Kingdom of forbidden romance

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The World

RIYADH — The shop clerk was reluctant to discuss the matter, but finally relented. They are not taking orders over the phone these days, he said. And customers who come in personally are advised that when they pick up their contraband purchase, it will be discreetly wrapped — in a black garbage bag.

The forbidden item? Red roses.

Valentine’s Day may be in the air, but it is mostly unseen in Saudi Arabia, where religious conservatives regard it as a pagan Western holiday alien to Muslim culture.

Enforcing this belief falls to the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, whose agents are highly visible this week inspecting gift shops and florists for banned goods. That includes anything red, as well as hearts, cupids and teddy bears with tags that say "I love you."

Anticipating unannounced visits from the mutawwa, as the moral police are known, most Riyadh retailers already have removed Valentine-related items from their shelves, stashing them in storage rooms or warehouses.

"I don’t have anything" that mentions love, said one shop owner who declined to be named. "It’s just too much trouble … People fall in love all year long, so there’s a market for this. But it’s just around Valentine’s Day that they don’t want people to celebrate."

Faisal Abadoyo, a gift shop manager, said that the mutawwa remove "anything they want" from the shelves. "Maybe if you remove red colors, they will say pink colors are not allowed. Last year it happened to us, we removed all red (flowers) and they said the pinks also are not allowed."

Abadoyo, who is Muslim, said he does not understand the ban. "There is no problem about love. You can love anybody. You love your Mama, your Daddy, your family … not only on Feb. 14, but all year long, you can love."

The campaign against Valentine’s Day is an inconvenience for his many non-Muslim customers, Abadoyo added. "All kinds of people, all kind of religions, we have as customers here, Europeans, people from Asia, India, Africa."

Despite the best efforts of commercial marketing, only a small, Westernized slice of the Saudi population is aware of Valentine’s Day. But the Saudi education department, a bastion of religious ultraconservatism, is taking no chances.

This week, it launched a "preventative" campaign to remind students of the need to steer clear of the holiday, local papers reported. Pupils were reminded of the fatwa or religious ruling from Saudi Islamic scholars declaring that Muslims only have two holidays a year, the religious feast days of Eid al Adha and Eid al Fitr.

All other holidays are "heresies," and Muslims should not celebrate or "demonstrate the least joy" during them, the ruling states. "Celebrating Valentine’s Day," it adds, "is a violation of God’s laws."

Many Saudis endorse the religious police, regarding them as principled Muslims seeking to hold back the infiltration of non-Islamic practices in the kingdom. A smaller segment of Saudi society feels differently, resenting them for imposing a puritanical lifestyle on others.

Last week, agents of the commission raided several Riyadh shops selling abayas, the loose-fitting black robes women are required to wear in the kingdom. They confiscated all abayas trimmed with decorations, such as sequins, according to Eman F. Al Nafjan, who reported the raid on her blog.

In one store, an agent "went through all the racks and grabbed anything that looked ‘worldy’ and decorative and stuffed them all in his bags," Nafjan wrote after interviewing the shop’s clerk. The mutawwa’s vigilance against Valentine’s Day forces sweethearts to resort to all sorts of stratagems. Shop owners report that many people purchased gifts weeks ago, knowing they would be scarce later on.

Elaborate Valentine arrangements assembled from ribbons and artificial flowers in one shop were being stored out of sight in a large cardboard box, shown only to those who discreetly inquired.

One young Saudi woman reported that a friend, whom she describes as "generally a prude," is "scheming to buy her significant other a gift" (without her parents knowledge of course).

"If someone like her is doing this," the woman added in an e-mail, "then I can only imagine what others are planning."

A young professional who wanted to be known only by his nickname, "Orange Head," said he has no girlfriend right now, but that if he did, "I will buy some red roses for her, and sure I will tell her that it’s a special gift. Maybe it’s cheap but it means big things, between me and you."

"Orange Head," who is 25, added that he planned to attend a Valentine’s party, featuring music by an amateur Def Metal band, to be held at a friend’s week-end house on the desert outskirts of Riyadh.

Gatherings of boys and girls together listening to live music could bring a raid from the mutawwa, especially on Valentine’s Day.

"We said it’s a special party," said "Orange Head," "because on this day they circle every single place in Riyadh and capture people."

But he plans to show up at the party, he said, even if it means living dangerously.

"I want to see people having fun."

More Valentine’s Day dispatches:

Afghanistan: Love in the time of Taliban

BeNeLux: Is chocolate recession-proof?

Ghana: Cocoa crops threatened by disease

India: A million Romeos, a million Juliets

Italy: Beneath Juliet’s balcony

Jordan: A high price for true love

Nigeria: Love helps couple cope with HIV

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