Cupid flutters over Saudi Arabia despite ban

Young Saudis defied on Tuesday the ultra-conservative kingdom’s ban on Valentine’s Day celebrations to exchange sweets, red teddy bears, greeting cards, roses and even kisses.

On the night before Valentine’s young men and women strolled up and down the Tahliya upscale shopping avenue in the western city of Jeddah, browsing at heart-shaped chocolate boxes and the red lingerie gracing shop windows.

A few stores down from a lingerie shop called “Female Magic,” a veiled woman in a traditional black robe dashed out of a gift shop with 150 blown-up red balloons stuffing them in two cars that sped away in what resembled a bank holdup scene from an American movie.

“Those were for her husband,” said Mohammed Nabil (25) the shop’s Saudi manager.

“I have customers that spend more than one thousand riyals ($265), but they come in like burglars and we have to whisper to them that our Valentine’s section is at the back to avoid being overheard by someone that would go and report us to the Mutawas,” or religious police.

The kingdom’s mufti, or its highest religious authority, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, has branded Valentine’s Day a “pagan Christian holiday” and decreed in a fatwa five years ago that “no Muslim who believes in God or Judgement Day should celebrate” on this day”.

Official papers routinely reprint the fatwa every year on Valentine’s Day to remind the faithful of the ban.

It is enforced by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, with the dreaded Mutawas fanning out across main cities to prevent any public signs of Valentine’s, named after the Christian patron saint of lovers.

Nabil said the Mutawas last year confiscated Valentine’s goods worth nearly 200 000 riyals ($53 300) in raids on his company’s three-store chain.

This year he was taking no chances.

Two of the store’s Filipino clerks stood outside with a cellphone keeping a watchful eye for the Mutawas as customers shopped to their hearts delight for stuffed white guerrillas with “I love you” printed on the chest or heart-shaped red and pink boxes marked “Memories of love”.

Maha, a 22 year-old student, waited with her friend Amira (28) as the store’s clerk wrapped a box of chocolates and a red teddy bear for a “somewhat special boy” in her life.

“No, please not the red paper and the ribbon with the hearts. It is going to be too obvious.” said Maha in black robes clutching her little pink purse.

“Yes, yes. Come on, go for it,” urged Amira.

The women, who did not wish to give their surnames, called the Valentine’s ban “ridiculous”.

The cat-and-mouse game on Valentine’s is another sign of the tension in Saudi Arabia, where sharia rules, between those who want to embrace a modern or more Western way of life and the conservatives resisting change.

Although Jeddah is liberal by Saudi standards, many young Saudis emboldened by recent reforms initiated by King Abdullah are increasingly testing social norms.

“I do not like the pressure they put on us, even if I think Valentine’s is silly sometimes. What’s wrong with exchanging feelings of love,” said Nabil, the shop manager.

He planned to take out his fiancé Nada to a chaperoned dinner and present her with red roses and an “I love you” teddy bear.

“I will shower my girlfriend with kisses,” said Nizar al-Qadi (22) in his car outside the store.

Mohammed al-Qadi (36) bought an “I love you” mug for his wife.

“What’s the big deal … it’s like Mother’s Day, but clerics do not like the story of Valentine’s who, if my memory serves me right, went around marrying people secretly,” he said. – AFP

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