Taboo in Tabuk

buraydah02A Tabuk imam has forbidden the making of snowmen. Quite right. Snowwomen and snowcamels too. Anything that has a soul may not be represented in crystalline water. As a theologian, I’m aware of a large corpus of literature on the souls of camels, as well as a little aphorism about the use to which camels can be put that I cannot print here, for children might be watching.

Reading about the fatwa took me back to the 1980s and 1990s when from time to time I went to Saudi on behalf of the College of Knowledge in Dublin to teach (two weeks at a time) or to examine (5 days or so). I was in Tabuk only once, but today’s news puts me more in mind of other Saudi trips, most particularly to Buraydah where I served a few sentences.

The culture in Buraydah is sooo relaxed, for this is where the Saudi religious police are trained. They patrol the streets eagerly seeking out infractions of dress and behaviour codes, a bit like Irish priests are said to have done in the past. Men may hold hands, women may hold hands, but man and wife may not. Under no circumstances may any female skin below the chin be visible, and preferably only that around the eyes. Ankle skin, frightfully erotic, drives men in Saudi into a frenzy. Being caught in contravention of any of these rules draws verbal abuse and a lash or six from the cane that every religious policeman carries. Female companions of mine were spat at on several occasions for daring to show a bit of trouser leg below the chador.

We were housed in apartments in the hospital compound. I noticed that local inhabitants rose about 5 am to turn on their car engines so that by the time they left the house two hours later the AC had the interiors nice and cool. The air was fragrant with he heady mix of Saudi incense – petrol fumes.

Apart from five or six hours teaching a day, life was a social whirl. The liturgy that gave shape and meaning to the day was that of oral hygiene: setting aside a good 10 minutes for cleaning my teeth. In those days I was obsessed with exercise (I’ve grown out of it now) and so by dint of disciplined running round the central green area morning, noon and night I became quite lean and very fit. Much like now.

Each morning I filled in a form indicating my supper choice from a reasonably comprehensive menu. Each evening it was rice, peas and a scraggy avian leg. That little exercise became for me a parable of a country where, it’s rumoured, whisky turns to water as it enters the oesophagus of the King.

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