Some Things Are Puzzles

A lot of things about Saudi Arabia puzzle me. This sign, for instance. It puzzles me:

David & Goliath ad posterI thought it might be advertising a new indoor playland (all the malls have them—outdoor parks are rare, hot, and dirty). A friend thought it was a candy store. Those are childish illustrations, so surely SOMETHING for kids, right? Close–it’s a kids’ clothing store. But no matter what…David and Goliath? What’s the connection to any of it? David was…uh, young when he engaged in mortal combat? That makes it a fun story and a costume suggestion! Suit up, kids!

The poster looks like somebody loaded a bunch of clipart cartoon figures into a paint gun, shook it, and blasted everything out onto wallpaper that got trimmed (indiscriminately) for the display case. The characters are doing their best to get along, but they don’t have anything in common. A spoon and fork in the top center hold hands and extend inclusive arms to a fuzzy pink roaring monster on one side and on the other, a heart whose fashion ensemble includes glasses, a derby hat, and…a rope belt. Lightning threatens from the top right, but it’s accompanied by another heart, so it can’t be that bad. Cupcakes are shooting more hearts out of their frosting tops, sending love to a multi-eyed monster above, but their facial expressions suggest they’re actually ambivalent. Perhaps they’re troubled by a different roaring monster below, wearing glasses because he’s got a serious lazy eye problem. An unsharpened pencil insults a sharpened one by saying “Hey Shorty.” The snappy comeback is a pun that surely makes sense only in English: “What’s your point?” A smiling mushroom and a buck-toothed bee round out the group above a partial skull wearing a crown and saying something in a word bubble that defies conventional language and can only be expressed by a heart-shaped skull and crossbones.

Sound like FUN, kids? C’mon! It’s DAVID AND GOLIATH!

The poster’s only one of a lot of things that defy explanation here. Like, say, something else that puzzles me: Religious police. On the surface, it’s an oxymoron on the level of “jumbo shrimp” and “open secrets” and “freezer burn.” I mean, to the Western mind, how could such a thing be? The core principle of religion is that it’s personal, right? Do it or don’t, it’s between you and your God.

Well…not here.

What we call the “religious police” is formally referred to as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, and is commonly known as the Hai’a. Its officers are referred to as muttawa. “Muttawa” literally means “pious,” and can be any very religious man, but the Hai’a officers all fall within that definition, so the name stuck. They wear no uniforms, but can be spotted by the way they wear their traditional Saudi garb: the white gown (thobe) is shorter than normal, and their headscarves lack the black-rope circlet (egal) that everybody else wears. These are both considered tokens of humility and piety. Not so the frequently-carried stick, which is used to poke or snap at people. I have had exactly one encounter with them, at the entrance gates to Janadiriyah, the annual Saudi national festival, where all women were being asked to cover their hair. The officer was soft-spoken and friendly, making polite requests. I complied. No problem. (Read here for another blogger’s experiences–Blue Abaya is the go-to source around here for reality.)

Their job is to enforce Islamic values. As I parse from this and other news pieces, their purview includes what Americans would consider traditional vice-squad stuff—drugs, prostitution, bootlegging, extortion, gambling. Let’s add a round of applause, please. But…still a puzzle. Why not just use the regular police for that? The Hai’a have no arrest authority, and have to have a regular police officer(s) with them to enforce anything, so…why not just let the police take care of that without a bunch of extra guys adding to the pandemonium and the paperwork? As far as I know, there’s nothing stopping the police from acting on these things alone if they find them first.

So let’s agree that a police force that’s specifically “religious” isn’t essential to combat drugs, prostitution, bootlegging, extortion, and gambling. And perhaps even concede that they don’t add anything to the effort, either. So what would be something uniquely theirs?

Ah, the fun stuff. The stuff that’s not illegal anywhere else in the world and that the regular police don’t care a fig about. The stuff that puzzles me hard. And, frankly, everybody else in the world, and makes them think that Saudi Arabia operates in a whole ‘nother universe. Such as, say, enforcing things like gender-specific checkout counters. You see, the Hai’a made quite a splash in the news recently when a YouTube video showed them assaulting a British man and his Saudi wife in a Riyadh mall parking lot.

As the story goes, the officers confronted the man at a checkout counter intended for families, not for single men. He argued that he’d been directed to that queue because his wife was with him, but the harassment continued. They followed him to his car, where the assault occurred when he took pictures of them and refused to give up his phone. A spectator at the scene caught the clip you see here. Regular police came, then left, then the man—now inside his locked car—called the British embassy, which sent a vehicle to escort him and his wife home.

The Hai’a officers were judged to be WAY out of line and to have lied about the events and were disciplined (assigned “desk jobs” I’m sure wouldn’t exist without all the paperwork required by their duplicative labors), but my question remains: What purpose were they serving there in the first place? According to one of the policies they’d broken, they were supposed to have checked in with mall security, under whose supervision they’re acting at all. I get it. Mall cops. I’m sure it’s grating to serve as lackeys to mall cops, but there it is. So…why can’t the mall cops be the ones to enforce rules about who should be directed to which queue? Why the extra guys? (And the attendant paperwork.)

