Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My first Mutawa

So I went to the mall last night to buy my abaya.

Now when I say "mall" in America, I think we all generally get the mental picture of a two leveled, large-ish building with a food court and maybe a carousel (unless, of course you live in Minnesota).

Seriously, the mall I went to last night makes any mall (even the mall of America) look pathetic. Yes, I've been to the Mall of America and I realize it has an amusement park in the middle of it.

This one did too...and an ice skating rink, and two food courts and it had two airport concourse-wide main aisles with stores on both sides. It. was. huge.

I was so completely blown away by the enormous size of this building, and then I looked at the stores. They're all American. Gap, Hollister, Zara, Mark Spencer, and every possible other kind of store you could ever want.

The most striking image from last night was seeing a Starbucks, and looking at the patrons and they're all in niqabs and thobes. It was such a funny juxtaposition. I wish I could have taken a picture (btw: you'll pretty much only see photos of me and the Mister, the other American teachers and landscapes. Saudi people are "kind of sensitive" about having their pictures taken, according to my new boss).

In addition to my first Saudi mall experience and my first abaya purchase, I had my first Mutawa sighting!

For those who don't know, the mutawa are the religious police in Saudi Arabia. They're essentially like the detention hall monitors. They make sure the women are covered and everyone's following the correct Muslim code. They're famously described in newspapers as the men who go around spray painting women's uncovered toes and hounding couples if they're not supposed to be out alone together.

So here's how it went down.:

It was sundown, so they broadcasted the call to prayer throughout the mall (totally bizarre. You hear the bing boom of a typical P.A. system and then out comes this booming chant, "Allllllllaaaaaaaaaaaaaahh akbar." Very surreal), and all the stores have to close and theoretically everyone's supposed to stop what they're doing and pray. They didn't. Apparently the sundown prayers are kind of do-them-when-you-can-as-long-as-it's-before-you-go-to-bed. So everyone leaves the stores and just sits on the benches and waits.

Well I was with my new boss and she said we should just take the opportunity to window shop and then we could pick out a store to go into once prayers were over. So while we're getting lost in this monstrosity of a mall, a very nice woman in a niqab and abaya stops us and says, "You should know there are mutawa here and if they see her walking around like that [referring to me who was sans covering], she is going to get in trouble and I don't want you to have to get in trouble."

It was so nice of her! She was just looking out for me, and I was grateful for the heads up. So my new boss just says, "Well we're here for the purpose of buying her an abaya, so if they stop us we'll just tell them that," and then we turned to walk away.

Not 20 steps later, my boss goes, "And of course there's one of them walking with a police officer."

I just played it cool, didn't make eye contact and walked with a purpose. He didn't say anything to me, but he did look me up and down. I wasn't scared. I asked my boss what he could have done if he did stop me, and she just said he would make a fuss and that's it. I could tell that she, like most Saudi women, aren't thrilled with having to worry about mutawa in the first place.

I asked her how you can tell if a man is one of the mutawa or not.

"Short thobe, long beard."

Vicariously yours,


  1. I am going to buy you one of those spy cameras that they sell in the back of comic books so you can take pictures of saudi starbucks and other oddities.

  2. so here's a question: how does someone in a niqab drink their coffee @ Starbucks?

  3. These HUGE malls are only two. Rashid is the biggest mall in Saudi.
    The rest of the malls are normal.