This is something I wrote in 2012 that I decided to re-publish in light of the death of Saudi Arabia’s king. I have been to Saudi Arabia twice, and between my two trips spent around a month there, mainly in the city of Jeddah, but I’ve also visited Mecca and Medina.
The first thing that happened on my trip to Saudi Arabia was that I was asked to leave. Upon sitting down in my seat on the Saudi Airlines airplane, a woman two seats over looked up from her copy of The Great Gatsby and told me I needed to sit elsewhere. She did not feel comfortable sitting near a man, and so after everyone had boarded and four more pleas I moved to another seat.
All the women on the flight had not yet covered their bodies, as they would upon arrival, but immediately the on-flight films helped set the mood: the female characters were blurred out when immodest – not when naked, but when showing much more than their face or hands; collarbones and calves were off-limits. I acclimated to this more quickly than the confusing plots of romantic comedies that had been chopped up to omit any scenes with physical encounters between men and women. But most striking was the unnatural silence of characters when their lips and context suggested they were saying words such as “beer” and “puberty.”
Jeddah is a city of a few million on the western coast of the Arabian peninsula where almost nobody swims at the beach. The time of day and the season are abstractions that have little bearing on the reality that most time spent outside feels like you’re being cooked alive. The most cosmopolitan of the the country’s cities, on any given street in the city center you’re likely to come upon men and women from all walks of Muslim life – Indonesians, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Bangladeshis, Somalis, Malaysians, and people from at least half a dozen Middle Eastern countries. The most liberal of of the country’s cities, some women can leave their hair uncovered without being harassed by the police, as they apparently would be in the capital, Riyadh. In Saudi Arabia, all women are expected to cover their bodies with a black abaya, a large cloak that conceals one’s figure, but rules regarding covering hair are more lax with non-Muslims and foreigners, at least in Jeddah. Most women, however, exist in a spectrum that ranges from have only their hands and eyes visible to being entirely buried in cloth, hands covered in gloves.
There is a sartorial symmetry between Saudi men and women, both wearing long, flowing robes from head to toe that protect one from the sun with a simplicity and elegance that mirrors the desert itself. But this symmetry begins to break down when you take note of the fact that the men wear white and the women wear black; the latter face a higher bar for modesty, and must absorb the punishment of the sun for being the true temptress of the two, historically. The symmetry erodes further when you account for how the man may and frequently does show his hair and wear form-fitting clothes if he wishes to, in the form of Western-style shirts and pants. And the similarities are only cosmetic when one remembers that Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are legally prohibited from driving (academics at Saudi Arabia’s highest religious council said lifting the ban would lead to “no more virgins”), and where women frequently need a male guardian’s permission for marriage and divorce, travel, if under 45, education, employment, and opening a bank account.
The main centers of public space in Jeddah appear to be mosques and shopping malls. Jeddah is reported to have many people, but feels underpopulated; it’s hard to find packed venues or locate a source of the city’s energy. There is no public transportation.
In the evening, some people sit on uncommercialized stretches of the beach and eat and smoke shisha by the water but rarely go into it. Massive playgrounds are strewn all over the beach, and the women’s clothes look less heavy on the swings. While parents play with children, missing are signs of teenagers and young adults, whose unrestrained antics anchor the Western conception of the beach.
One of the more interesting sights I observed on the beach was a man sitting surrounded by about six women while the car behind him blared Ludacris’s “Southern Hospitality”; the line I heard as I noticed them was “Oh how I love these pretty-ass hoes.”
One day I stumbled upon a few young university students chatting on a bench, watching fishermen. Like most Saudis I’ve met, they were exceptionally warm people who invited me into their lives within minutes of starting to chat. I decided to take them up on their offer by asking that they take me out on the town, so I could catch a glimpse of the evasive night life. Like most Saudis I’ve met, they replied to questions about what there was to do outside of eating at restaurants with silence, and then asked me if I like to shop.
