Be my Valentine — but shh, Saudi cops are watching

It is the eve of Valentine’s Day in Saudi Arabia — and as usual the florists are hiding away their red roses.

Toy stores have cuddly red teddy bears and candy merchants have heart-shaped red boxes of bon bons in stock, but all are hidden out of sight.

It is the annual battle between Saudi romantics and the feared Muttawa, the Islamic police, who each year try to convince the public that Valentine’s Day on February 14 is a heathen holiday not suitable for the homeland of Islam.

This year is no different — reminders have gone out from clerics of a years-old fatwa reminding people that Islam does not recognise Valentine’s Day, which originally commemorated one or more Christian martyrs called Saint Valentine.

According to media reports this week, the education ministry sent out circulars about the proscribed day in an effort to prevent the most vulnerable — dreamy-eyed students — from succumbing to Westernised thoughts of romance.

Meanwhile supermarkets have tucked away red gift items that might get them shut down for a day or two, and chocolate shops have done the same.

Two days before the big day a florist in Riyadh’s upmarket Suleimaniya district was shipping out wreaths of red roses and crimson apples in the middle of the afternoon, the time that everyone else, including the Muttawa, is at rest.

“Every year they try to stop Valentine’s Day,” said a Pakistani deliveryman as he packed the wreaths into a van. “The Muttawa will come tonight. If they catch me they will take all of these and destroy them.”

The Western version of Valentine’s Day — lovers raining flowers, chocolates and toys, all with a red theme, on each other — would be a challenge in Saudi Arabia at any time of the year.

Strict Islamic religious rules keep men and women separate until they are married — and marriages are usually arranged by their families.

There is no taking a girlfriend out to a coffee shop or restaurant: the cafés and restaurants all have separate sections, one for single men and the other for women and families.

But the Muttawa — which go by the official name of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices — are only a nuisance, not a reign of terror, said a chocolatier in front of his shop on Wednesday.

His Valentine’s assortments are mixed colours — red, blue, green — so that he doesn’t attract undue attention.

“Sales are still good,” he said, not wanting to be identified to be on the safe side. – AFP

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Paul Handley
Paul Handley

Paul Handley is a former AFP bureau chief in Riyadh. He is currently the US security correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP) in Washington DC, covering crime, justice and US politics. His reporting has appeared in Business Insider, New Zealand Herald, AlterNet, France 24, Yahoo, The New York Times, The Times South Africa, The Globe and Mail, and the Sydney Morning Herald. He is author of The King Never Smiles about the late Thai monarch.

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