Register Saturday | June 15 | 2019
Christmas in Saudi Arabia

Christmas in Saudi Arabia

Make-believe morality in the royal desert

“DEATH TO ALL DRUG TRAFFICKERS”—these words, in blood-red letters on the flight entry form, welcome all travellers to Saudi Arabia. As I fill out the card, the bright orange lights of Riyadh glow in my window. I’ve missed this place.

It’s been four years since I last visited my family. We have a unique status in Saudi Arabia as Arab Christians. We speak Arabic like Saudis—albeit with a Lebanese accent—and my family has lived here for twenty-five years, yet we are still considered foreigners because of our citizenship and our religion. There are no churches in Saudi Arabia, and celebrating Christian holidays is only allowed in the privacy of one’s home; large get-togethers are frowned upon.

I’ve decided to surprise my family by coming home from university in North America two days before they are expecting me. “I’ll be arriving on Friday at ten pm,” I said to my mother over the phone. “By the way, what are you guys doing Wednesday evening?”

“Sweetie, you know this country,” she said. “I’ll probably be watching TV, your brother will be with friends, and your dad will be at work. Remember, it’s Ramadan over here; people keep working late. Why do you ask?”

“No reason. OK, Mom, I’ll see . . . I mean, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

I hand my passport and entry form to the customs official. “Marhaba,” I say to him. “Hello.” He reads my passport with an amused expression.

“Your name is Bahtreek?” he asks in Arabic.

“Yes,” I reply.

In Arabic, the letter P does not exist. Recently, with “pizza,” “computer” and other foreign words making their way into everyday Arab speech, the letter B was modified by adding two dots below the character to create an ad hoc P, thus allowing for phonetic pronunciation of the foreign word. Many Arabic speakers still find this difficult, though, and opt to use B rather than tackle the more challenging P sound. Even my grandparents have problems pronouncing my name.

The customs officer stamps my passport and I make my way to the baggage claim area, my least favourite part of travelling to Saudi Arabia. Customs officials run all bags through an X-ray machine and if they spot anything suspicious—contraband items like drugs, alcohol, pornography, etc.—they search your luggage by hand. Placing a layer of lingerie at the top of the bag is a well-known tactic among women; customs officials let bags pass, barely searched, to save themselves the humiliation of sifting through silky red materials. Being a single male, however, lingerie is not really an option.

“Open your bag, blease,” a dark, mustached man tells me in broken English. “You have CD and game, blease take out.”

I pull out three music CDs, two Game Boy games and one Pokémon DVD that I carefully placed beforehand in an innocuous Forrest Gump DVD case. Pokémon is my little brother’s favourite cartoon, but conservative Muslim clerics declared it illegal last year; it teaches children to gamble, they proclaimed.

“Give CD to him with bassbort, blease.”

A Bangladeshi worker standing in a corner awaits my personal technology. I hand the discs to him with a ten-riyal bill, hidden from the inspector’s view. The worker nods his head and walks toward a nondescript room.

I know where he is going. Once, when I was thirteen, I returned to Saudi Arabia with a brand new video camera and four mini videocassettes. The videos showed what any thirteen-year-old would film: scenes of my friends and I goofing off, testing who could jump the highest, chasing young, camera-shy girls. Hours of mindless, meaningless action. The inspector took the tapes, handed my father a receipt, told him to pay a fee and in a few days call the number on the receipt, at which point he would get the movies back, if they were acceptable. In the back of the inspection area, there sat a bearded man in a room filled with TV screens. From where I was standing, I could see an English movie on one (probably Rocky), a belly dancer shaking on the next and several wedding parties—all being viewed simultaneously by the bearded censor.

That time, I got all my cassettes back in good condition, but I’m not going to take any chances with the Pokémon DVD this time around. The Bangladeshi man comes back with my items: he has not given them to the inspector. Paying him off is the only way to ensure my Christmas present will not be confiscated. I thank him and head out the gates.

Instead of taking a cab, I hitch a ride informally with a thick-spectacled, bearded Kuwaiti who left his homeland during the Gulf War. His old Caprice Classic grumbles down the airport road, which is perfectly paved and illuminated by orange street lamps and giant billboard ads. Visa, Microsoft Arabia and Nokia welcome travellers to the city in both Arabic and English.

My driver, whose name is Ahmed, lives in the social homes that the Saudi government offered Kuwaiti refugees while Saddam was burning their oil fields. He is a poor fellow with two wives and five children.

“Why did you stay in Riyadh?”

He hesitates at first, unsure why I would ask such a question. I try to make him more comfortable by explaining that my family came from Lebanon over twenty years ago for my father’s job and has stayed ever since.

“Well, one of my wives wanted to stay and we were happy here, so we stayed . . .”

“What are your feelings about the current situation with Iraq and the USA?”

