I knew it would happen eventually. I’ve jogged just about every night the year-and-a-half we’ve lived in Riyadh. First was in town, when we rented a hotel room for the first month. Back then, I dodged Crown Victorias and made my way round and round the parking lot behind Kindgom Tower, one of two skyscrapers here. It wasn’t pretty; choking on exhaust, I was always on the lookout for religious police, who had every reason to bust a geeky white dude pounding pavement in shorts.
Since then, we’ve mostly lived in the Diplomatic Quarter, home since the late 1980s to most of the foreign embassies. Off the western edge of town, the DQ — as it is widely known, causing ice cream franchise confusion — was conceived as a kind of model living unit for a future Saudi Arabia. Built at a cost estimated to be $2 billion, the 2,500-acre community sits amongst sculpted parks, canyons, fountains, a men’s and women’s gymnasium, several schools, two small commercial squares, and an equestrian club.
More than 20 years later, much of the facilities are rundown and dust-swept. They’re still maintained to a minimal degree by a vast army of laconic, blue uniformed men from the subcontinent. But gone are the days average Saudis could glide through the gates and amble about.
Today, machine gun nests greet visitors. Much the same way New York and DC are now quasi-police states, Saudi Arabia has — after its own spell of terrorist attacks from 2003 to 2006, when dozens upon dozens were killed in numerous bombings — come to resemble a warren of concertina wire and assault rifles. Friends here tell me they hate having to enter the DQ, finding the questioning and searching at the checkpoint insulting.
As a result, my neighborhood isn’t exactly crawling with merrymakers, but it’s still home not only to embassy workers but also to expats like myself — and an untold number of wealthyish Saudis.
I don’t typically see many folks when I’m out running, but especially on weekend nights, there are often crowds of black-haired, heavily made-up Saudi girls, their black gowns open to the wind, cell phones in hand, looking for something to do. I’m always a little nervous pounding by. And tonight stage one of a problematic encounter occurred.
I passed the gas station, the Starbucks, and the Dunkin Donuts. Up ahead tittered a group of three teenagers. They pointed and giggled as I approached. These were someone’s daughters, some brother’s sister, cousins. In a country that takes its women’s chastity seriously — violently — there’s nothing simple about an encounter in the dark with an unsupervised group of young women.
I tried to keep my head down, my foot falls calling out on pavestones.
“Hey sexy,” the tall one said, winking and nodding her head. The others tittered shyly, big eyes awaiting my move.
Of course the attention was unwarranted; I’m a washed up 30-something. But what do I want to tell you? That something happened, that I got in trouble, or that this never happened, that I live in a place where flirting is harmless, where catcalling is unloaded?
I kept running, and I’m afraid that’s exactly how it will feel the day I leave, running away, true confrontation too dangerous, still unclear whether I’ve missed the point or have taken any meaningful steps towards understanding.
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