letter from saudi arabia

  1. 171 Posts.
    R. F. Burton
    Private Papers

    "R. F. Burton" is an American who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for many years.
    There has been a lot of commotion in the Magic Kingdom lately. Over terrorism? No, nothing so mundane. I'm talking about camera cell phones.

    The ruckus began, of all places, at a wedding party. Like all public functions in the Magic Kingdom, weddings are completely segregated. Allah frowns on men and women mingling, because coed mingling leads to immoral tingling, and everyone knows where that goes. Even though there are no men, Saudi women adore wedding parties. Girls just want to have fun, even Arab girls. A wedding party is their one legitimate opportunity to throw off oppressive veils, let their thick, black-hennaed hair down, and dance, even if only with each other. Ah, the bliss of swaying cheek-to-cheek until sunrise to the entrancing ululations of professional African singers.

    Apparently things weren't as innocent as they seemed at this particular wedding party. Reports began leaking out of young Saudi women surreptitiously snapping photos of unveiled guests. Worse, some of the guests were dancing! Then the women began transmitting the photos and videos to unscrupulous males with voyeuristic tendencies who would otherwise never lay eyes on such prancing pretties.

    It's difficult for a Westerner to grasp just how shocking all of this is. In the Magic Kingdom modesty is a must. Human faces on billboards are digitally altered to blur facial features. Such concealment extends far beyond advertising. Unless he travels abroad, your average Saudi male will go through his entire life without seeing an unveiled woman aside from his sisters and mother, and the woman mom selects to be his wife. I know a Westernized and well-educated Saudi male who confided that even though there was a swimming pool at his father's house, he'd never seen his own sister swim. Brother and sister swam at different times to prevent the indecency of seeing each other in swimsuits.

    In such a camouflaged environment, taking photographs of unveiled women dancing at wedding parties is beyond outré. It's tantamount to having your Western mother strip naked for the gawking world of Internet porn.

    Yet the voyeuristic lure was so powerful that soon the craze spread like a shamal across the Arabian Peninsula. High schools and universities were no longer safe. Restaurants and souks were potential danger zones. The Daughters of Arabia were at risk! Action had to be taken!

    In March the Interior Ministry banned the sale and import of camera cell phones. But unlike the ban in December prohibiting the import of dolls and stuffed animals, which gave merchants three months to clear their shelves, the deviant phones could still be found for sale all over Riyadh months after the ban. But even if the ban had been successful, Saudis could still smuggle the phones in when they returned from trips abroad. After all, Saudis are never searched at Customs. That privilege is reserved for foreigners. No Customs official would dare poke around a Saudi lady's underwear in her suitcase even if he were given permission.

    The event that broke the camera's back, not surprisingly, was another wedding party. The Arab News reported that a female guest was caught red-handed photographing other guests. A fracas ensued. Fighting in the women's quarters soon spread to the men's tent. Several guests ended up in the hospital.

    Enough was enough. It was time to pull out the big guns.

    Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al al-Sheik, Saudi Arabia's ultimate religious authority-- the Muslim equivalent of Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, the Pope, and maybe even Mel Gibson rolled into one-- announced a religious edict barring the use of the demonic devices. In the al-Madina newspaper he declared that camera-equipped mobile phones were "spreading obscenity in Muslim society."

    You would think that the edict ended this clandestine shutterbug business. After all, Muslims abhor obscenity. Or do they? In spite of the Sheik's edict, I noticed most of the Saudis at work still carried the banned phones. So what's the story?

    I decided to ask a Saudi friend at work, Abdulla, what he thought of all the agitation.

    "It's because of bad people. Very bad."

    I didn't see how a girl taking a picture of another girl, even secretly, made her bad or, worse, obscene.

    "It's not because of that," he said. "It's because of the rape."

    "Rape?" I asked. "I thought it was because of a wedding brawl?"

    "No. That's what they put in the paper," he replied, whipping out his cell phone and punching buttons. "Watch this," he said, handing me his Nokia. Abdulla had to instruct me to push Start.

    The video on his cell phone showed an ugly white donkey ferociously trying to mount a terrified female ass. As the donkey lunged at his love object, a running narrative in the background recounted the epic event in Arabic. The proud owner's voice rose to a pitch of excitement when penetration was finally achieved, like a sportscaster at a football game narrating a touchdown.

    I was utterly astounded. Animal rape was the source of the edict against cell phones?