“I want to see Saddam gone, God willing. Two of my cousins are still missing and no one knows where they are. I was lucky, I left Kuwait right away. However, I don’t want Americans everywhere. Bush, he wants oil. Saddam is evil and Bush is evil. I remember how the Americans were during the Gulf War in 1991. They didn’t respect our Islamic traditions.”

He is right about the ubiquitous American military presence in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War; it was hard not to notice them. In a country where women are always escorted by male relatives and never allowed to drive, seeing women in the American army driving military vehicles on the streets of Riyadh was quite an astonishing sight. At times during the war, groups of Americans in full military attire would wait in restaurants for their falafels and shawarmas, sticking out in the mostly white-thobe-dressed crowd. After the war, their presence diminished in everyday life, confined mostly to military bases and residential compounds far from the centre of the city. It is these military bases that Osama bin Laden has fought against.

Ahmed continues, “I pray every day for the people of Iraq and every day for the people of Palestine.”

Any talk about America in the Middle East always leads to discussion of Israel and Palestine. I, however, do not want to start it.

“So you would prefer your Iraqi brothers to live under Saddam than under American rule?”

“Listen, I put my Iraqi brethren in God’s hand. Only he can make the right judgement.”

We enter the city limits. Soon I can see my family’s “villa”—a house with a concrete wall all around it—from the car window. Non-citizens are not allowed to buy Saudi property: most foreigners live in residential compounds paid for by their companies. The day we moved into this house, I remember the landlord gave us a business card, saying that since my father spoke Arabic, there was no need to worry about the real estate company’s three rules. When the man left, my father showed me the card:

1. We do not rent to non-Muslims.

2. We do not approve of immoral satellite dishes.

3. No animals, especially DOGS, are allowed.

My family (and a succession of pets, including two dogs) has been in this house now for over ten years. Satellite dishes have become legal—and therefore moral—with satellite stores and stations popping up everywhere (the notorious Arab news network al-Jazeera cannot be received any other way).

I pay Ahmed, get out of the cab and ring the bell. Other than a new paint job and the trees being a bit taller, my family home looks the same as the day I left. Our dog barks and someone walks to the door. I can’t wait to see the look on my parents’ faces.

“Who is it?” my mother asks.

“Open the door!” I say in a deep voice.

“I won’t open the door until you tell me who you are.”

“Open the door.” I have a wide smile on my face.

“No. Tell me who you are.”

“Open the door.”


My plan isn’t working. “Mom, it’s me, Patrick.”

“No, it’s not. Who are you?”

She can’t wait any longer to see and opens the door. We give each other a big hug. We’re both smiling.

For a single guy from Montreal, there really isn’t much to do in Riyadh. Movie theatres are banned in Saudi Arabia, restaurants are segregated into male sections and family sections and, of course, there are no bars because alcohol is illegal. My days are spent with family, watching television (over two hundred satellite stations) and killing time with our Sony PlayStation. A new addition this year is a high-speed DSL connection. The Internet, like most media in Saudi Arabia, is heavily censored and monitored. Banned Web pages range from the obvious (pornographic and gambling sites) to the less apparent (sites belonging to pop stars and actors). Instant messaging with far-flung friends is the one activity relatively free of hassle and frustration.

During Ramadan—one of the holiest months in Islam—every able-bodied Muslim is expected to fast until sundown. It’s a month in which the days and nights are inverted: shops open their doors at nine pm and stay open until around three am, and most people don’t get out of bed until late afternoon or early evening to break their fast. Eid al-Fitr—literally, the Feast of Breaking the Fast—marks the end of Ramadan and is celebrated with new clothing, greeting cards and many festivities.

On Eid al-Fitr, I tag along with my parents as they visit their Muslim friends (it’s either this or more TV). On our way, fireworks blast in the sky; palm trees on busy streets flash with decorative signs and bright lights. I can’t help thinking: add a few Santa Clauses and pipe in some carols, and you could be celebrating Christmas in Florida. Traffic slows as people stop to wish other drivers a happy Eid, honking their horns all the while. It is a scene not often associated with Riyadh, where expressive public celebration is shunned by fundamentalists as a heretical Western ideal.

Over an abundance of sweets and coffee, family friends ask about life in Canada and whether I want to move back to Saudi Arabia and work (foreigners make up only 20 percent of the kingdom’s population, but about 70 percent of the work force). Because there is no tax of any kind in Saudi Arabia, foreigners are often paid much more here than in North America—enough to compensate for the xenophobia and lack of freedom.

I tell them I’m happy in Montreal.

