| Since we left Saudi Arabia in 2017, I see my friends post pictures of parties, cinema openings, live concerts…something unimaginable a few years ago. Women have now the right to drive in the kingdom and the abaya is no longer compulsory. The story below, from my first novel The Polar Bear and The Palm Tree is inspired by my encounter, detention and interrogation by the much-feared (then) muttawa or religious police, in charge of promoting virtue and preventing vice. I must have been a threat to virtue…read below.|
Saudi Arabia, 1992
Two policemen were banging on the car door, shouting in Arabic and pounding their fists on the rear passenger window where Ingrid was sitting. The noise jolted her. She had not heard them approach as she was captivated by the book the palace staff manager had given her. A native Arabic speaker, Ingrid could understand some of the words, but the policemen’s Saudi accent was new to her. They were telling her to get out of the car, right now, that much she understood. But why? What should she do? Roll down the window? Pretend she didn’t understand and keep her head modestly down? Or wait for the driver to come back?
Before she could make up her mind, the younger of the two policemen interrupted her thoughts with swift and sudden action. He yanked open the front door, snatched the keys the driver had left in the ignition to keep the air conditioning going, barked something for good effect, and slammed the door shut. Ingrid was stunned. It had happened so fast.
What was that about? she wondered. It was around noon in the middle of summer, and the heat inside the car would soon become unbearable. Where was the driver? There was no shade whatsoever.
Looking around, Ingrid realized she had no idea where she was. Being driven around all the time, she had failed to pay attention to the city’s landmarks. She didn’t even know the full name of the driver and had no way to contact the princess. A phone would have been of little use anyway since she didn’t know the palace phone number! And where could she call from anyway? All she knew was that it was a modern structure with a grey roof, surrounded by a high wall and palm trees. It stood out from the more traditional royal palaces.
The minutes slowly ticked by as the temperature inside the car rose. There was still no sign of the driver, and the policemen had disappeared too. Ingrid started feeling hot and anxious. Her black abaya (a cloak required for women to wear in public in Saudi Arabia) was made of cheap polyester that didn’t breathe. Ingrid was sweating already.
Her head started spinning with all sorts of thoughts and worries. She had no ID or money with her and, more importantly, no water. She was getting thirsty. Riyadh had no public transportation system. Even if she got a cab, she had no idea where the palace was. And there were probably quite a few princesses named Jowhara al-Saud in a royal family that counted thousands of members. Ingrid knew the princess was the king’s niece, but there were probably hundreds of princesses as the al-Saud rulers had several wives and countless children.
Ingrid looked at her watch and wondered how much longer she would have to wait. When she and her driver had left the palace, he had told her he planned to stop at the nearest mosque for the al-Zuhr prayer, the second of the five daily prayers observed by Muslims. He hadn’t wanted to miss prayer and was sure the young foreigner wouldn’t mind. But he hadn’t asked Ingrid if he could stop; instead, he had simply told her what he was going to do. She had agreed, assuming it would be quick. Little did she know this prayer stop would keep her busy the whole afternoon in a most unpleasant way.
Ingrid was on her way to the palace of Princess Jowhara’s cousin, Princess Maha, who had invited her over for lunch. They had never met and only briefly spoken on the phone. Since Friday was Ingrid’s day off from work at the palace and the city was quieter than usual (as most people were at home or at the mosque on Fridays, the day of the weekly sermon), the visit offered a welcome distraction. Princess Maha loved Germany and Europe in general and was delighted with the opportunity to meet Ingrid. The princess had studied German as an exchange student years ago and was keen to practice it again.
Suddenly, Ingrid heard the muezzin (crier to the faithful) calling for the end of prayer. She was relieved to see the driver finally reappear but surprised to see him joined and escorted by the two policemen. They were furiously gesticulating, pointing at Ingrid in the car and then pointing back at him. They were screaming at him, their faces distorted by anger. The driver looked tense and scared.
What is going on? she thought, butterflies fluttering in her stomach. She felt a rush of panic when the policemen pushed the driver towards the car and ordered him to get in. He started the car and slowly drove out of the mosque parking lot, with Ingrid still in the back. She soon began to realize they were following the police in their car.
“Where are we going?” she asked the driver, who simply shook his head and muttered a few words, his Arabic was quite different from Ingrid’s. He looked upset. Originally from Yemen, he had been in Saudi for only three months, thanks to sponsorship from his uncle. The pay was not great, but it was better than back home. But now this, and all because of this foreign woman in the back seat! He could not afford losing his job. His uncle would be beyond furious.
