7:08 p.m. September 20, 2013

Jihad Vs The Shopping Mall

When most pundits talk about the opposition in Syria, the usual distinction is between “moderates” and “Islamists.” I suspect that for a lot of casual news consumers, those categories seem perfectly real and satisfactory. On the one hand, there are the moderates, the nice ones, sort of like Luke Skywalker and his multi-species pals in the ragtag Rebel Alliance. Against them we have the bad element, the jihadis, connected with Al Qaeda and flying the black flag.

When more sophisticated news-chewers get together to discuss Syria, they sneer at this distinction, but most of their energy goes into denying that the Islamist factions in Syria are really as bad as they’re made out to be.

There’s an idea in the progressive Twitter-sphere at the moment that jihadis are just a figment of scared Fox-News victims’ imagination. Well, that’s a reasonable point if you live in North Carolina or any of the other six states that have officially banned Sharia Law. None of the legislators who passed these bills know anything about Sharia, and none but the real loonies among them think it’s a threat to take over Oklahoma or South Dakota. It’s just an excuse to grandstand for the Teabaggers who are old and cranky enough to show up for every midterm election when the rest of us have better things to do.

And, of course, the few real nuts who do think Sharia is an imminent threat are exactly the kind of people who’d enjoy life under Sharia law, where burglars lose a hand and stonings let your average rightwing retiree take a direct role in minding other peoples’ marital business.

The problem is that, when you’re an American progressive reading daily accounts of these cretins’ latest legislative victories, you pretty much have to push back, and in the process of pushing back you end up falling for your own version of American exceptionalism, which says that there can’t really be such a thing as a crazy jihadi, that those people are just misunderstood liberals who, if the US let them alone and Israel stopped provoking them, would think pretty much like us.

That’s a mistake. American exceptionalism is always just American provincialism, no matter how benevolent it seems. Not everyone is like us, and a lot of people are actively trying not to become like us. Jihadis are, roughly speaking, the armed wing of that group.

The truth about the clash of civilizations you hear people discussing is that it’s all the other way: The Mall is invading Islam, the Mall is taking over. There isn’t any Sharia Law in North Carolina, but there damn well are US-style malls in even the most conservative Islamic countries.

In Najran, in the most remote corner of Saudi Arabia, a state so afraid of Western contamination that it doesn’t even issue tourist visas, there is a mall. And, when I lived there, you could watch —literally watch—the conflict between Sharia Law and Mall culture, five times a day.

The mall was anchored by a huge market, HyperPanda, complete with its own cheery green and red logo. HyperPanda sold everything from camel meat to iPods. It was pretty much the only place in town where you could walk around without attracting the attention of the police, risking your life at a pedestrian crossing, or dying of heatstroke.

It was such a huge relief to come out of that sun and into the wide, cool, tinted-glass mall. The sun hurts in Najran, and the landscape has no color but army khaki, burnt sienna, ochre—all the least-favorite crayons in the box. You go in the mall and the logos of all the high-end retailers of Europe and Asia wink at you, and there are even chairs and benches for the tired grandmother to slump in while the kids try their skate-shoes on the marble floors. No one is contesting the space with you, for once. The sweat dries, you feel more benevolent as you relax, no longer fighting other drivers for the right to continue living. You’re almost anonymous, a very rare thing in places like Najran.

Naturally, the whole town comes to the mall whenever it can. And naturally, the state, or the local culture—Saudi Arabia doesn’t attempt to separate those concepts—did its best to hold the alien element of the mall at bay. The most dramatic demonstration of this containment effort came at prayer time. HyperPanda covered the whole back part of the second floor of the mall. It was wide open—the front wall was 25 meters wide, with nothing but a few pillars to stop you from coming right on in.

But that changed when the mall’s own muzzein, located in a small kiosk under the escalator, announced prayer time. Saudi muzzeins are not shy; in fact, Muslims from other countries always grumble about the unmusical way they scream through the mic. That’s because they’re not trying to be musical, especially in a city of suspect orthodoxy like Shia Najran. They’re trying to be loud and clear.

The dawn prayer, Fajr, wasn’t a problem; HyperPanda didn’t open that early. But the noon (Zuhr), afternoon (Asr) and sunset (Maghrib) prayers were. By Saudi law all commercial establishments must close during prayers. That was easy enough for shops on the old-style local model: They shoo’d the last customers out and pulled a metal grate across the door before the Mutaween could come around and arrest them for harboring customers in prayer time.

With a new-model mall hub like HyperPanda, the closing for prayer was something much more dramatic, more on the lines of a castle preparing for a siege. The first calls come over the public address system 15 minutes before the next prayer time. Shoppers stop wandering around in a happy daze and start actually looking for stuff. Older sisters round up the little kids. Everybody pushes toward the checkouts, and ridiculously long lines form. Everyone is anxious, because prayer time lasts 40 minutes and nobody wants to be stuck in a shut-down mall that long.

But there’s a weird camaraderie too, as if prayer time were a part of the local weather, a sudden shower we’re all trying to shelter from. Once, as we watched the Filipino baggers put our weekly shopping in the cart, I couldn’t find the money I’d brought and panicked, as is my wont. Nobody can go zero to panic as fast as I can. I started slapping my pockets looking for the Visa, in the move known in New Zealand as “The Australian Haka” (Ozzies being notorious for dodging the bill when it’s their shout). I expected…well, death, actually. Not because we were in Saudi; I expect to be beaten to death when I have trouble finding my cash at the Safeway down the street. At HyperPanda, I just expected to be beaten to death with a little extra local color.

