Muttawain

by Camille Parker


In the Kingdom, they arrive silently. They have thick, untamed beards of black and brown and gray; short white trousers that show their dark ankles; loose white shirts that hang low over their thighs. They sweep into the malls, the shops, and the public places by elevators, escalators, and marble stairs. Their voices are marked by sharp, punctuated yells, by their exclusively male voices, and by a guttural cadence common to the Arabic spoken in Saudi Arabia.

I have never looked into one’s eyes. Men here stare forward, parallel to the ground — but these men aim upward, like actors on the stage staring into the darkness beyond the spotlight. Saudi muttawain are adept morality police, as deft as an American policeman pulling over a speeding motorist. They move shopkeepers and shoppers out of the shop at prayer time, reminding them that they must close shop for prayer and that they must pray. All obey. They chastise men for their women who are uncovered or too loud. If a teenage girl’s giggle echoes in the marble hallway of a mall, the muttawa’s shout silences it. Giggles are indecent and enticing.

Some Americans living there derided them, saying that they lacked actual power to enforce their commands. Others said that, politically and religiously, they were integral to the culture and should be respected. To me, an American girl living in Saudi Arabia, they were mystical. The first muttawa I encountered was elderly and short, short enough that I, at twelve, flat-chested, awkward, still staring outward in curiosity, looked straight at his eyes. He did not seem to see me, but smiled faintly, like a grandfather, and, looking above me, motioned for me to grip my floor-length black abaya closer around my body. My father put his hand on my shoulder and pulled me close. The muttawa drifted away, hands open and upward — probably with arthritis, but with kindness, it seemed.

Other American women brandished their dyed blond hair and white faces when we went out together. They stared outward as the men did, and not downward as the women did. They joked about the muttawain, telling the story that they heard from a friend, who has lived here for fifteen years and never wears even an abaya, telling about the time that American servicewomen in the first Gulf War stuffed a shouting muttawa into a dumpster and threatened him with their Uzis. They laughed loudly on the street while we waited for our driver outside the souk after a morning spent shopping. I watched them and giggled into my hand. Then, thinking of the short muttawa I had seen and imagining his elderly, quaking shouts echoing in the dumpster, I stopped.

In the early years, the city of Jeddah, my new home, was green and new. I wrote home to my friends that this was no desert. The Red Sea was blue in the bay near old downtown. The Taif Mountains rose to the east, silhouettes in the pink sunrise I saw from my window when I woke early. The sun shone and the sky was always blue. There were palm trees lining the boulevards, grass against the white apartment buildings, and, occasionally, caterpillars eating through the broad, green leaves of our banana trees.

We had so many banana trees — at one point, I counted forty-seven — that my father had the gardener pull all the trees out by their roots and paid several neighbors’ gardeners to pave our small yard with gray slabs of concrete, each one a foot square. After that, our gardener brought every small plant he could find sprouting around the empty houses next to us and planted them in the wall around our porch, in the spaces left by missing cinder blocks. My mom and I delighted in the young, transplanted shoots, poking through the crumbling wall. Later, I looked at them closely. They were yellow and wilting, little more than stumps in dirt.

I had quickly learned to see Jeddah as a desert city with imported palms. My neighborhood was in the new part of the city, built in the late seventies by a defense company that moved into Saudi Arabia when the American oil businesses moved in. Badriyah Compound was meant to be separate from the city. The walls built around the compound were only five feet high then, and old photographs show that a person of average height could look out over the walls at Bedouin herders with camels and goats and salukis — wild dogs known to be vicious. A camel nibbled on banana leaves over the wall in one photograph, oblivious to the blue, plastic Big Wheel sitting on the rocks below. All one hundred and sixty villas were full then, occupied by Americans with small children and folding lawn chairs.

When I moved to Badriyah, there were four-foot metal extensions rising above the original concrete walls. Most of the villas were empty. New, white apartment blocks of four or five stories surrounded the compound. For safety, four inaccessible streets surrounded our compound on four sides. Boys playing soccer against our wall were shooed by our guards, who carried old rifles and tended to swing them around freely. I lived on the compound and rode to the school compound on an aquamarine school bus with curtains in the windows. I wanted to close the curtains to keep out men’s eyes, staring, leering, smiling at the girls.

My friend Lindsey didn’t care. Once, she removed her outer shirt and rode on the back seat in a white spaghetti-strap tank top, brown hair hanging around her shoulders. She stared out the window at some point in the distance. I noticed the looks of every man we passed — lascivious smiles, mostly, some shocked faces, some pleased, some angry. Her sister Ashley wanted the windows open because the sun always shone in Jeddah. She would lie with her face in the window and close her eyes, sunbathing. I pulled the curtain close to me and slouched into it. As a teenage girl, the looks, the tongues extended toward me, the excitement in the men’s eyes — all seared onto my face as if by a hot iron. I dreamed of taking a ritualistic cold shower and scratching them off my cheeks and lips and neck, but I never did.

These were the later years, when I called things ugly and beautiful, scowled and laughed an open, nervous laugh, and crept out of the house at night to sit on the empty porches around us for hours, doing nothing but feeling subversive, turning around often to look for cats and rapists. I had once felt safe inside the compound walls, but one night I looked up and noticed that from any open window above us, someone could throw a bomb, or look out with binoculars, watching me. I often looked straight into open, lighted windows, as if to catch the one that watched me. I don’t know that anyone ever did.

