Thursday, 18 April 2013

Muttawa and Much Ado at Janadriya

I used the word extraordinary in my last blog to describe my visit to the Princess Souk.  Visiting Janadriya last night was extraordinary too, but for very different reasons.

Janadriya is an annual cultural festival held about 40 minutes drive out of Riyadh. It features regional crafts, dance, music, food and architecture.
And for the children, there's camel rides...
Last year I'd really enjoyed it, but this year was different.

From the moment we stepped out of our compound bus, we realized there was a very heavy religious police presence. Their vans, with the distinctive ministry logo were parked as close to the entrance as was possible and there were lots of them.

Okay, not the side of a van, but the same muttawa logo - promoting virtue and preventing vice.

We’d only taken five steps when a muttawa suddenly confronted the 12 year old boy with us. “You’re a man, you’re a man,” he said jabbing his finger at a necklace sitting on top of his bright green t-shirt. Translated loosely this meant, "Get rid of that girlie thing around your neck and do it NOW." 

Five more steps and it was my turn. “Cover your hair,”  commanded a  voice. 

Three more steps, and still not even in the queue to get in the gates. Another muttawa appeared in front of me, and pointed to the bottom of my abaya. I looked down. The lowest dome had come undone and there for all the world to see below my trousers, were two ankles. I sighed. 

The friend I was with commented that  she’d just put on shorts and a singlet top because it was so hot, but added, “ I safety pinned my abaya up as well.” She was very wise on both scores: the heat and the safety pins.

Once inside the gates we thought it might be more relaxed. Wrong. I was constantly told to cover my hair. This is because, like most western women, I don't wear a head scarf. And even when I'm told to cover up by the  muttawa, I often let my scarf drop a little later, because it's so hot and uncomfortable.

Sadly, but probably not surprisingly, the atmosphere was not as friendly or as relaxed as I'd remembered. To be sure, those selling goods smiled and posed for photos. 

It was the ordinary every-day Saudis, visitors like us, who this year didn’t stop to chat or ask to have their photos taken with us.  

We came across traditional dancers, but had only stopped for two minutes to watch when the muttawa told us to move to the women’s area. It was beside a curtain, over in a corner opposite.  I must admit I wondered why this additional separation was necessary on a night which was already designated ‘Families only.'

The muttawa in brown and his assistant in front pointing other women, not us this time, to the women's area
Women's area - behind the curtain. 
The dancing, the thing that we'd really come to see. 
We wandered around looking at what there was to buy and just observing.

Then it was prayer time. Gates to exhibits were closed and stalls covered. The Muttawa walked through the crowds commanding the faithful to prayer, “Salat, salat.”

As we walked to the gate on the way out, I realized that I'd missed the friendliness of the Saudis that had been so evident last time I'd visited. Janadriya is a unique experience. It brings so much culture and history to life. There’s an energy, colour and sense of national pride.

Certainly, we saw some of this, but sadly, there was something else that was missing.

Perhaps next year will be different. 

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