Sometimes the most repressive of circumstances call for the most creative ways of thinking. As an American woman, who had never heard of religious police, much less ever met one, I hoped I’d never have the opportunity to tell the kind of story I’d been hearing from some of my Western compatriots in the Kingdom.
One of my acquaintances ended up in jail for twenty-four hours, having been caught at a party where men and women were mixing and drinking. After she was rescued by the American Embassy, she told us the repulsive details. I won’t bother recountng a second-hand story, especially when I’ve got a good one of my own.
A muttawa confrontation is an expatriot rite of passage, though not a very pleasant one. No one seeks such an experience, but after it’s over, the story makes for a wonderful narrative in years to come. My own episodes occurred nearly twenty years ago, but judging from recent news from the Kingdom, they might still be appreciated.
I was engaged to an Egyptian man during the summer of 1991. One day, while he was at work, I spent the afternoon in his apartment on Khazan Street, getting to know his nine year and twelve year old daughters. After Asr prayer, we decided to walk down the block to the grocery store. No sooner had we left the building than we became aware of three muttaween– without a policeman– following us. We ducked into the store and examined items on the shelves. They came into the store and said something to me in Arabic. I did not understand, but I decided not to respond at all. Someone had told me not to talk to them.
The girls and I were covered, but the older girl’s abaya fell open to reveal her short skirt underneath. That was bad. The muttaween repeated whatever it was they said. I was afraid to speak English to the girls, and I couldn’t speak much Arabic at that time, so I went about my business in the store, but the muttaween wouldn’t leave. The girls whispered, “Talk to them,” and I whispered, “No.” There I was, with a young girl who allowed her abaya to fall open in front of muttaween, and I was not yet married to their father.
We left the store, and they left, too, following us. Then we noticed their car, driven by yet another one of them. It held up traffic, crawling along, following us as we walked down the busy street. I whispered to the girls to jump into the closest taxi, and we did. The muttawa car speeded up and blocked the path of the taxi, and the taxi driver shouted, “Out! Out! I no want trouble!”
We got out from the other side of the taxi and ran across the street, thinking that the muttawa car would not be able to turn around and follow us. It did. That girl’s headscarf then started to slip, and we had to stop so she could fix it. They stopped too, and started yelling in Arabic over their loudspeaker. I continued to ignore them. As long as we remained on the sidewalk, in public, we’d be safe, I reasoned, but I did notice that the muttawa car was more like an SUV, with plenty of room for prisoners.
We walked and walked, and became exhausted in the heat, but I was afraid to go back into a store. I didn’t know what to do. The muttawa car was undoubtedly air conditioned, and we had been walking for half an hour. The younger girl started to cry. The older girl said, “My friend lives in the next block, in the white building.”
“Is she home now?” I asked. “What’s her apartment number?”
Yes, she’d be home, and she lived on the third floor.
”OK,” I said, “Walk normally until we get to the entrance. Then run as fast as you can up the stairs to her apartment. Whoever gets there first, pound on the door.”
We ran as fast as we could up three flights of stairs, with three muttaween on our heels. We pounded on the door. As it opened, I pushed it wide, and the three of us tumbled in. I slammed the door shut behind us and leaned on it, not an instant too soon. The muttaween, too, pounded on the door, yelled, pushed and rattled the handle, while I fumbled to engage the lock and lean on the door with all my strength.
Eventually they gave up, but we were trapped. Now I had five kids and no adult in the house; the mother had gone shopping. The phone rang. I told the kids, “Don’t answer it.” They said, “OK,” and went into a bedroom to answer it. The muttaween were calling from the office of the “bawaab”– the doorman–on the first floor. I repeated, “Don’t talk to them!”
By the time Maghreb prayer fell due, the phone calls had stopped, and the mother returned from shopping. The kids all talked at once, telling the story. I phoned the girls’ father, told him the story, and he agreed to come and get us after Isha prayer.
Later that night, we learned that the muttaween had trashed the office of the bawaab, tearing down posters he’d hung on the wall, and overturning drawers. They left, but kept phoning the apartment until the mother talked to them, and told them that I was an American Muslim convert who didn’t know Arabic, and that they should be happy for my conversion, and leave me alone.
Several years later, I realized that the muttaween had probably been watching the building in which my future husband lived. They knew that young Arab girls lived in those apartments. They did not harrass us again, probably because I never went out alone with the girls after that incident. I also realized that the older girl was a bit of a flirt. This was not the first time she drew unwanted attention, but I’ll save that story for another post.