That first summer, my sister and brother and I swam in the pool, put together puzzles, ate hamburgers and bought cold soda from the small store down the street. We had no television, no internet, and few friends, but it was a free and happy summer, the longest I have ever had — four months between the first school we attended when we arrived and the new school we would attend in September. Pictures from that summer show us smiling and young, thin from the health-food stint my mother had put us through the previous year. We leaned out the front door in our swimsuits, slick with sunscreen, arms tangled in our towels and swim toys.

One afternoon, not in the pictures, my younger brother and I slumped in the shade of the company store, drinking Pepsi and flicking dead bugs from the ground at each other, slapping them away and cursing. The condensation on my cold soda can dripped onto my knees. Heat waves rose from the pavement in the sun. The sky had closed on us like a bowl, smaller than any other sky on earth, almost white in the heat. The grass was wilting and I scowled, wanting to be in the cool, marble insides of our house. No, what I wanted was to see something outside the walls of our neighborhood — a mall, a grocery store. I left my brother there and wandered home.

I had a project for geography class that let us choose some public venue in which to observe such urban concerns as parking, lighting, safety, and entertainment attractions. The project was to be ten pages or more, with graphs and charts and photographs. This is what I told my father. I chose the nicest mall, Heraa, just across the city on our eastern end, past the airport and the school and through neighborhoods of huge walled houses. I stole my sister’s lavender silk scarf and pulled it around in the front of my neck so that half hung down in the front and half in the back. With my black abaya and the scarf, and new platform sandals from Next that made me two inches taller under the hem of the robe, I liked my reflection.

Heraa was not that large, I realize now. I later discovered better malls, with valet parking and marble and gold ceilings and walls. But Heraa had the McDonald’s in the parking lot, with its stained-glass dome sitting over the plastic playpen. It was clean and it had several Italian chain stores. I liked the purple, fluorescent tubes that lined the outside of the building at the top. But even more, it felt free — I could walk through in my abaya in the evening and be left largely alone. I saw Arab and Western girls there often with no headscarf on their head. Like my sister and I, they left theirs hanging around their neck.

I was supposed to be working on my project — taking pictures, interviewing store clerks, taking notes. Instead I left my father and fingered turquoise jewelry in an independent stall in the middle of a broad, marble hallway. I wondered if it was real turquoise, looked through all the necklaces, touched all the wooden or blue or plastic beads, and bought three wooden necklaces — stained light, darker, and very dark. I put them on and let them hang over my scarf in front. When I leaned down to pick up the riyal bill I dropped, the necklaces hung low to the floor with the long lavender scarf. Something about them felt womanly and beautiful. I traced my thumbnail along the wooden beads and wandered toward the luminescent dress shop across the way.

The young muttawa came from behind me. I do not know if he saw my uncovered, blond ponytail and came toward me, or if he simply drifted into me in the hallway as the muttawain do. I turned at his yell. He was tall and made taller because he was so thin, leaning forward like a blade of grass in the wind. His chin was so smooth, and his mustache the thinness of a high-school boy’s. The index finger of his right hand was pointing toward heaven, and his eyes were staring straight at me. A rookie mistake, I suppose. I did not look back into his eyes. I dropped them quickly to the ground, a habit I had adopted. If I ever caught a man’s eye, he burst into Arabic jubilation, as if I had flashed him. I kept staring at the ground.

I knew what he wanted, so I gripped my scarf and attempted to pull it gracefully over my head, but it was tangled in my new beads. I spun on my heels and walked away from the shop, down the hall, hands in my scarf, trying to cover myself. He continued to yell behind me. I managed the scarf. I tied it closely around my face, tucked it into itself under my chin, fingered the top to check my hairline. The beads had slipped underneath my abaya and my shirt. I could feel them as they lay against the bare skin of my chest. I thought about them hanging there in the darkness close to my body and wished myself to disappear.

On the silent car ride home, I breathed in my tears and I scowled. I had perversely enjoyed the status of the white woman who everyone noticed. I had enjoyed the balmy nights and blood-red sunsets and camping trips. I had seen the underside of the Red Sea; I had walked the Corniche beach; I had bought fake Rolexes in the shade of six-hundred year-old houses that rose above the ancient marketplace downtown. I had made friends at school and been to parties and drank the whole bottle of Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum with friends on a school trip to Cyprus. I had traveled over the Atlantic Ocean and been to Zurich and stopped in Medain Salah on Saudi’s western edge, near Jordan.

I did not begin the project until the night before it was due, spending all night creating information and adding the few photographs I had taken as we had entered the mall that night. I do not remember considering adding the muttawa to my project. I could not add him to sections on the parking, or the atmosphere, or the shop quality or quantity or entertainment options. He fit in none of my graphs. I had no photograph. The British citizen who would grade the project in Britain and send back my grade, to our white, new school on the Eastern edge of Jeddah, to my British geography teacher, who drank too much; that citizen would not understand the muttawa. I would have to explain abaya and Islam and why I was living there at all, and I had no explanations.

Soon I would graduate. Those last few months, I wore the headscarf — my own, peacock blue, circling my face and reaching to the middle of my back. I knew my brown eyes looked tender under the color, laced with mascara — perhaps romantic, perhaps the beautiful eyes of Arabian women. Yet none of the city’s faces had ever assured me that I would be anything more than an American woman underneath my scarf. The ideal moment to live in Jeddah had come and gone in the first weeks I had arrived, when the elderly muttawa motioned gently and silently at a girl holding her father’s hand. I want that girl still.


Copyright © 2006 by Camille Parker

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