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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

NT TIMES op-ed goodness

My Saudi Valentine

TOMORROW will be my second Valentine’s Day in the United States. As I’ve discovered, the celebration here bears little resemblance to the one I know from growing up in Saudi Arabia.

Yes, there are dates. But in Saudi Arabia, we eat them. As for the other kind of dating — the kind that will fill restaurants here tomorrow night — don’t count on it.

Where I come from, dating in the Western sense is not acceptable, either socially or religiously. Though most Saudis sympathized with “the Qatif girl” — a young woman who was gang-raped while in a car with a male friend, then sentenced to 200 lashes for “mingling” — and relieved when King Abdullah pardoned her last year, that does not mean that sitting with a strange guy in his car is considered appropriate.

Some daredevils do meet in coffee shops or restaurants that have partitions to separate the tables so nobody can see the illicit couples. After all, being a Saudi means knowing what the rules are — and how to sidestep them without getting in trouble. But most young women prefer to get to know the guy through accepted channels like the Internet, friends, family or the phone.

These days, Saudi relationships start on Facebook or through Bluetooth. We “date” over the phone or by instant messaging, and we enjoy exchanging gifts — through our chauffeurs or housemaids.

Ten years ago, though, before the Internet and cellphones, we had less room to maneuver. Guys took their chances by handing out their land-line numbers to any nearby female, just in case there was an eligible young woman hidden under that shapeless abaya and niqab. I remember my mother yelling at boys who would knock on our car window and “number” her — offer her cards with their home numbers.

All these strictures do not mean that Saudis don’t long for love. Songs and novels show how affectionate and passionate Saudi men and women can be. It’s just that some believe love is that warm feeling a couple develop after their parents have arranged a match and the marriage contract has been signed.

Still, romantics dream of that surprise on Valentine’s Day. To them, love will begin a new chapter in their lives, a chapter of eternal happiness like that they read about in Nizar Qabbani’s poetry. My university back in Riyadh turned all red for Valentine’s Day: red roses, red teddy bears and red shirts, even though the celebration is not acceptable religiously. What matters to all is to find love somewhere around the corner, hidden in that mall or behind the tinted windows of a car.

Rajaa Alsanea, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry, is the author of “The Girls of Riyadh.”


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