We went to a mall. The journey was a bit of a trek, because the closest malls were exclusively for women or families. In the mall, we used products on sale for entertainment, playing with pianos and kittens we had no intention of buying. Eventually we found ourselves in an Egyptian cafe, smoking shisha and talking about girls. Some of them had tried finding girlfriends abroad in Lebanon and Jordan, and sustained relationships with extremely rare visits. They told me they all wanted to visit me after I told them that you can talk to just about anyone in an American bar.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as I often forget to call it, seeks to be a world unto itself, and largely succeeds. The weekends run from Thursday to Friday (Islam’s holy day); all business must cease five times a day for prayer time; the Visa process is easily the strictest and most arcane that I or everyone I know has ever encountered; I know a number of businessmen who have been established there for decades and have no prospect of citizenship, and will probably have to leave after retirement.
The uniquely closed nature of Saudi society is perhaps most evident in the opacity and strictness of the justice system. The specter of the death penalty, often by beheading, looms over acts including witchcraft, adultery, apostasy, drug smuggling, and armed robbery. According to a prominent Saudi blog, thieves do indeed get their hands chopped off on occasion. Deportation comes easily – there’s a confirmed story of a Pakistani man who was given 24 hours to leave the country after he gave a ride to a hitchhiker who was found at a police checkpoint to have no papers. Horror stories abound, and seem to substitute for a heavy police presence, which there certainly isn’t in Jeddah.
Sex is hard to avoid in Saudi Arabia. It’s against the law for unmarried or unrelated men and women to be together in public, but no culture can eliminate beauty and desire. Sex is in the eyes: their shape, color, personality and movement. Sex is in one’s gait, in the way you carry a bag or hold open a door, in the movement of the hands and the contours of the wrist.
The parameters of conversation can be regulated by society, but what people literally say to each other is just the tip of the iceberg. Chemistry between two strangers can be forged while discussing the price of fruit in a grocery store, playfulness and teasing with a friend’s wife at dinner parties cannot be condemned.
There are always gaps to be exploited by people who wish to exploit them. Everyday errands, queues, and sidewalks provide windows of opportunity. It is impossible to prevent people from arranging private meetings if they are the kind who is willing to take a gamble.
There are drivers and people who work around the house – often poor foreigners – who exist in a different sociosexual domain than the rest of the population; I have no doubt that power discrepancies produce different dynamics for how they fit into all this.
It goes without saying that those attracted to the same sex face far fewer logistical obstacles in committing illegal acts – but finding those who are similarly inclined requires taking serious risks. I know of a man who has had phone numbers scribbled on crumpled up pieces of paper hurled at him by other men when stopped at traffic lights in his car.
On the highway to Mecca there are signs indicating a point where non-Muslims must take an exit, because they are not allowed in Islam’s holiest city. Before entering the city, you must drive slowly through a police checkpoint, where officers look through the window and stop people arbitrarily if they suspect they might not be Muslim. For some reason they couldn’t tell I was an atheist.
I’ve had trouble talking domestic politics with people in Saudi. Like the national newspapers, they could report goings-on, but didn’t have analysis. They preferred to debate about international politics, especially Israel and the United States. One man I met who worked for the Saudi BinLaden Group (the family’s multinational construction conglomerate) said that he and a few of Osama bin Laden’s brothers were skeptical of the claims made about his assassination. In fact I ran into a number of conspiracy theories, including 9/11 inside job stories and worries that America was trying to deliberately bring about the collapse of the Pakistani state.
A number of professional observers have remarked on how historically many Arab autocrats have benefited from drawing attention to American and Israeli misdeeds in the region, and it makes some sense to me.
Saudi Arabia is in a class of its own compared to any country, both within or outside of the Middle East I’ve had the privilege of visiting. But this shouldn’t be overstated to the point where it is rendered alien – at times, it could be argued that it shares a great deal with certain parts of the Middle American landscape: the highways and cars; the scarcity of public space; the centrality of strip malls to social life; the concept of family and god as the greatest of duties; the religiosity and intolerance of other creeds; the rigidness of gender identity; and even the prohibition on alcohol, if you take into account the Bible Belt. And like many of those Americans, many Saudis – both men and women – take pride in these qualities. They are not blindly obedient or easily duped, but agents who consciously reckon with the traditions and nature of their society.
The problem is that it’s impossible to tell how many Saudis do feel differently, which of course many do, and how many who identify as comfortable with what they have would feel differently if presented with more than one option – an option that promises spiritual ecstasy through a life of deprivation.