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.
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.