I’m just back in Riyadh after Christmas and New Year in London. I’ve returned with the happiest of memories, the sort that come from spending time with those you love most. We all met up in London from our different corners of the globe, and because we’re family, it was as if we’d never been apart.
We played noisy card games in the evenings around an old elm kitchen table in a small cottage just a stone’s throw from Salisbury Cathedral. In the early morning we walked down icy lanes to a small village church where headstones overlooked white paddocks.
We went together as family to a midnight service with candles and familiar verse and song. On Christmas morning we sat around a decorated tree, reliving old traditions and creating new ones. Opening presents. Laughing at the predictability of the chocolate marshmallow Father Christmas and orange at the bottom of each Christmas stocking. Christmas dinner. Grace sung in multiple parts. Crackers with the usual bad jokes and brightly coloured paper hats. So much food, so much laughter and so much love.
Later in the day, some of us dozed in comfortable armchairs, while the littlest one among us played with his newly acquired train set, loving the small moving wheels, the station, and the engines and carriage that linked together, but also every so often derailed, falling from table to floor.
And now I am back in Riyadh and everything is different. Inconceivably different in a way that you can only really understand if you’ve lived here. On my flight back I browsed the Arab News and three articles leapt out at me. Another world and another place.
Here they are. Spot the differences.
1. The first was entitled, Haia: No religious or personal celebrations allowed
It reported a new directive from The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or Haia (more often referred to as the religious police or muttawa). They have banned ‘religious or personal’ birthday celebrations inside certain residential compounds. Muslims are forbidden from celebrating festivals or birthdays, which includes of course the giving of presents and cards. Now, in some Saudi compounds this ruling will also apply to expatriates. I thought of the collection of homemade and handwritten cards my children have given me over the years. There's so much joy and delight both in the giving and the receiving. I can't imagine family life without moments like these.
2. Secondly an article one page over: Haia objects to dance At the Buraidah Spring Festival in the Qasim region of Saudi Arabia, young girls performed a traditional dance. A furore of criticism erupted. These eight year olds were variously described as ‘naked women’ and then denounced for performing to men. The festival organisers have apologized and stated that nothing like this will ever happen again.
3. Seemingly less contentious than the other two articles, a third headline caught my attention; Saudi film festival opens on Feb. 20 It's the implicit contradiction in these words that made me read on. Saudi Arabia is a country without public theatres. Movies are rarely made and shown. As an example, take the movie Wadjda, produced in 2013. Wadjda was the first full-length movie to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the first to be directed by a woman, Haifaa al Mansour. This presented just one of its many production challenges. All contact between non-related male and females is banned in the Kingdom, so Haifaa al Mansour had to direct much of her movie from inside a van using a phone. And so when I read, “We want this festival to become a driving force for the Kingdom’s film industry and cultural movement’, the word oxymoron screamed out loudly in my head.
On a cold afternoon a couple of weeks ago, my daughter and I sat on a couch and watched her Christmas DVD, Death Comes to Pemberley. Beside us, the little one played first with his books and then his trains, occasionally coming over for a cuddle and all the time making rather loud choo choo noises, which meant we sometimes missed bits of dialogue and had to rewind.
It was all quite perfect, and all a very long way from Riyadh.