Ingrid was now more than uncomfortable. She was scared. She could sense the tension but had no idea where they were going and why. After a few minutes on an empty road, they arrived at what looked like an official building. It was a medium-sized structure with the green Saudi flag above the main entrance door. It looked like any other battered government office headquarters – shabby, run-down and dusty – but when Ingrid read the sign above the entrance door, she couldn’t help but shiver.
They were at the headquarters of the mutawa, the Saudi Islamic religious police. She recognized the parking lot between the 19th-century Masmak Fort and the Deira Souk (traditional marketplace), where she had gone shopping a few times already. The mutawa was the kingdom’s vice squad, responsible for enforcing Sharia law through the promotion of virtue and the harsh prevention of vice. The mutawa were feared and perceived by locals and expats alike as much more powerful than the local police for enforcing Saudi conservative rules. This cannot be good, she thought shakily to herself.
Ingrid and the driver were escorted to the building, made to hand over their belongings, including her purse, to a station attendant, and then were taken to separate rooms. The two policemen led her to a large, poorly lit office with sparse furniture, making sure not to touch her or establish eye contact. They essentially ignored her; she was right in front of them, but their eyes never looked her way. She had never felt so invisible. She was just a woman, after all. In this highly segregated society, women were considered minors and were required to be under the supervision of a male guardian: a father, a husband, an uncle, or even a son. For a woman to study, work, or travel, she had to receive permission from her legal guardian.
Ingrid had heard stories in the palace corridors. The Saudi princess who could only travel to the destinations chosen by her older brother. He would make sure his beautiful sister would go to only the most remote or desert places. The young upper-class woman who wanted to study abroad but whose father had refused, citing “the evil West.”
Men and women who were not family members were forbidden to interact in all areas of public life. Some highly conservative families forbade these interactions even in the privacy of their own homes. Ingrid had heard about an unmarried British couple who had met at a downtown coffee shop. They were sitting together in the family section when the mutawa came in and arrested them. Someone had denounced them. They were both expelled from Saudi Arabia the following day.
Ingrid had no idea why she had been brought to this building and how serious the situation might be. Looking around, she noticed the walls were bare. The older policeman barked at her to stay and wait. There was no chair for her to sit on, no table to lean on. There was no water. Time seemed frozen. Standing up for what seemed forever in an almost-empty room was uncomfortable. The fluttering and the panic came back, stronger this time. Ingrid felt helpless. Would Princess Jowhara find out where she was? What if she never did? Had Princess Maha called her cousin by now to let her know Ingrid had never shown up? Maybe someone from the palace would call the driver and try to locate them? Would anyone look for her and get her out of here? She certainly hoped so.
After what seemed quite a long wait, a group of Saudi men entered the room. They looked stern and scary. Ingrid counted eight of them in total. They were all wearing a white thobe, the traditional outfit worn by Saudi men. Their thobes were shorter than usual, and Ingrid noticed their exposed ankles and leather sandals. They each had a long, bushy, black beard, and a ghutrah, the traditional red and white headdress. They surrounded her and started asking her questions in Arabic, speaking very fast. How did they know she spoke Arabic? Maybe the driver had been questioned. Or maybe they just assumed from her looks?
Not once did they offer to bring in a chair or a glass of water, nor was she asked her name or for her ID card. They did ask her what she was doing in that car and what her relation to the driver was. In her non-Saudi Lebanese Arabic, she explained her work as a trainer and coach for Princess Jowhara’s daughter and the specific circumstances behind the drive, and they listened. But they were not convinced, and they repeated the same questions over and over. Ingrid mentioned the princess’ name, hoping that the high-ranking al-Saud name would help, but it didn’t seem to. The mutawa didn’t flinch. They repeated the same questions again and again until Ingrid was exhausted and irritated.
“What have I done?” she asked. “Why am I here?”
Silence. All she could hear was the blasting air conditioning.
Ingrid was tired, she wanted water and needed to sit. The mutawa started to debate quietly among themselves while Ingrid started to compile in her head possible reasons for her ordeal:
1. She was not Muslim and was on the grounds of a mosque during the Friday prayer.
2. She was not related to the driver and therefore could not be alone in the same car as a man who was not a relative.
That was all she could think of. Then one of the men spoke.
“Maybe you don’t understand how serious this is. Do you need an interpreter to ask you the same questions in English?”
Ingrid, who was comfortable in Arabic from an early age (although her German and English were much better), needed no help. She shook her head.
“That won’t be necessary, I understand you well enough. But I need some water, please.”