Christmas Day is fast approaching. A shopping trip with my mother takes us, inevitably, toward the two skyscrapers that overpower the downtown Olaya district: the al-Faisaliah building and the al-Mamlaka (or Kingdom Centre) tower. Both built within the last four years, they dwarf all surrounding infrastructure. The al-Faisaliah is a thirty-floor wonder that curves up to a single point, giving it the20shape of Brancusi’s Bird in Space. The floors of office space are topped by a very expensive rotating spherical restaurant. Several blocks away is the Kingdom Centre tower, funded by Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, a Saudi billionaire. This building’s upper part splits into two thinning towers, leaving a U-shaped parabolic void (spanned by an observation bridge) in the centre. Projected light illuminates its sides with a different colour—purple, red, blue—every few minutes. Chameleon-like, the huge floating U can be seen from miles away.

Each complex contains the same kind of stores you would find on North American streets: The Body Shop, Aldo, Baskin-Robbins. In the Kingdom Centre mall, you’ll see department stores full of brightly lit displays and beauty products. However, no young women can be found handing out perfume samples in the aisles or recommending the latest in anti-wrinkle cream. Since women aren’t allowed to drive, must wear black headscarves and robes over their hair and bodies, and must be escorted by male relatives even to enter a restaurant, the working life is not usually an option. Women who do work usually hold female-only occupations in education and health care. Since all employees at the Kingdom mall are necessarily male, the result, in the makeup section, is men giving beauty advice to ladies whose faces they cannot see.

The daily adherence to such moral strictures is ensured by the presence of an iconic figure in Saudi culture: the mutawa. Mutawas are officers in the Saudi morality police, the aptly named Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, an ultra-conservative group whose members go around enforcing their Islam on anyone they deem in need of moral reminders. You can’t miss them. A morality patrol consists of at least one bearded mutawa and one police officer, armed and ready to make arrests at the mutawa’s discretion. Merchants and consumers alike abhor their presence in shopping malls, supermarkets and busy marketplaces. They tell women to cover any hair that is showing, order people to go to mosques during prayers and harass (or even arrest) groups of men for loitering.

Everyone in Saudi Arabia has a mutawa story. I remember a day in junior high when two students came to school wearing bandannas over shockingly clean-shaven heads. Since they were popular kids, it looked at first as if shaved heads would be the new rage. However, the real story soon emerged: mutawas had found the boys loitering in a mall. The boys, who had long hair that fit inconspicuously inside baseball caps, had had their hats removed during the small argument that ensued, uncovering the forbidden length of hair. They were taken to the local mutawa station and given a free haircut before their family was called. Their father was severely warned not to let their hair grow again. Needless to say, shaved heads didn’t become the fad at my school.

Mutawas never talk directly to women; it is inappropriate to talk to another man’s wife or daughter. However, they sometimes carry leaflets that they throw at women, commanding them in Arabic and English to cover their hair. My father warns me never to walk too close to my mother; if a mutawa ascertains that you are a male escort, he might arrest you for your female companion’s display of hair. We make detours if we see mutawas ahead.

My mother takes us to an out-of-the-way mall to purchase a new Christmas tree.

“But Mom, where are you going to find a Christmas tree in Saudi Arabia?”

“A friend of mine told me where. Wait and see.”

We enter a toy store and look for the Pakistani employee working behind the cash register. Blonde hair protruding from beneath my mother’s black headscarf is enough to suggest what we are looking for this time of year. The Pakistani acknowledges us by nodding his head, but points to his Saudi boss, wearing the traditional white thobe, standing in a corner. We wait for him to turn his back. Then my mother follows the employee into the back of the store where, in a dark storage room, he hands her a large, nondescript box. She in turn gives him three hundred Saudi riyals. A few hours after this discreet exchange, an artificial Christmas tree is standing in our living room.

Christmas this year involves a small get-together with other Christian friends. We exchange gifts while lively Christmas songs play in the background. My little brother is rather relieved to find a Pokémon DVD within the all-white case of a movie he has never heard of before. Homemade red wine and black-market whisky accompany the large Christmas dinner. The women gather around the tree congratulating my mother on her ingenuity and the men play card games. I spend the evening watching satellite movies; a blue water bottle filled with wine keeps me company. Definitely not the most enlivening Christmas I’ve ever had. New Year’s will prove no better.

The plan for New Year’s Eve is simple: we will go to the Sahara Airport Hotel, eat at the hotel’s top-floor restaurant and hang out with my parent’s friends and their children. Considering the Sahara is miles from the city and frequented mostly by travellers, we will be among foreigners—more than usual—and in a different atmosphere.

On the night, we are the first to arrive. The friendly Egyptian maître d’ shows us to our table. We have Saudi “champagne”—apple juice, carbonated water and chunks of fruit—and a good meal. A guy and a girl, probably siblings, ask the maître d’ to play a tape they’ve brought. The lights dim, the elevator music stops and, out of nowhere, two green lights begin rotating and the restaurant becomes a makeshift dance club. Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” comes over the sound system. It’s obvious most people in the restaurant are not English speakers (and even then it’s hard to see middle-aged women jiving to a song proclaiming the singer’s love for “big butts”), but people get up and start dancing at their tables. More traditional Arabic music follows, and more recent hits. People smile, dance, wish each other a happy New Year. Far from the city, it seems Christians and Muslims alike are free to enjoy the final hours of the year away from the strict codes.

