Wednesday, January 14, 2015

My First Souk Night with Bonus Mutaween (Religious Police) Encounter

One piece of advice we heard over and over while preparing for our first overseas posting was: "In your first three months at post, do not turn down any invitations." So, I ventured out with four other Consulate women to one of the local souks last week. I packed a PB&J because the CLO (Community Liaison Officer) who organized the outing recommended NOT eating the street food at this particular souk.

The Look and Smell of the Souq
While I have little basis for comparison, I did read in the post newsletter that Souk Al-Haraj (The Rocket Souq) is one of the largest used goods markets in the Middle East. It did not disappoint. I kept saying, both to myself and my companions, "I have never seen so much junk in all my life." Let me say it again for clarity. I had never seen so much junk in all my life. (By the way, my uncle was basically a junk collector. I know a bunch of junk when I see it). This place was huge with goods that ran the gamut. There were ball gowns, bathrobes, antique lamps, made in china knock offs, treadmills (next to) wheelchairs, toys, knife blocks, tableware, air conditioners etc... The only things not for sale were live animals and people (I think), though, as is typical, feral cats wandered everywhere.
A few vendors outside the main building at the rocket souq. (from Arab News)
There was a real chance of getting lost and separated, so we noted the van and driver's location (you know we didn't drive ourselves!) in front of a strip mall type place and then turned to go into the market. It is an open air bazaar under a gigantic metal roof. It was at least two football fields from one end to the other and probably nearly a full football field wide. And, this part under the metal roof is really just part of the full Souk Al-Harraj. Vendors have small areas to sell their wares. Some have tables, others just stack things on top of each other to create walls separating their area from another vendor.

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I have found smells in Saudi Arabia to be odd. There is clearly a favored scent for cleaning products that I have not yet identified. That scent mixed with the smell that all used clothing seems to have and with the incense that some vendors were burning. Add to that the dust that pervades everything here and I was sure I was going to have a headache by the end of the night. Luckily, it wasn't too loud, though I could hear what I assume were announcements coming from various areas of the souk.


We all kept together for a while looking at some silver and interesting lamps, then wandering through the clothing racks. Another fairly new spouse and I ended up separated from the other three women as we hunted for abayas. This is when things got interesting. I realized the vendor was getting a little antsy as he quickly took my 20SAR (a steal!) for the abaya I picked out. He was very jittery as he watched my companion decide from among the three she had picked out.

Then, I heard the call to prayer start and I realized why he had been nervous. Shops close for 20-30 minutes during prayer time and he was eager to make the sale, but knew he had to close. Unfortunately, the other Consulate woman I was with did not hear or realize what was happening and continued to take her time looking over the abayas. Finally, she handed over her money and we moved along. (I am the newbie here so I didn't say anything, but in hindsight, I probably should have encouraged her to hurry up).

Mutaween Encounter
As we walked, many of the vendors were finishing putting blankets over the first row of their wares and disappearing somewhere or at least sitting quietly near their tables. Since I'd been hearing announcements or whatever throughout the evening I didn't pick up quickly enough on the yelling coming from the beeping truck coming up the main aisle we were walking down. Just as the truck came into view and I saw a man waving his hand and admonishing people, my companion said something like "Oh, I think that's the...." I said "Yes, we need to turn here" as I reached into my purse for my headscarf and lowered my gaze to the floor. I was assuming she was following, but I wasn't waiting.

Unfortunately, the truck also turned and came up behind us. But, just as it was coming up alongside, I reached a small aisle between the booths that was too narrow for the truck. I immediately turned and finished putting on my headscarf. I don't know for certain that the religious police were yelling at me, but I wasn't taking any chances. I figured he wouldn't bother getting out of the truck and following me and I was right. (My actual thoughts were: "he's going to have to get off his lazy ass and get out of that truck if he wants to pick on me.")

It could have been a bit of a problem if he had followed. I did not yet have my iqama and my diplomatic passport was with all the paperwork to get it. I had nothing to show I was in the country legally. The only thing I had proving I had diplomatic status was my Consulate badge and the little laminated card I got from the RSO (regional security officer) saying that I speak little to no Arabic and should be allowed to call the Consulate. I'm betting the dude would not have been impressed with that.

Crisis averted and the truck moved on. I was still a little unsettled and my companion and I wandered with a bit more purpose toward where we thought the other three women should be. It was easy to find them since the market was largely cleared out for prayer time they were the only three women not wearing head scarves. It turns out that they were not too far from us when the mutaween came by. But, none of them had headscarves with them so they had to duck into one of the vendors’ shops and hide behind a pool float. Luckily, they figured out he was coming sooner than we did.

Some of the vendors still actively helped us during prayer time, showing off their goods. There were three different places that had giant ceramic shrimp knife blocks. Oh, I wish I had a photo, but I didn't have my smart phone with me and I knew a camera would be too obvious. The Saudis aren't fond of westerners photographing certain things and women as photographers are discouraged.

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Closing Thoughts

We split up again and one of the other women and I hit the toy vendors. I almost bought the Barbie version of Prince William and Kate in their wedding attire. The vendor wanted about 40 bucks for it and I didn't think the doll looked enough like Kate. It would have made a great gift for one of my Canadian cousins, but she will understand my frugality when I tell her the story. The two of us made it back to the van before the other three, so we dumped our bags in the van and bought Mirindas to wash down the dust.

Overall, not bad for my first evening out after dark in Jeddah. I felt dusty from head to toe and was left with an odd feeling about the run in with the mutaween. Really, who wants to practice religion-- work to get closer to a god--that uses henchmen like that. All that yelling and mean spiritedness seems counterproductive to me. I know I dislike authority more than most people, but seriously, what jerks.

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