    "Don't be stupid," Abdulla said, taking back his phone. "Did you see how big it was?"

    The next video was of a veiled Saudi woman walking down a sidewalk. A Saudi man suddenly runs up behind her and grabs her buttocks. When he runs off, he slips and falls. The woman commences to beat him mercilessly with her purse. Perhaps it was the first time in her life she could vent frustration on a male.

    "Wasn't that funny?" Abdulla chuckled, punching more buttons on his phone.

    The next video was more sinister. The video was shot in a car. The passenger door was open. A beautiful, young Saudi woman was standing near the door. Over her shoulder the desert rolled away into a hellish eternity. The photographer was speaking to her.

    "What's he saying?" I asked.

    "He's telling her if she doesn't take off her clothes, he'll leave her in the desert."

    Looking away from the camera, she starts taking off her blouse. Suddenly the video ends.

    "Why would such a beautiful woman want a boyfriend like that?" I asked.

    "Some women are just bitches," he replied cryptically. "Here it is," he said, handing me his phone.

    The video was disorienting. The camera was slightly out of focus and moved erratically. One moment it was pointed down at an Arab carpet. Then it jerked up to a gaudy chandelier hanging from the ceiling. A woman's voice was yelling over and over again, "Barjas, Barjas!" Then the camera focused. A naked young Saudi woman was struggling on the carpet. A Nigerian was on the carpet behind her, pinning her arms to her side, looking over her bare shoulder at the camera. It was obvious from his face he was eager to please; not the woman, but the man holding the camera. Only then did I realize that the Nigerian was raping the woman. The woman looked into the camera, pleading, her face distorted by anger and fear. Seconds later the Nigerian released the woman. Weeping to herself, the naked Saudi woman walked over to a disheveled bed in a corner of the room. She picked up her panties and put them on, crying. The video ended.

    "What was she saying?"

    "His name, the man with the camera" Abdulla said.

    All Arab names mean something. What did Barjas mean?

    "It's hard to translate," Abdulla said. "Something like 'the moment when a baby opens its eyes'."

    "So what happened?"

    "She's the daughter of Bahraini royalty. Her father saw this and took it to the police. The authorities arrested Barjas."

    "Why did he do it?"

    "She did something to him to make him mad. So he paid her back."

    He certainly did. By filming her being raped by his black servant, and then broadcasting it across the country, he razed her reputation beyond rehabilitation. Saudi men marry virgins, some even as young as twelve and thirteen. They don't marry women who have had sex with other men, especially men of African origin. It's irrelevant that the act was not consensual. Her honor had been violated. The loss of face would extend well beyond the woman. Her entire family and tribe would suffer from the indignity.

    "How did the authorities know who he was?"

    "They can find anyone. Besides, she says his name in the video. It's not a common name. Maybe only ten people in the entire country have it. He comes from a rich family."

    "He's Saudi?"

    "Yes, he's Saudi. A bad man."

    "What'd they do to him?"

    "He was sentenced to seventeen years in prison."

    So Barjas was given seventeen years in prison. He got off easy. It's common to be executed for rape in the Magic Kingdom. (Most rapes in Saudi Arabia involve little boys.) Perhaps because Barjas only orchestrated the crime he was dealt with more leniently than usual. The Nigerian may have posed an interesting issue under Sharia law. While he did physically penetrate the woman, it was obvious he was acting on his master's orders. Under normal circumstances he probably would have trembled at the thought of even looking at a member of Bahraini royalty. Who knows what happened to the poor Nigerian. He's probably lingering in some nasty jail cell, waiting for the day when the Kingdom's Chief Chopper unsheathes his golden sword - a personal gift from the King - and mercifully dispatch his soul to hell.

    "People are no good," Abdulla said, taking back his phone. "No good."

    I couldn't agree with him more.

    I only saw those four videos archived in Abdulla's cell phone. They didn't depict a sunny side of human nature, particularly male nature.

    "So what are you going to do with your phone?" I asked. "Turn it in to the authorities?" The Arab News mentioned heavy fines and even the possibility of one year in prison for violators who failed to turn in their phones.

    "I don't have a problem turning my phone in, as soon as they take all the other phones off the market." Abdulla said. "Until then I'm keeping mine."

    I wanted to ask the real reason behind the Interior Ministry's ban on dolls and stuffed animals, but decided against it. Perhaps the Interior Ministry has a point: there are places you shouldn't allow your mind to wander.
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