Sunday, February 13, 2005

A Rose By Any Other Name...

Will be confiscated by the religious authorities:

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — In gift and flower shops across Saudi Arabia, the flush of red has started to fade.

Each year shortly before Feb. 14, the country's religious police mobilize, heading out to hunt for - and confiscate - red roses, red teddy bears and any signs of a heart. In a country where Valentine's Day is banned, ordinary Saudis find they must skirt the law to spoil their sweetheart.

The Valentine's Day holiday celebrating love and lovers is banned in Saudi Arabia, where religious authorities call it a Christian celebration true Muslims should shun.

The kingdom's attitude toward Valentine's Day is in line with the strict school of Islam followed here for a century. All Christian and even most Muslim feasts are banned in the kingdom, the birthplace of Islam, because they are considered unorthodox creations that Islam does not sanction.

Beyond the ban, it is a challenge for unmarried couples to be together on Valentine's Day or any other day because of strict segregation of the sexes. Dating consists of long phone conversations and the rare tryst. Men and women cannot go for a drive together, have a meal or talk on the street unless they are close relatives. Infractions are punished by detentions.

Valentine's items descend underground, to the black market, where their price triples and quadruples. Salesmen and waiters avoid wearing red. Though taboo, Valentine's Day still gets a fair amount of attention in Saudi society.

"Female voices demand the release of the red rose," read a headline in Sunday's Asharq al-Awsat. Women complained to the paper no one had the right to ban flower sales.

Sheik Abdullah al-Dakhil, head of the religious police, known as the muttawa, in Thumama, a town outside Riyadh, told Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper that "despite awareness campaigns and the confiscation of flowers, chocolate and other items, there were 15 infractions" for Valentine's Day indiscretions last year.

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