothing, underwear and other such items. It stipulated that all lingerie shops in the Kingdom must employ only Saudi women within the next two years.
So it’s finally happening. As part of the Saudization program, the men are to be replaced by women! It sounds almost too good to be true. And even better, because the women shop assistants will be unveiled, men won't be allowed in. It's probably from the worst of motives, to prevent yet another situation where men and women can meet, but the Cabinet have managed to do something good for once, and score a “triple whammy”:
- protect our women from the mythically lecherous Lebanese men
- allow us to have a coffee and read the paper while our wives go inside these shops, from which we’ll be prohibited.
- But, most importantly, provide employment opportunities for Saudi women!
On this single occasion, can I offer my unqualified congratulations to the government?
But that’s enough talk about shopping. I can feel my Shopping Face coming on.