Letter from Arabia
I miss Saudi Arabia. Yes, in spite of getting a criminal record there, I really rather liked the place. I now live in the UAE. In Abu Dhabi to be precise, But only for the past two months. Before that I had been living and working for five years in Riyadh – the capital of KSA, and in Jeddah before that. Until, that is, I fell foul of the Muttawain – the dreaded religious police.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking. What dastardly immoral act could this fellow have been committing to have been arrested and thrown in the slammer? Well, dear reader, I have to admit in all honesty I should have known better, but I must shamefacedly admit to giving a woman, with whom I worked, a lift in my car. You see, according to Saudi law, we were in a state of khulwa, since, dare I tell you, we weren’t actually married. (My wife didn’t mind me giving her a lift, but I do think she might have raised just the tiniest objection if I had also tried to marry this lady!)
And I was reminded of all this when the Arab News – known locally as the Green Truth, due to the colour of the paper on which it is printed – reported recently about a Filipina lady called Abigail Valdez, who was a nurse working at the Riyadh Military Hospital, who was arrested by members of the Commission for the Protection of Virtue and the Prevention of Vices (yes, that really is their official title!) for the highly immoral act of having dinner with a male colleague in a public restaurant. He was shackled at the ankles and led out to a waiting muttawah-wagon. She was dragged off to Malaz prison. The Philippines embassy was denied access to her and although her companion was set free a few hours later, she was locked away for a number of days.
I never did get to find out what happened in the end. Under Saudi law, an unrelated man and woman caught dining at a restaurant would normally be sentenced to four months in jail and 100 lashes. The same punishment applies to a man and a woman caught in a state of khulwa.
Racism in Saudi Arabia is enshrined in law. Your status depends on your nationality. To be a Nigerian or a Bangladeshi puts you in the unfortunate position of being at the bottom of the food chain. Filipinos are in the middle, whilst Americans, Brits and Germans are pretty high up the list. So I assume Abigail’s escort was a European since he apparently got off lightly.
Filipinos, however, are strongly resented by Saudis since they highlight the average Saudi’s incapacity for doing much useful. Ask a Saudi if he can do this or repair that, and the chances are that he will say mafi mushkillah (no problem), flick his fingers and throw it at a Filipino to fix. The same goes in hospitals. The vast majority of nurses are Filipina without whom most Saudi hospitals would grind to a halt. But far from appearing grateful, the Saudis are resentful of the perspicacious, resilient and hard working Filipinos and will do anything to get their own back; to prove to themselves that they are not really as inadequate as they make out to be.
I can see now that I was fortunate. From having been stopped by a policeman, removed from my car, had my phone and keys and iqama (ID) removed from me and thrown into a dog cage at the back of a muttawah wagon, we then sped off into the night without a word of explanation being given to me. Not that anyone spoke any English of course, but even so! And I don’t know if you’ve ever watched those American spy movies where a car accelerates towards a wall, which parts at just the crucial moment allowing the car to enter the non-descript building before closing firmly shut behind? Well, I kid you not, it was just like that.
Once inside I was led to a room and left – for two hours. I think they call that a cooling off period. Along the corridor drifted the sounds of women screaming and banging on their locked doors. I learned later that two of them had been picked up when they had popped out to the local fast food takeaway and had been approached by a Jordanian who started to chat them up. Too bad that they had left five young children on their own whilst they went to get supper. They were still banging on their cell doors five hours later and had to wait for the return of their spouses who were not due back from Jeddah until the following morning.
Finally an English speaking muttawah appeared and began to lecture me on how immoral I had been whilst thrusting pamphlets at me beguilingly entitled Islam the Tolerant Religion and other such catchy epithets. I would be sent to prison, he said. I would receive lashes, he added. And he shook his head at the enormity of the crime I had committed.
I don’t think he had ever heard biblical quotations such as “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” and certainly didn’t understand the concept of immorality being in the eye of the beholder. I was obviously wasting my time trying to explain anything to him and agreed to sign a declaration that I would not act in an immoral way ever again in Saudi Arabia.
Then I was led to a room where I had my finger prints taken and was given another very stern lecture by a muttawah who had obviously had his sense of humour gene surgically removed at birth. And then I was locked away again until a few hours later around 2am my Saudi sponsor came to get me released.
He tut tutted with the rest of them, again shook his head in disbelief at such lewd behaviour on my part, signed a declaration that he would keep me on the straight and narrow in the future, and eventually I was released. No lashes, no prison sentence, but a stain on my previously unblemished character nonetheless.
It was on the journey home, but only when well out of sight of the vice cops station, that his face cracked up, he slapped me on the back, and asked me (again) when I was ever going to introduce him to some “nice ladies”. It wasn’t fair. He never got the opportunity.
I reminded him that the following weekend he was off to Bahrain where he would undoubtedly catch up on his drinking and womanising. Saudis, I should add, also have hypocrisy down to a very fine art.