Jeffrey Black | Middle East Diaries


The Mutawwin, and other Animals: Jeddah, 29th January 2008
January 29, 2008, 2:52 pm
Filed under: Saudi Arabia

Aside from being a PR manager, Mr H is a sheikh and a fundamentalist tele-evangelist that grew up mostly inside the Aramco compound in Dhahran. He has two shows in English and did a programme with CNN and several interviews with NPR. He is the real live born again Muslim, as once upon a time he used to even have his own rock-band. Things are different now. His head is bare, but his chin is well populated with greying strands of the Mutawwa kind. And then he points out the difference in Mutawwa-ism.

The definition is “volunteer,” and is really meant to denote anyone particularly attendant to whatever variety of fiqh that one subscribes to. In his case, the beard, the shortened trousers, the non-touching of women and so on. And then there are the members of the Commission on Enjoining Virtue and Forbidding Vice, (most commonly associated with the word Mutawwa), who are licenced to stamp out, well, vice, in the Kingdom in co-operation with the police. Apparently, although the good sheikh has never seen any, there are also freelance Mutawwa, who, not being licenced, take it upon themselves to point the finger of virtue around wherever they see fit.

The government, he says, are not investing heavily in the Mutawwa, either intentionally or otherwise. The result is that the calibre of the candidates that they end up recruiting are very low, and that that generally leads to putting frustrated little bullies in uniform. This is why there are difficulties.

Later, in the office next to me, a man and a woman are meeting together, without interference. But in general, segregation between men and women is enforced in the workplace. These kind of social mores seem to operate like self censorship. There is vague and undefined pressure to behave in the “conservative,” way, because seeming piety has been long the path to social status and progress. And this strange fiqh has been how piety has been defined. But, the sky does not fall when men and women talk directly. Here, perhaps there is room for movement.

Mr B, a retired industrialist, seems to agree. He says that soon, the conservatives will have to step aside, because they have been given more power than they deserve. The government once thought that they couldn’t govern without them, but soon they will realise that they can’t govern with them. Ironically, women in Saudi society are more productive than the layabout men – because they can’t drive. This prohibition, maintains Mr B, means that they cannot be asked to drive around and do errands like picking the kids up from school. So, with fewer demands on them, the women come to work, in the ladies’ section, and actually remain there throughout the day, unlike the men.


And then in the evening, the souqs open, and the world seems a more generous place. On the way to the balad I fell in with a taxi driver from Dir, (North West Frontier Province, Pakistan), who because I had been to both Jeddah and Dir, had cause to believe that I had been across half the world. He was hoping to go back there in the summer, when he had the money – and when the pass opens. I hope he does.

Got out at Faisaliyya and as the prayer went up I had some Indonesian meatball soup and a shawarma. The streets filled up with rows of men, with the women at the back, as the public observances began their fifth, vocal, round of the day. But it was here that the real character of this city begins to sink in. For as the Muslims go to prayer, the Filipinos, the Hindus, the others, watch and wait for the shops to open with indifference. And, whereas in other places with multi-ethnic populations in fact segregation is more or less strictly observed, here the mingle is in full flow. I met a man in al-Rabie’s Date Shop from Bangor, County Down, for goodness sake.

The long wind of Souk al-Alawi unravelled brightly in the warm evening, full of sari and thobe, worry beads and frankincense, oud perfume, plastic shoes, toys imported from china, and colourful but inexpensive garments for the budget conscious but fashionable. Dates, unidentifiable spices, and the ubiquitous sawakh– natural anti-bacterial–sticks for cleaning the teeth.

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