I am often confronted by people who are surprised I want to travel to Saudi, or other places in the Middle East. There is an assumption that it is not safe. Saudi is as safe as most other places and I was able to walk the streets late at night without any concern for my safety, other than that too often there are no sidewalks.
The religious police are another matter. I was warned to be careful around them but was not sure what that really meant. What the warning really meant was that they are an unpredictable lot with no set guide about what they are supposed to police. Any enthusiast can be a member of the religious police and you need nothing by way of training except the passion of a zealot. In any community that is a dangerous thing.
I was sitting outside a Starbucks enjoying a slice of cake and an iced coffee. It was 48degrees C (118 Fahrenheit) and the still dry air was being offset slightly by a fine mist blowing across the tables. I had tried sitting inside but the air conditioning was turned to the other extreme, to 15 degrees C. The heat was a better option. As I sat down with my drink I was vaguely aware of all the mosques in the area starting their calls to prayer. A couple of people got up and moved off. The store was supposed to shut operations for the time of prayer but did not and the crowd I was with continued to drink and socialise. Two very large Hummers had just turned up and disgorged small crowds of young men who milled around talking and joking and ordering coffee.
Suddenly, without any warning at all a Landcruiser crashed up over the sidewalk and stopped among the tables. Out piled a team of religious police waving their canes (one had a length of pipe). The Hummers evacuated in a heartbeat (though I saw them cruise past a few minutes later checking things out) and the crowd scattered for their cars. I heard the doors behind me snap shut and locks clattered home. The misters stopped misting. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the lights in Starbucks flick off and the last of the staff vanish out the back. Suddenly I was on my own, with a coffee and journal and all these religious police.
For a moment of foolishness I fancied I would finish the coffee, continue the journal and ignore these guys. After all, business would be humming again in twenty minutes and the circling Hummers would reappear and start over (the theory is that the police chase you off to prayers but they are like dogs disturbing seagulls – everything mills around while they bark but once gone everything settles into the original routine).
In my case my theory evaporated very quickly. I was their only target and they were not impressed with my insouciance. Never mind that I was a visitor. Or that I was a non Muslim. Even my line about not knowing there whereabouts of a local mosque was lost on them. In the end they trailed me the thirty minute walk back to my hotel. The only pedestrian and the only vehicle on the road for about ten minutes of the walk. It was not the most comfortable of ambles – and amble I did, just to keep them crawling. Only a visitor, but without a Hummer with which to circle, I needed some other way to fight back.
By the time I got back to the hotel prayers were over and everyone was out and about again. After a quick lap of the foyer I walked back to Starbucks and finished my refreshments. From this point on of course I moved when all the other sardines moved and made sure I stayed lost in the crowd. Being alone with those zealots was not something I wanted to invite on myself again.
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