RIYADH, Saudi Arabia The question “Do you sell Valentine’s Day gifts?” petrified the salesman. He wordlessly pointed to his colleague and disappeared.
The colleague, apparently more schooled at assessing real buyers from undercover religious police agents, smiled and said: “Officially, there’s no Valentine here; it’s banned. But there are a lot of Valentine items you can choose from.”
The prohibition on Valentine’s Day is part of the strict and ascetic school of Islam which the kingdom has followed and applied to daily life for 100 years.
Like Valentine’s Day, all Christian and even most Muslim feasts are banned in the kingdom, the birthplace of Islam, because they’re considered “religious innovations” Islam doesn’t sanction.
The feared muttawa, or religious police, ensure that everyone behaves. With a young generation more exposed than their parents to the outside world through travel and satellite television, however, banning people from observing the lovers’ holiday is becoming harder. Half the population is below 18.
The rules, though unwritten, have been mastered by buyers and sellers over the last few years.
Everyone knows that as Feb. 14 gets closer, the chances of finding a Valentine’s gift or any red-colored present decrease. It’s not because stores cannot meet the demand; it’s because that’s when the religious police begin looking for anything suggesting the holiday.
To get around this, stores begin selling the gifts weeks in advance.
In most cases, the gifts are not presented on Valentine’s Day. As Feb. 14 gets closer, the flush of red slowly fades.
Every heart, every rose and every item that’s red or that suggests romance descends underground to the black market, where its price triples and quadruples.
Entrepreneurs who take the risk of maintaining a red hue in their stores could end up in jail.
In schools, students are sternly warned against marking the day or even wearing a red item of clothing, including ribbons or socks. Restaurants receive leaflets from the muttawa, ordering them not to light red-colored candles or decorate the tables with red roses, dim the lights or play any kind of music.
Music is banned in public places.
Flower shops are ordered not to carry red flowers of any kind, and some have had their supply destroyed for disobeying. A woman may not get permission from her parents to go out that night. Stores call up the recipients in early February and ask them to pick up their presents as soon as possible. They don’t want to be saddled with the incriminating items when the muttawa begin making the rounds.
Gift arrangements include teddy bears with “Love” and “Me” respectively traced on each paw, clocks and frames decorated with hearts, huge “beating” hearts fitted with blinking lights and baskets of plastic apples, strawberries and grapes. Most come with torrid messages of love expressed in poetry.