One of the policemen reluctantly left the room to look for some water. Moments later, he came back with a Bangladeshi man wearing dark blue overalls, who handed her a small plastic bottle without a word. She suddenly realized she had not seen another woman as they passed through the building to this room.
Ingrid took a sip, then a deep breath and told them again, from the start, her whole story in Arabic. She was in Saudi Arabia to work for Princess Jowhara al-Saud. The driver was one of the palace employees and was taking her to another palace for lunch.
“The princess’ mother-in-law is my sponsor. Could you call and ask her?” Ingrid pleaded. The mother-in-law in question also happened to be the sister of the ruling king.
She was tired of standing and could feel hunger coming on. Ingrid’s legs hurt. Despite the air conditioning being on full blast, she felt over-heated due to her anxiety. But she was still so confused. What had she done?
Realizing that the gravity of the situation wasn’t sinking in for the young foreign woman, one of the mutawa poked at her with his finger.
“Woman! We could deport you out of the kingdom!” he threatened.
Ingrid stared at him, shell-shocked. How she hated being called “woman” in this country, because of everything it meant and everything it didn’t mean.
They’re threatening me now? she wondered. She was at a complete loss.
“What have I done, please tell me at least the reason I am here!” she pleaded.
If they deported her, she would lose her job and her comfortable income, and would likely never be allowed back. She had only been working in the kingdom for six months and really wanted to keep her job. But was deportation the worst threat they could come up with? She decided the best response was for her to hold her tongue. Anyway, she had nothing left to say or ask. She took a sip of water and waited for a response, crossing her arms in a silent gesture of rebellion. “Woman” had had enough of this nonsense!
Of course, it never occurred to her then she could have ended up in jail. She could also have disappeared without a trace. Sometimes her naiveté came in handy. It wouldn’t be until years later that Ingrid would grasp the importance of the accusations held against her. It was better that way. Ignorance was bliss.
The eight men were now huddled in consultation, some shaking their heads without saying a word, others whispering and pointing at her. She couldn’t hear them clearly, but they seemed to disagree. On what? The veracity of her story? The course of action to choose? Whatever it was, at this point Ingrid knew it was completely out of her control.
One of them barked at her, “Woman! Wait here!”
The men noisily left the room, but the two policemen stayed, chatting with each other and totally ignoring Ingrid. What are they talking about? she wondered. They showed no interest in her. Invisible! Ingrid’s eyes started wandering out of the office window and over to the walls of the adjacent building. It was a cloudless and hot, sunny day. Her thoughts strayed to the city she had barely gotten to know and the desert she had yet to explore.
Before arriving in the kingdom, Ingrid knew very little about Saudi Arabia except for what she had learned in high school in Beirut. The usual: the desert, the king, the royal family, the oil, and the money. She loved imagining the handsome princes, the shiny cars, the exotic and mysterious desert kingdom, the sharp-featured Bedouins with their camels proudly standing on the top of the crescent-shaped dunes, the cloudless sky, the palm trees slowly swaying under the scorching sun in the hot breeze.
Princess Jowhara had been looking for someone to help her with Noura, her middle child. A teenager with excellent school records and an active social life, Noura had very little inclination for sports or healthy eating and was becoming quite heavy. Her athletic mother, who had studied and lived in Europe and the United States, was an outstanding swimmer and enthusiastic horse rider. At least before her marriage to Prince Khalid.
Princess Jowhara believed in a well-rounded and holistic approach to education for her three sons and her only daughter. The boys she had given up on – they didn’t care for their mother’s “zany ideas” as they so unkindly referred to them. As for Noura, the princess still had hope, and she was searching for a young woman who would act as Noura’s trainer and coach for one year at minimum.
Ingrid had just finished university with a masters in biology and was dreaming of working abroad, anywhere really. One of her father’s Syrian friends had approached her with the opportunity to work with Noura. This friend had many close contacts with Saudi Arabia and its royal family, and Ingrid had jumped at the opportunity, much to the chagrin of her father, who was not a fan of the “land of sand,” as he called it.
While reminiscing about how she had ended up in this desert kingdom, Ingrid was abruptly brought back to the sordid reality of the bare interrogation room with the two policemen when a mutawa yanked open the door and screamed at her.
“Hurry up, woman! Cover your hair! Go!”
Her veil had slightly slid back from her forehead, and she was quick to readjust it. By the time she was done, the mutawa had left the room without another word. The two policemen led her into the hallway outside, leaving her with the Yemeni driver, who also had been released from questioning. Almost three hours she had been held in that room, questioned again and again and then all the sudden she was set free? Not a word of apology, no explanation whatsoever. Maybe they had called the princess after all. Was this normal?
