'I Pray My Daughters Have a Life like Mine.'

By House, Karen Elliot | Newsweek, October 8, 2012 | Go to article overview
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'I Pray My Daughters Have a Life like Mine.'

House, Karen Elliot, Newsweek

Byline: Karen Elliot House

These were the words of the devout, conservative matriarch with whom Karen Elliott House lived as she wrote her definitive new book on modern Saudi Arabia. Here, she describes the surprising lives of women in the kingdom.

An hour outside the Saudi capital of Riyadh, in the rocky terrain of the desert, a Saudi family concludes a daylong outing. A full moon illuminates the black line of silhouettes in prayer. While I sit by myself on a blanket nearby, Ahmad and his father, brother, and young sister prostrate themselves in the direction of Mecca. Observing my failure to pray, Ahmad, who is 6, approaches, clearly concerned. "I need to teach you something," he says. "What?" I ask. "Do you know what to say when the angel of death comes?" he says. Assuming I do not, the little boy then provides the answers that the dying should give if they want to transit successfully to the hereafter: "The angel asks you, 'Who is your God?' and you say, 'Allah,'?" says Ahmad. "?'Who is your prophet?' You say, 'Muhammad.' 'What is your faith?' You say, 'Islam.'"

It is hard to imagine a child of that age in the U.S., or most other societies, similarly concerned about the hereafter for himself--let alone for a stranger. But this 6-year-old believer, seeking to save the soul of an infidel, suggests how pervasive religion is in Saudi Arabia. Several times every day, businesses throughout the kingdom close for half an hour at a time while men go to pray. (As the sexes are strictly segregated, women are not allowed in the mosques with the men and so have to pray at home.) Every airport, shopping mall, and government building includes an area covered with prayer rugs arranged to indicate the direction of Mecca, so worshipers know where to kneel and pray. Every hotel room has a sticker on the wall or desk with an arrow pointing toward Mecca. Even new cars often include complimentary prayer rugs so travelers can stop alongside a road and pray. The sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer begins in predawn hours and is heard four more times throughout the day and evening from mosques so numerous that the effect in the larger cities is a chorus of prayer calls in surround sound.

On a recent morning, Lulu (short for Loulwa) pushes open the heavy steel door in the wall that surrounds her home. A woman in her early 40s, she is hidden under her billowing black abaya. Although the dusty street outside her house is empty, she is careful to avoid exposing even a glimpse of herself as she ushers me into the small courtyard of the modest two-story home she shares with her seven children and her husband--every other day. On alternate days, he is downstairs with his first wife of nearly 40 years, with whom he shares eight other children, all older than Lulu's brood, who range in age from 5 to 20. "That is her home, and up here is mine," she says with a nod toward the ground-floor door of the first wife as we climb the tiled stairs to her home.

A sweet woman, educated at King Saud University, Lulu speaks English haltingly. But, deeply devout, she is eager to share her religion. Though Lulu and her husband are educated and middle class, Lulu staunchly opposes women who have been fighting for the right to drive and for other freedoms, seeing them as dangerous infidel influences from the West. While Saudis these days have access to the Internet, hypermodern shopping malls, and hundreds of satellite channels--even illicit drugs and alcohol--her home is free of infidel influences. The walls of her home, like those of any devout Wahhabi, are devoid of photos because any human representation is forbidden by this strict interpretation of Islam. The family has one television, but it is set to receive only a religious channel that bans any appearances by women. Lulu doesn't want her children seeing faces of unveiled women who have recently been allowed to work as anchors on some Saudi channels.

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