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Where Easter is illegal.

by the stormy present Sun Apr 8th, 2007 at 05:28:17 AM EST

This chocolate bunny is subversive.


I think it won't take you long to figure out where I am.  The Lonely Planet guidebook (yes, there is one, and it's good) calls it the most conservative country on Earth.

Where I am right now, in a country to remain nameless for the time being, Easter is illegal.  

For precisely that reason, I went to the mall yesterday and bought a chocolate Easter bunny and a few foil-wrapped Easter eggs.  They were right there, in plain sight.  I didn't have to smuggle them out in a brown paper bag or anything.

Today could be different, though.  Valentine's Day, for example, has become quite popular here, and so the mutawween, the religious police (formerly known as the Committee for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue) have now started raiding some of the giftwrap stores on Valentine's Day or the day before, and confiscating everything red.

People get around it.  They buy their flowers and cards and red wrapping paper with hearts on it days beforehand.  Whatever.  People adapt.

There are no church services for Easter Sunday, at least not public ones.  There are no church services at all.  It is illegal to practice any religion other than Islam, so celebrating Christian holidays are obviously out of the question.

But devout Christians (and anyone else who enjoys chocolate Easter bunnies or Valentines Day cards) shouldn't feel bad, shouldn't feel singled out or anything.  All holidays are essentially illegal here, even Islamic ones.

Last week was Moulid al-Nabi, the holiday that marks the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.  In Egypt, and in many other parts of the Arab and Muslim worlds, it's a national holiday.  People get a day off work, sleep till noon, stay out half the night celebrating with friends & family.  There are balloons.  Singing.  Holiday stuff.

Not here.  Moulid al-Nabi is no holiday.  There are no holidays.  No holidays at all.  The version of Islam practiced here is so austere that they celebrate no holidays other than the National Day.

But quietly, in private, some do celebrate.  This video on YouTube shows Sufis in Jeddah celebrating a moulid (not necessarily the Prophet Muhammad's, since there are many birthdays of other prophets and saints to be marked in similar fashion) in private.

So today, it's Easter.  As I've said before, I'm not particularly religious, and it's been years and years and years since I did anything at all to mark Easter.  No eggs, no baskets, no little chocolate bunnies, no pastel dresses with gloves and hats.  Not for me, no sirree.  It's just another day.

Well, except this year, and it's just sort of on principle.  When someone tells me I can't do something, that becomes exactly what I want to do.  I actually thought about trying to find an undercover church service today, but it's just too risky -- both for me, and for the people who actually have to live here and who hold secret church services in their homes.

But see, it's like this:  you can make people obey the rules, but you can't make them think like you want, not really.  All the shops and businesses (Starbucks included) close five times a day at prayer time.  They lock the doors, roll down the metal gates, and lots of places will actually kick everybody out.  (Others, fewer in Riyadh than in the expat-oriented Eastern Province, will let you stay and finish your coffee.)

But when the mall shops close, you don't necessarily see everyone running off to pray.  They sit on the benches outside and wait, or they sit (when allowed) in the "family section" of the food court and finish their coffee or their Little Ceaser's pizza or their Cheesecake Factory dessert.  And when the shops open again, there they are.

Like I said, people adapt.  The authorities ban things, they just get moved inside.  Someone gets raided, it moves somewhere else.  The authorities mandate that all women wear black abayas in public, and they abayas themselves become ornamented and alluring.  My friends and I, honestly, think they can be very sexy.  (More on that later.)

And they allow you to eat in a phenomenally expensive restaurant while wearing jeans or an old housedress, and nobody knows.  Heh heh heh.

Women are pressured to wear niqab, and they turn that against the system -- nobody can tell who they are!  It doesn't matter what they do!  You would not believe some of the stories we hear about people behaving badly.  In private.  Always in private.  Everything is private here.

The thing people keep saying to me over and over, the foreign "guest workers" from Egypt and India and Pakistan who work here, is that "this is a closed country, it is such a closed place."

But closed doors can hide much.

So yes, this is the most conservative country on Earth, but no, it's probably not what you expect.  It certainly isn't what I expected.

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This diary will probably also explain why I've been offline for ever and ever... the only Internet I can get is a really slow (but really cheap!) dialup, and it can sometimes take me hours to actually get online.

Insh'Allah, I'll be going home soon.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Sun Apr 8th, 2007 at 05:32:45 AM EST
Speaking of which, I'm going offline again now. :-(

I miss my DSL.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Sun Apr 8th, 2007 at 05:40:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You have my deepest sympathy. I would have reservations about visiting most places in the Middle East but wild horses couldn't drag me to the Gulf states.

Hypocrites, all of 'em.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Apr 8th, 2007 at 05:41:20 AM EST
It sounds really tough, stormy. But, you know, I'm free here to go to a church service and, well... I'll just have some chocolate, like you...

Hope you're out of there soon!

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Apr 8th, 2007 at 05:58:13 AM EST
I can report that the left ear of the contraband bunny was very tasty.  Yay for Lebanese chocolate.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Sun Apr 8th, 2007 at 09:08:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I hope you get to go home soon and look forward to hearing more of your adventures when you're back with some of that good ol'fashioned sinful DSL...
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Sun Apr 8th, 2007 at 07:01:46 AM EST
I spent almost one year in Jeddah 28 years ago (!) and it looks like nothing has changed...

You could probably attend a mass at some occidental embassy. When I was there, even movie theatres were forbidden (although TV was not!), and the only place where you could see movies was outdoors in the garden of a French Embassy annex. A lot of people used to come to this place, including local citizens! And shop windows human-like dummies were forbidden, too...

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Sun Apr 8th, 2007 at 08:24:59 AM EST
Jeddah and the greater Dammam area are much more laid-back than Riyadh.  And I usually make it a point of avoiding expat enclaves and diplomatic compounds... and besides, I really didn't want to go to church, I just don't like being told that I can't.

Movie theaters are still illegal, and even some of the makeshift ones on private compounds have been shut down.  The French embassy probably still shows films, but I'm not positive about that.  And TV is obviously in all the homes, satellite dishes everywhere.

The shops have human mannequins now, but without faces or hair or anything, and they wear some rather startling outfits, including skimpy lingere.  But all photos of people (men AND women AND children) in the displays have the faces blurred or pixelated.  All the packets of underwear in Marks & Spencer had white tape on the outside, covering up the pictures.   Some of the magazines on sale in bookstores have been gone through and had photos colored in with marker, but not all of them.

Basically the only photos of people you can see publicly displayed are of the King and the Crown Prince.

But in the Debenham's in the "Ladies Kindgdom," which is the ladies-only floor of the Mamleka (Kingdom) Mall, there's a Glamour Shots photo studio, staffed entirely by women.

This place is very odd.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Sun Apr 8th, 2007 at 09:02:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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