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Jan. 18 2010 - 3:39 pm | 263 views | 1 recommendation | 2 comments

When teenaged Saudi girls attack!

Saudi women cheer and wave national flags as t...

Saudi women in traditional dress at a beach in Jeddah, on the western coast of Saudi Arabia. (Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

I knew it would happen eventually. I’ve jogged just about every night the year-and-a-half we’ve lived in Riyadh. First was in town, when we rented a hotel room for the first month. Back then, I dodged Crown Victorias and made my way round and round the parking lot behind Kindgom Tower, one of two skyscrapers here. It wasn’t pretty; choking on exhaust, I was always on the lookout for religious police, who had every reason to bust a geeky white dude pounding pavement in shorts.

Since then, we’ve mostly lived in the Diplomatic Quarter, home since the late 1980s to most of the foreign embassies. Off the western edge of town, the DQ — as it is widely known, causing ice cream franchise confusion — was conceived as a kind of model living unit for a future Saudi Arabia. Built at a cost estimated to be $2 billion, the 2,500-acre community sits amongst sculpted parks, canyons, fountains, a men’s and women’s gymnasium, several schools, two small commercial squares, and an equestrian club.

More than 20 years later, much of the facilities are rundown and dust-swept. They’re still maintained to a minimal degree by a vast army of laconic, blue uniformed men from the subcontinent. But gone are the days average Saudis could glide through the gates and amble about.

Today, machine gun nests greet visitors. Much the same way New York and DC are now quasi-police states, Saudi Arabia has — after its own spell of terrorist attacks from 2003 to 2006, when dozens upon dozens were killed in numerous bombings — come to resemble a warren of concertina wire and assault rifles. Friends here tell me they hate having to enter the DQ, finding the questioning and searching at the checkpoint insulting.

As a result, my neighborhood  isn’t exactly crawling with merrymakers, but it’s still home not only to embassy workers but also to expats like myself — and an untold number of wealthyish Saudis.

I don’t typically see many folks when I’m out running, but especially on weekend nights, there are often crowds of black-haired, heavily made-up Saudi girls, their black gowns open to the wind, cell phones in hand, looking for something to do. I’m always a little nervous pounding by. And tonight stage one of a problematic encounter occurred.

I passed the gas station, the Starbucks, and the Dunkin Donuts. Up ahead tittered a group of three teenagers. They pointed and giggled as I approached. These were someone’s daughters, some brother’s sister, cousins. In a country that takes its women’s chastity seriously — violently — there’s nothing simple about an encounter in the dark with an unsupervised group of young women.

I tried to keep my head down, my foot falls calling out on pavestones.

“Hey sexy,” the tall one said, winking and nodding her head. The others tittered shyly, big eyes awaiting my move.

Of course the attention was unwarranted; I’m a washed up 30-something. But what do I want to tell you? That something happened, that I got in trouble, or that this never happened, that I live in a place where flirting is harmless, where catcalling is unloaded?

I kept running, and I’m afraid that’s exactly how it will feel the day I leave, running away, true confrontation too dangerous, still unclear whether I’ve missed the point  or have taken any meaningful steps towards understanding.

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  1. collapse expand

    Despite the need to drop the fearful barriers of prejudice and lack of understanding between peoples of this earth, sometimes our gut tells us, “keep your head down and keep moving”. Cultural differences need to be made known to the world,yes, and you are doing a great job of that, but maybe sometimes, stepping cautiously is wise. Things are not always what they seem, you must trust your instincts, which can keep you from those dark holes of illogical, unfathomable actions. These words do not spring from fear; more, just a knowing that, given time, the barriers will come down and we will be united as people who can touch each others hearts and minds freely, maybe just not yet. But keep on keeping on. We need you guys to do your jobs.

  2. collapse expand

    Clearly Mohammed had it backwards. Washed-up 30 something men are the ones who need to remain covered in order to keep sinful lust at bay!

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    About Me

    Since graduating from Deep Springs College, I've written and edited for magazines (Rolling Stone, The Atlantic Monthly), newspapers (The Village Voice, The National), and websites (NPR.org, SixBillion.org). In the summer of 2007, I packed a bag and walked from New York to New Orleans, a trek that took five months, three pairs of shoes, and a couple thousand miles. These days, I live in Saudi Arabia with my wife, Kelly McEvers, who covers the region for National Public Radio.

    See my profile »
    Followers: 41
    Contributor Since: August 2009
    Location:Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

    What I'm Up To

    The Review

    I’m a regular contributor to The Review, which Reihan Salam calls a “younger, radder” New York Review of Books.

    Past pieces include:
    -”Down in the floods,” something in Saudi Arabia may have changed
    -”Checkpoint Qatif,”among Saudi’s Shiite minority
    -”Excursion into the desert,” in which my landlord pulls a gun.
    -”You’ll never walk alone,” a night of soccer in sweltering Riyadh.
    -”Get on the bus,” a story of public transport in Riyadh.
    -”Saudi Arabia’s got talent,” from the nation’s first-ever open TV auditions