Friday, March 03, 2006

Facing the Music

by : Lubna Hussain

I was on my way to get an ice cream when I happened to pass a cassette shop and decided to go in. At the time my daughter had developed an obsession with a particular song that was being played repeatedly on the music channel and I resolved to buy it for her.

When I entered the shop, the reaction that I generated from my fellow customers was one that could easily be reserved for an alien landing from another planet. I caught people staring at me in disbelief, glancing at each other nervously, but as this was Saudi Arabia I didn’t find it out of the ordinary. What was surprising was that the packed shop soon became empty as one by one the men all left. Considering that the sight of a woman normally has an effect similar to that of an electromagnet on the male species I began to feel a little perturbed by this sudden desertion.

The walls were lined with cassettes and I crouched down to see if I could spot the singer I was looking for. It was then that I saw a pair of feet standing next to me and looked up relieved to see the cashier who, in lieu of any other customers, had ostensibly come to help in my selection of music.

“Thank you,” I began in Arabic. “I am looking for Elissa,” I declared soliciting his expertise.

His reply was rather odd. “No! Haya!” he said sounding agitated.
“No. No. Thank you. But I don’t want Haya. I want
I was stunned by the same ridiculous response. “No! Haya!”

Evidently he was either being paid a commission to plug tapes by Haya, whoever she was, or more likely, I was not articulating well enough.

“Look,” I said exasperated, in a tone reserved for the mentally challenged. “Not Haya. I want E-l-i-ss-a,” I said breaking each syllable up in a moronic voice. “E-l-i-ss-a,” I enunciated slowly.
“Go! Go! Haya! Muttawwa!” he pleaded in desperation.

It was then that the penny dropped. A vehicle pulled up outside and although I didn’t know for what, I instinctively knew that I was in trouble. I pulled my veil over my face and casually strolled over to the ice cream shop.

As I was about to enter a voice boomed behind me, “I know where you have been!”
My legs turned to jelly.

“You were in that cassette shop, weren’t you?” I stood transfixed holding the door open wondering about the severity of the crime I had inadvertently committed.
“I know what you were doing,” the voice continued to accuse. “You were going to buy a cassette!” Dr. Watson had obviously just returned from his special services training in Scotland Yard, but mercifully left me alone after pronouncing that amazing deduction.

However, the poor guy who had tried to boot me out of the cassette shop had not been so lucky. As I left with my sundae I watched him being dragged out and taken away by the police. I felt terrible. When I sent an emissary to investigate his wretched fate, he returned with the news that the fellow in the adjacent convenience store told him that there was “a lunatic woman who had entered the shop and got the guy arrested” and now the shop had been closed down indefinitely.

It seems that women are forbidden from entering such establishments. To do so is against the law. However, had I chosen to walk a few blocks down to a shopping mall then I would have had no problem entering a cassette shop. It’s the little stand-alone shops that are forbidden fruit.

But why they are considered to be so singularly tempting, I do not know. What’s more, I could have quite inconspicuously and comfortably gone next door and bought a SR150,000 top-of-the-line stereo system without any legal consequence. Of course I would need to rely on a man to select and buy the measly SR15 audiocassette to play on it, but as he would be just about responsible for deciding everything else in my life why should this be any different?

All I would like to know is what the logic is behind these statutes. Can someone who makes these legalities up please explain to me why it is supposedly a far more seductive sight to countenance a woman buying an audio track in a small shop than a big one? Unless I am mistaken it is perfectly acceptable and not lascivious at all to choose my own undergarments and nightgowns while being assisted by men in mixed surroundings but it is illegal for me to decide which song I would like to hear in public. What’s even more exasperating is that I didn’t even know that I was breaking the law because I wasn’t aware of it in the first place! What’s worse is that the poor shopkeeper who was trying to enforce this very same law was the one who was arrested for doing his job.

There are many issues that arise because of this seemingly insignificant incident.
Firstly, that laws should make sense and if they don’t then they should be scrapped.
Secondly, there is an urgent need for a codified consistent set of laws that every citizen should be made aware of.
Thirdly, regardless of which side of the law you are on if you happen to be an Asian expatriate you will probably be found guilty anyway!
Lubna Hussain is a Saudi writer. She is based in Riyadh