Tuesday, 14 February 2012

"A (Saudi) haaaaandbag?" or, Vital Secrets of An Arabian Bag-Carrier

In ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ by Oscar Wilde, Jack Worthing breaks the astonishing news that as a baby he was discovered in a handbag.

“A handbag?” exclaims Lady Bracknell. Yes, says Jack, a very ordinary handbag.

 My Riaydh handbag is seemingly very ordinary; black and boring. But what’s inside is very important.

Here’s what’ll you’ll find.

1. Iqama

This is my Saudi identification card. It may also be the worst ID photo of me yet.

(Not me, obviously.)
It’s taken when you arrive at immigration, along with a close-up picture of your iris. This is part of an elaborate personal identification scheme and standard procedure for every arriving non-national. I look exactly as you’d imagine after 24 hours of non-stop travel:

(a) bleary-eyed
(b) exhausted

Of course, it follows that such an awful photo would be the one to end up on my iqama.

I might hate it, but I still know better than to leave it at home. If I was out and the religious police, the muttawa, were to stop and question me, my iqama is proof that I am who I say I am.  If, as is more likely than not, I am stopped when out with my husband, our iqamas together prove that we are married.

There are strict segregation rules in Riyadh.  Being found in the company of a member of the opposite sex who is not a husband or family member attracts severe penalties such as arrest or lashings.

So my iqama, unfortunate photo and all, never leaves my handbag.

 2. Cell phone

A few weeks ago, a security alert was issued from the British Embassy. They warned of potential trouble, advising people to vary the times and routes they took to travel to work. Realistically, this was just not possible. The only things I could really do were to check the car doors were locked and make sure my cell phone was in my bag and fully charged.

Even in less extreme situations, a cell phone’s pretty important. It gives me immediate access to my family and friends in a country where I stand out for all the wrong reasons.

Firstly, I’m a foreigner, and secondly, I’m a woman.

3. Head scarf

This comes with every abaya and, yes, it’s in matching Saudi black. Saudi women, who cover up completely, wear them. Western women (like the infidels we are) don’t.

But there are times when this changes. I’ve been eating lunch with friends in a food court when the muttawa have suddenly appeared. “Cover your hair, women,” they’ve shouted, with much finger-wagging in our direction.

The muttawa are part of an organization whose Arabic name is translated to the General Presidency for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. Showing hair is a vice, while covering up completely so that nothing can be seen is apparently virtuous.

At such times, I whip my scarf from my bag and cover the offending locks of hair. It's a funny old world. Not that a muttawa would see it this way - chasing vice is a very serious business.

4. Water bottle

In the summer months, the temperature here hits 50 degrees or more, making my water bottle another never-leave-home-without-it kind of item.

So, just as Lady Bracknell discovered, there can be far more to a simple handbag than you realize. Especially in Saudi.


  1. I wonder how many points an iqama ahould count for in the next version of the 'handbag game' we play? :)

  2. Oh, 20 at least, I should think...