But we don’t enjoy the atmosphere for very long. About half an hour before midnight, the music comes to an abrupt halt. The green lights stop flashing and the conventional restaurant lighting returns. People stop in mid-dance and look around. Have we been having such a great time that New Year’s has already passed? Is it time to leave? The friendly maître d’ tells us to please all take our seats. The hotel reception has just called up to say the party’s over.

The mutawas are coming.

This simple statement is enough to end any protest. The hotel staff has tried to stop the mutawas, even going so far as to reprogram the elevator not to reach the restaurant level. But that does little to stop them. They have taken the elevator to the highest floor it will go and are walking up the rest.

Three bearded men enter the restaurant and begin inspecting the families present. The women have veiled their hair and bodies. The once boisterous atmosphere has been replaced with silence and the subdued dining sound of stainless steel tapping porcelain. The mutawas walk around every table, as if looking for something. When they leave a few minutes later, they leave behind the lack of happiness they carried in—a parting gift. The rest of the night is not festive. Welcome to Saudi Arabia 2003, I think to myself.

Across the table is one of my father’s Syrian friends. I have met Abu Khalil (not his real name) a few times previously, and we start discussing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I don’t like talking about the issue in Saudi Arabia, since most people think either I’m playing devil’s advocate (i.e. how can any Arab, Muslim or Christian ever side with the Jews?) or I’ve been completely brainwashed by American media propaganda and life in the West. However, Abu Khalil went to an American university. I feel we can talk more reasonably.

“Why not have two countries living side by side?” I say.

“So you are pro-Israeli,” says Abu Khalil.

I ask him to explain his thoughts.

“Imagine if today I came to your house, where you’ve lived for years, and I told you, ‘You have to leave.’ What would you do? They come into Palestinian land and take it for Jews coming from New York, why? And why should we listen to them? That is why suicide bombers exist. They are frustrated and we can’t do anything, so they kill Israelis.”

“There is absolutely no reason to kill oneself or a lot of innocent people,” I respond. “That’s why the UN exists.”

“Don’t tell me about the UN. For years after the first intifada, the Palestinians tried to work diplomatically, but nothing happened. It just doesn’t work.”

“But they’ve been trying violence for years and that hasn’t worked. Why continue? International law may take small steps forward, but violence is a leap away from peace.”

“As long as there are Zionist occupiers of Arab land, we will not let them live in peace.”

“And you are willing to make the Palestinians suffer also because of this?”

“They’ve always been suffering, we want the Israelis to feel the same.”

It is hard to continue. This educated man, a Syrian, is deciding the way both Israelis and Palestinians must live, although he has none of their discomforts. He is well off and living in Saudi Arabia. You would think people become more open-minded when subjected to different cultures and ideas. I thank him for the chat. Tomorrow I am heading back to Canada.

Osama bin Laden has urged Saudis to drive American troops from Muslim holy lands. On my way to the airport, though, I can’t help noticing the following on the streets of Riyadh: golden arches with “McDonald’s” written in Arabic underneath; Lincoln Navigators and GMC Suburbans with open windows blaring Eminem singing “I’m sorry, mama”; flashing neon signs of the Nike swoosh; vans with Lucent or Microsoft advertising on their sides; gargantuan billboards facing off in Pepsi and Coca-Cola’s universal rivalry; and an infestation of Starbucks outlets to rival Seattle. There might come a time when the US army will no longer occupy Saudi soil (many bases have recently been moved to neighbouring Qatar), but I find it hard to believe American culture will ever leave the kingdom.

From the outskirts of Riyadh, the only things visible are the two skyscrapers, Saudi Arabia’s twin towers. Looking at them from this distance, I can’t help but draw parallels to the World Trade Center. These towers also proclaim their country’s financial power; without them, the skyline would not be the same.

With the Islamic Hijri calendar having eleven fewer days than the Christian Gregorian, this is the last time that Christmas and Eid al-Fitr take place in the same month for several years to come. Like the Western and Middle Eastern worldviews, the calendars are moving apart at the very time when friendship, family and openness should be most meaningful.

How absurd it is that men are recommending lipstick to women whose faces they cannot see, how absurd that boys with long hair have to cover it with baseball caps, how absurd that satellite dishes are hidden one year and then a best-selling, legal commodity the next, and how absurd that a cartoon video must be hidden from sight. The absurdity of all these laws, however, is trumped by the greatest absurdity of all: the sight of an entire country, in broad daylight, hiding itself from reality.