The Magazine

Blogging Saudi Arabia

Undermining the Wahhabis, one post at a time.

Jan 30, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 19 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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ON OCTOBER 21, A new message came out of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the land of Wahhabi Islam, with its commitment to financing jihad, its public beheadings, and its total subordination of women. But rather than the usual extremist preaching, promoting the bloody terrorist acts of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq or inciting hate against non-Wahhabi Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others around the world, the message was a call, in imperfect English, for "the first Saudi bloggers meet up." And with it, Saudi Arabia passed a milestone.

The announcement on the website "Saudi Blogs" [saudiblogs.blogspot.com] came from "Ahmed" and was not without its contradictions. It noted obtusely that "according to the Saudi style, [the meeting] will be for males only."

Within four hours, the first reply to Ahmed declared, "Both sex[es] must b[e] involved in this"--that is, the improvement of Saudi blogging. Confusingly, however, the author of that comment, "Super MO," conceded that coeducational blogging might best be limited to the net. Within a few more hours, however, a female blogger said she would love to attend the proposed meeting.

Men and women blogging together, of course, represents a total flouting of Saudi rules mandating sex segregation. And there can be no turning back. Saudi authorities cannot confiscate all the computers, Blackberrys, and cell phones in the kingdom. Nor can they forbid the use of the English language.

Saudi Blogs inventories more than 80 active sites, 67 of them in English or English and Arabic. Saudi women produce some of the most interesting sites. They are so daring in their freedom of expression that one congressional staffer who reads them regularly expressed complete bewilderment, asking, "How can this happen?" The globalization of American culture obviously has a lot to do with it, since many blog entries are written in the hip-hop, text-message idiom of Western teenagers.

The most startling and thought-provoking Saudi blog is "Farah's Sowaleef" [farahssowaleef.blogspot.com], sowaleef meaning "chitchat." The site advertises itself as "The Everyday Natterings of an Exhausted, Repressed, and Bored 'Saudi' Arabian Chick." Writing in a generally readable mélange of English and occasional Arabic, the author, Farah Aziz, alias "Farooha," reveals herself to be a student at "KSU"--King Saud University (not Kansas State), the kingdom's oldest university. Farooha is a "spoiled jingoistic" resident of the capital, Riyadh, as well as of Najd, the desert province from which Wahhabi radicalism and the royal house of Saud emerged.

Farooha has a lot to complain about, and she is unafraid to do so. When she chooses, her English is perfect. She also posts color photographs, obviously taken on a cameraphone, on her blog. Some of the images are banal in the extreme--piles of candy in the city at the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, for example--but one, in the entry dated October 26, seems unsurpassable in its expression of the Saudi regime's pathology.

The photo shows an interactive panel installed on a wall at KSU, where women students are requested to indicate their choice of a destiny after death by choosing between two pictures. On the left a woman is shown dressed in a head and neck covering, a full body hijab resembling a raincoat, and a floor-length dress. She carries a handbag. Next to her is a depiction of flames. This woman, despite her extremely modest attire, is headed for the fires of hell. On the right a woman is shown outfitted in the recommended female dress: a black abaya, covering the head, face, and entire body, whose contours cannot be distinguished. The woman dressed this way is headed for paradise, depicted as a park in which, strangely enough, only black-abaya-clad women are gathered.

The message is almost beyond belief: Eternal damnation awaits a Saudi woman who carries a handbag, exposes her eyes, or allows her female form to be even faintly discernible. For those who obediently wear the abaya, God's reward in paradise will include continued concealment and sex segregation.

This interactive gimmick is pure, unadulterated Wahhabism. Farooha comments, "Bulletin boards in universities are usually put up for academic purposes . . . in KSU, this is what you would expect to find."