I wrote this article a few months ago and it was edited in parts and published in the Saudi Gazette. However, within a couple of days it was blocked so I thought I would put it on my blog.
On Thursday I went with my Saudi wife to the Riyadh International Book Fair. I moved to Riyadh from the UK three years ago now and each year I have visited the book fair. My wife is an Assistant Professor and I a teacher. We both agreed that the fair as improved in its content of books that promote a more multicultural understanding of Saudi society and the wider global community. It was great to see men, women and families attending the event who have a thirst for reading and learning.
The only sour point for me was the few incidents I have seen in which the Ha’I (religious police) have behaved badly and disrupted the event. I have read of other incidents written in this newspaper and I have one of my own. I came across them personally a few weeks ago on my first ever visit to Medina with my wife.
My wife and I went in to separate entrances to pray in the mosque. After prayer I had arranged to meet my wife outside the ladies entrance. When I arrived she was very upset and surrounded by members of the Mutaween (religious police) and a couple of ladies who supervise inside of the mosque. My wife is very petite and she was surround by three very large, long bearded Mutaween. She was being accused of causing trouble! What this ‘trouble’ was had not been made clear. One thing I did find out later was that she was being accused of being a ‘Shia’ troublemaker when in fact she is ‘Sunni’! And for me a ‘trouble-maker’ is a ‘trouble maker’ religion plays no part.
I started to speak to my wife and tried to walk her away from the bullying Mutaween but they physically grabbed hold of me. I know little Arabic to remonstrate with them and tried to release myself. My wife tried to translate but they showed her little respect. By this time my wife was very upset and worse of all these so called Religious Police were behaving more like vigilantes in such a holy place. We were then accused of not being married. By this time a group of onlookers watched on as my wife tried to explain our relationship.
More Mutaween arrived and this was becoming ridiculous. We are not teenagers but mature professional people who arrived only a few hours earlier on a flight from Riyadh to Medina. The Mutaween then started to shout angrily asking for our marriage certificate. Luckily I had put the certificate in my suitcase so that I could show it at the hotel reception should they need it.The Mutaween demanded to see our iqamas. As we had only just been married a few months before I had not registered the marriage on my iqama and because I am a foreigner married to a Saudi I was told that I could not register the marriage on my iqama. We tried to explain this to the Mutaween but they refused to listen to any rational explanation. My wife explained to the aggressive Mutaween that I would go and get the marriage certificate, which were a few kilometers away in our hotel room. However, they kept hold of me and demanded that my tearful wife walked to the hotel. Here we were outside the Prophets mosque and being treated so shamelessly by a bunch of thugs.
The Mutaween during this time made several attempts to drag me in to one of their security cars which I constantly resisted as I was innocent of all the things they were stupidly accusing me and my wife of. My wife returned still in tears an hour later with the marriage certificate. The Mutaween inspected the certificate and found that we were telling the truth.
They passed back our marriage certificate. Gave not one word of apology not even an explanation of the so-called ‘trouble’ my wife had caused. They got back in to their security cars and drove away!
Unbelievable is all I can say in the way they treated ‘guests’ at the Medina.
Just a postscript to all of this my wife and I were on our way to Yanbu via Medina to announce to her parents that she was pregnant and expecting our first child. God forbid if he/she turns out to be one those unintelligent beings who are given the highest responsibility to ‘protect’ the people visiting the holy mosque.