THE plump young man on the street corner was dressed in the traditional Saudi robe and red-check kerchief. He seemed to be waiting for someone. As three Western reporters in search of the gold souk (market) approached, he stepped forward and held up his hand. ``Excuse me,'' he said, in the manner of someone giving friendly advice, ``this shopping street is for women only.''
It was true. All the stores ahead seemed to be selling toys or children's clothes. Veiled women in groups strolled up and down the sidewalk, chattering gaily through the black cloth that covered their faces.
Taken aback, the reporters - all male - retreated to King Khalid Street, per instructions. As they went, one muttered aloud that if that street was only for women, what was that man doing there? Perhaps he was a husband, awaiting the return of his wife. More likely he was a member of the Mutawwa, known in English as ``The Committee for Encouraging Virtue and Discouraging Vice.''
The Mutawwa are devout Muslims who enforce religion-based Saudi laws and customs. They guard the ladies' souk, watch for women in improper attire, and enforce the closing of stores during daily prayer times. Though they receive some government subsidy, they are for the most part volunteers, a living manifestation of the religious foundation of Saudi society.
Slight contretemps at customs
This was not my only inadvertent brush with Saudi Arabian authority during a trip to the country to report on the American military buildup. Upon my arrival in the kingdom, the very thorough Saudi customs service discovered that, while my luggage contained no prohibited alcohol or provocative magazines, I was carrying contraband: a recent history of Saudi Arabia that is banned in the country.
This resulted in a trip to the airport's Ministry of Information office, where several officials carefully scrutinized all the books in my possession. To be fair, they appeared bored rather than suspicious, and seemed most interested in looking at the history's many photographs of the great founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz, whose numerous progeny have run the Kingdom since his death in 1953.
After half an hour, I ventured the suggestion that if I had been aware that the book was sensitive, I certainly wouldn't have brought it with me. Seeing as how the hour was late, and I had just stepped off a 14-hour flight, they were welcome to keep the book if that was what it took to speed me on the way to my hotel.
They hurriedly returned it to me and bid me on my way.
Call to prayer melts waiting line
Some Saudi customs can work to a Westerner's advantage. Arriving at the Riyadh ticket office of Saudi Airlines early one afternoon to book a domestic flight, I found a traveler's nightmare of a line in front of me. It was Wednesday afternoon, almost the beginning of the Saudi equivalent of the weekend, and everyone in the capital seemed to be buying a ticket to somewhere else. Surely, I wouldn't get out of the office for hours.
Then the call to mid-afternoon prayer began singing out from nearby mosques. Muslims pray five times a day; in Saudi Arabia at those times all commerce stops. The line in front of me melted away as the devout went in search of a spot to kneel toward Mecca - but the Indian nationals running the ticket terminals were more than happy to quickly process my ticket before they had to shut down.
Evening stroll and throbbing copters
Behind my Dhahran hotel is a park that runs along the shore of the Gulf. In the evenings Saudi families come to stroll there. Last Friday, the end of the Muslim week, there were hundreds of people promenading up and down - the women with veils drawn tight and flashes of embroidery showing beneath their robes, the children with soccer balls and tricycles.
The air over the Gulf was hazy, almost opaque. Then, at sunset, came the haunting, throbbing sound of an American military helicopter. Unseen in the haze, it passed over the families' heads, toward the air base beyond.