Instead, the same irritating Turkish-looking guy behind us, the bastard who’d tried to edge his cart ahead of ours, jumped to grab his wallet and tried to force his own Visa on the checker to pay for our stuff—and we had a lot of stuff, about $100 worth.

Luckily one of my panicky pocket slaps, accompanied as always by the high, nasal whine of terror Katherine has come to know and hate, finally connected with the Visa, in my pants pocket right where it was supposed to be. So I was able to thank the Turk, show him my own card, and pay before Prayer overtook us. He almost seemed sorry I’d found my card. Gotta say, that never happened to me in the Safeway in Pleasant Hill. It was one of those moments—and you do get them, even a kafir-4-life like me--when the sweet dream of an Ummah seems almost real.

By this time the next stage of the closing would be underway. A Panda employee in the same green company vest that a California supermarket worker might wear would take a 30-foot billhook and snag one of the huge corrugated-iron porticulli. There were about a dozen of these, covering the whole wide entrance, and they’d usually start with one in the middle. The guy with the hook would start pulling the gate down with a very medieval creaking noise. I think they kept those iron gates a little rusty so the noise would remind people to finish their shopping fast. There was something end-of-the-worldly about it.

The first iron gate would slam down, and the checkers and baggers would now be working very fast, tossing the eggs in with the melons. No time for finesse. Five minutes to prayer. Another iron gate would slam down. Now customers have to dodge between checkouts and closed iron gates to reach the few openings.

By the time the prayer actually blasts out on the heavy-metal amps, only a few checkouts are still working. One metal gate is pulled only two-thirds down, so they can duck out in their shame. Then the last metal gate slams down. All that retail lighting, all those retail colors, are gone. The 25-meter entrance is a wall of corrugated iron 8 meters high.

In theory, the Mutaween could order everyone out of the entire mall at this point, since the whole thing is a retail enterprise. But the mall is the only public space in town, and its PlayZone offers the only place where the two zillion kids in Najran can play in temperatures insufficient to fry an egg.

So the Mutaween ignore the families that are sitting out prayer time on the square chair arrangements—four rows of black fake-leather chairs, facing each other in the wide marble space between shops. Old people slump there, dads space out, kids fidget. You can tell that for some of the mothers, 40 minutes of enforced idleness is more than welcome.

All this, only eight miles from the Yemen border. It’s amazing, actually. Amazing that the regime tolerates it at all, because as jihadis know, or sense, all social change is corrosive, and worse still, unpredictably corrosive, eating away at norms that don’t seem to have any direct connection to the change itself.

HyperPanda’s most direct affront to the culture is that it provides an attractive nuisance, in insurance terms, to the adolescent population. Malls draw teens in Najran just like they do in Minnesota. But the Mutaween have taken a, shall we say, proactive stance toward that fact in Najran.

The Mutaween (“Society for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice”) has hundreds of men, and even a few women, working in Najran. Some wear the big beards and special headdress, but others are in disguise. And what these undercover morality police do, mostly, is patrol HyperPanda to see if boys are talking to girls, or looking at girls, or throwing girls little folded-up slips of paper with their cell phone numbers. That last one is perhaps the greatest threat to morality in town, and HyperPanda is the scene of most such crimes. The Mutaween mount multi-cop surveillance routines, with some disguised as Malays or Filipinos, to detect any instances of heterosexual contact at the mall.

The culture, the law, are very clear. No pre-marital fooling around, and that includes flirting at HyperPanda. Mall rules are very clear too: It’s an obvious place for boys and girls to check each other out. When mall meets culture, hijinks ensue—and murders sometimes follow, with the male relatives of the girl who’s been compromised at HyperPanda hunting down and killing the boy who accosted her.

Ten years ago, the mall didn’t exist. Cell phones, the other contributor to the delinquency of minors in Najran, have only been around for 20 years, like the internet that gives girls notions of romance, thanks to the South Korean soap operas they all watch.

Everything is tilting toward the mall, away from the old rules, and the resistance is always futile, and worse yet, ridiculous. Every day one piece of this resistance breaks away. Yesterday it was the new head of the Mutaween admitting that there’s no Scriptural basis for forbidding women to drive.

That will infuriate men in Saudi, because as devout as they consider themselves to be, this was never just a religious argument. Orthodoxy never is; it’s always what’s comfortable and familiar. It would be news to these guys, watching the old world crumble, that people in South Dakota are afraid that “creeping Sharia” is about to creep its way into Fargo, presumably on insulated booties.

Kids in Najran already hate the Mutaween. They see kids flirting on TV from the west, and cops chasing grownup criminals, and it strikes them as ridiculous that so many cops devote all their time to the prevention of flirting. Now that the King has ordered the Mutaween to be nice, hate will turn to contempt. Pieces of the old walls will start falling even faster.

It’s hard to see how defensive jihad is, when you come from the homeland of the malls. At first, when you get to a place like Najran, you notice how alien and annoying everything is, how unlike California. Slowly you begin to realize that all the ingredients of California are being added to the mix.

It’s amazing how well most people handle this very volatile, unstable mix. When people are flooded with so much alien culture and technology, you’d expect wilder upheavals than we’re getting, especially in rural patriarchies like the one that used to operate unchallenged in Saudi Arabia. It’s not a surprise—not at all—that a fraction of the young males from there joined up for jihad. The real surprise is that there are so few of them.