The Hai’a recently raided a home that a neighbor reported was acting as a church. More interesting than the article, though, was the robust conversation that emerged in the comments. Non-Muslims said there should be no compulsion in religion. Muslims agreed, but said the Hai’a weren’t forcing anyone to be a Muslim, just requiring them to obey the law of the land and not conduct worship services. Yup. On point of logic, pro-Hai’a carries the day—the “compulsion” argument was a weak one. What I found puzzling, however, was that this entire debate took place within a conversation about the religious police, whose job it is to enforce religious obedience. You want compulsion? Strip away the stuff that other law enforcement agencies already do, and there you have them: the Hai’a are the guys telling women they have to cover their hair, whether or not those women believe Mohammed intended that to be an actual commandment or even whether they profess Islam at all. They would be the guys telling businesses they have to close during prayer times, demanding proof that a man and woman walking together in public are married, shuttering candy shops for selling Valentine’s chocolate. No compulsion in religion? Then why…how the…but…what? The logic Legos are not snapping together for me.

But maybe they don’t see that as religious compulsion. There’s a hint, I think, in the name: The Society for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. According to the title, their function has no corollary in Western law enforcement, which is intended to apprehend and punish those who have already broken the law. No, the Hai’a exist to encourage virtuous behavior and to keep bad things from happening before they happen. A woman with her hair uncovered is not breaking a law, per se; she’s inviting adultery, which would be a crime if it were to happen. Poke her with a stick and bark at her to cover her hair, and vice (adultery leading to broken families, unwanted children) is prevented, and thereby virtue (chaste behavior) is promoted. It’s a two-fer.

So…final puzzle: Is it possible to prevent vice? Are Western countries missing one prong of a two-pronged approach to establishing an upstanding society? Or does the very effort label itself as such a fool’s errand that those who try only make themselves foolish? When I see this:

Ladies' stockings package with legs scribbled outI favor the latter. Will some percentage of family-undermining, society-loosening, un-Islamic behavior be prevented because the dude who lurks around the women’s stocking aisle isn’t able to see legs on the packaging? Let’s be honest: he’s far too desperate to be deterred by scribbles or headscarves or separate checkout queues. With that dude, vice is goin’ down, no matter what.

So, at the end, I remain puzzled, though I honestly want to understand. I hate it when something a lot of people get just doesn’t make sense to me. If religious police are unnecessary to the prosecution of vice that’s already happened, and if the kinds of things they do don’t actually promote virtue or prevent vice, why are they there?

A few weeks ago my husband and some coworkers were shooed out of a restaurant at prayer time (which was unusual), so they took their plates to outdoor tables. They finished eating, then continued to sit there talking. At some point a small group of muttawa on the sidewalk stopped to tell them they shouldn’t be eating during prayer. This is a not a policy we’ve encountered before; restaurants usually lock the doors to new customers and shutter the windows, but allow existing customers to carry on during prayer closures. Confused, the men asked what the problem was. No eating! Well, we’re not eating, even if that was forbidden. We’re sitting. Then the plates shouldn’t be there! (Gestures, mostly, for that message.) Well, the plates don’t belong to us. They’re here because the restaurant workers are at, you know, prayer, and haven’t come to clear them. This argument went on for some time before the logic circle got too tight and the muttawa grumbled to each other and walked away.

Would they have preferred that workers take the plates away during prayer? Surely that undermines virtue. Would they have preferred that a group of western men rove aimlessly during prayer time, rather than sit together at a table? Surely that opens the door to vice. So now they’re the Commission for the Prevention of Virtue and Promotion of Vice?

These things are puzzles. Perhaps my confusion can best be expressed in a word bubble:

mystery word bubbleYeah, that’s it. If you can puzzle out what it all means, let me know.

7 thoughts on “Some Things Are Puzzles

  1. Marianne Shade says:

    I think your little half-skull with a crown might be the main bad guy from a web comic called Order of the Stick, Which I find interesting because it probably contains everything under the sun forbidden in Saudi Arabia.

    Love your blog. I always feel like I’m somewhere else when I read it.


    • margocatts says:

      HaHA! I KNEW that stuff had to come from somewhere. I’m delighted to imagine there’s a subversive source that the person who designed that strange poster knows nothing about. Thanks for the compliments. I’m glad the somewhere-elsedness is coming through, because I sure feel it!


  2. Omar Hasan Khan says:

    “So now they’re the Commission for the Prevention of Virtue and Promotion of Vice?”

    Loved this line, and it sums it all up! I really wish I could offer some theory as to their existence but I’m as lost as you. My best guess would be that the explanation pertains to the psyche of the Saudi authority especially with regard to power and religion. Meanwhile, just to add to the conundrum that is the role of Hai’aa, here’s something I came across today:

    Once again, great post 🙂


    • margocatts says:

      LOVE the link! The Hai’a, promoting tourism. What could possibly make people feel more welcome?!? Yes, there’s something I keep scratching at in Middle Eastern culture about using religion to govern. I suspect the right to govern is believed to be given by God rather than man, so that the best way to seek God’s favor (and make clear to the people that you’re the proper, God-given ruler) is to use governmental power to enforce God’s laws. Something like that. I’m still puzzling it out, obviously. Thanks for writing!


  3. mashel says:

    Hey there!
    I just followed a link posted by blue abaya and I found myself here. I spent about two hours reading and going over your blog, very interesting and awesome blog. As a guy who was born in KSA always randomly selected by the TSA spend almost hlaf of his life in the lovely Oregon State.

    Coming back to the kingdom I faced a big reverse culture shock!! With some awful and some great habbits that some a missed and some I never missed.

    Again great blog and hope we can break the wall and meet you and your husband.

    Be blessed, stay blessed.



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