Ingrid checked to ensure her abaya was properly closed and grabbed her purse. She briskly walked to the car, the driver behind her.
“Are we still going to Amira Maha?” the driver asked Ingrid.
“Of course. I don’t see why not,” Ingrid responded.
The driver looked tired, hungry, and anxious, wondering if he would get in trouble for stopping at the mosque. When he was on call, which happened to be most of the time, he was not supposed to stop at the mosque. He should have prayed after dropping Ingrid off.
Back in the hot car, neither of them felt like talking. They were both exhausted. Traffic was a bit heavier at that time of the day, but before Ingrid knew it, they had arrived at Princess Maha’s. The princess showed no sign of surprise when Ingrid finally stood at the front door.
“There you are! It’s a pleasure to meet you Ingrid, and welcome! I waited for you to have lunch.” Princess Maha was a dynamic and friendly woman, sporting jeans, a loose t-shirt, and a short haircut. She looked very different from her cousin Princess Jowhara, who generally dressed in a more elegant manner at home.
Ingrid was touched and grateful for Princess Maha’s graciousness. Ingrid was led to a beautiful table that was covered with an array of colorful dishes. The princess’ husband and two children came by to greet Ingrid and then left the two of them alone. Princess Maha finally asked Ingrid why she was so late, and Ingrid gave her a quick rundown of what had happened on the way over. The princess shook her head but didn’t say a word.
Ingrid quickly changed the subject and the two women chatted away, switching from Arabic to German. Ingrid tasted all the dishes, the delicious homemade bread, salads, and dips. After coffee and Arab sweets, the princess offered to take her around the palace and the gardens.
She and Princess Maha walked around the garden, chatting in German about life in Saudi Arabia and Europe, work, family, and Ingrid’s first impressions of the kingdom. Saudis often asked her about this. The two women occasionally switched to Arabic when Princess Maha couldn’t remember a word in German, but the princess was doing rather well in this foreign tongue, all things considered. Though Princess Maha hadn’t had much opportunity to practice her German in recent years, her understanding and pronunciation were still excellent.
Ingrid didn’t realize how late it was until she noticed the sun was setting. True to local customs of hospitality, she knew that the princess would never ask her to leave. So Ingrid announced that it had come time to return to Princess Jowhara’s palace.
“It’s been a long day, I am getting tired. Thank you so much for your kind welcome and hospitality, Amira Maha.”
“Not at all, my dear! It was a pleasure. We shall meet again soon, inshallah.” (God willing)
They said goodbye in front of the house as the Yemeni driver returned in the car. He was rested and with the other drivers had eaten some kabsa, the traditional chicken and rice dish. He was in a much better mood now.
The drive back was pleasant, and Ingrid felt serene. The journey seemed to take little time. The gate to the palace had not yet shut itself behind the car when Princess Jowhara came out of the main door to meet Ingrid. Given her tribulations, Ingrid thought surely she would be asked about what had happened with the mutawa; however, the princess made no mention of it. Ingrid tried to bring it up gently, but Princess Jowhara quickly brushed it aside and simply smiled, as if it were no concern. Ingrid couldn’t tell if the princess was embarrassed or simply uninterested. The princess redirected the conversation, asking about her cousin Maha and her family, the lunch, and what Ingrid and the princess did during their time together. Princess Jowhara seemed relieved to have Ingrid back under her wing.
That’s odd, Ingrid thought as she headed back to her apartment in the palace. Why no comment on this afternoon’s incident? Just like Maha. But the princess is my sponsor after all, she’s responsible for my safety. Out of youthful naiveté, Ingrid ultimately concluded there must have been some sort of misunderstanding. Ultimately, they never talked about the incident.
Years later, as she was having coffee with her Saudi friend Juju in New York, Ingrid mentioned the mutawa episode. Juju looked at her, incredulous.
“Are you serious?”
“Well, yes, why would I make this up, Juju?”
“Back in the nineties, the religious police had just been given increased power by the new king. If Princess Jowhara never asked nor said anything about the incident, it’s probably because she was terribly embarrassed.”
“But why? It had nothing to do with her!” replied Ingrid, surprised.
“Not directly. But you were her guest and her employee, and you were poorly treated by the religious police.”
“But why do you think I was taken to the religious police headquarters?”
Juju kept silent for a minute, then took a sip of coffee and flatly said: “Ingrid, habibti, my bet is they apprehended you for prostitution, and the princess probably had to pull a few strings to get you out of that mess.”
From Chapter 2 of “The Polar Bear and The Palm Tree”