Valentine’s is usually the day for couples to celebrate their love. A month earlier, most shops suddenly turn all red. Hearts, teddy bears, roses, chocolate boxes and all kinds of gifts are everywhere; even the gift wrappers are infected by this phenomenon. Cupid takes over. Indeed, Valentine’s day could be seen as a pure creation, the result of capitalism’s constant quest for money. While some count the days leading up to the celebration and prepare grandiose plans, others dread it or see it as a waste of time. For such Cupid haters, Saudi Arabia is the perfect place to be.
While many are well aware that this day is dedicated for love, not all know the story and mythology behind it. Rare are those who see it as a religious celebration. Even less known is the fact that this tradition originates from a two-day pagan ritual commemorated on February 14th and 15th. At the beginning, it was customary to make young men and women meet for an erotic initiation. Since the ritual continued to be celebrated after the convert to Christianity, Pope Gelasius the 1st decided in the end of the 5th century to change this originally pagan ceremony to a religious one under the name of Saint Valentine, a priest martyred by the Romans in the third century.
Cupid’s hunting season
Saudi Arabia has a history of banning non-Muslim celebrations. During Christmas for instance, finding a Christmas tree is a real obstacle course. The same kind of issues arise on New Year’s Eve, Easter and, of course, Valentine’s Day. There are waves of strictness, the authorities can make these days as real hunts, whereas other years, they are more laid-back.
Tracking down items related to Valentine’s day is the task of the kingdom’s religious police. Across the country, shops likely to sell things for the celebration are visited. Vendors are advised, or rather compelled, to remove everything one week before February 14th. There have even been cases where the religious police sent people dressed as civilians to check whether their orders had been followed or not. As a result, all red roses, love cards, chocolate boxes, hearts and even red lingerie disappear from the shops.
In the eyes of Saudi religious authorities, Valentine’s day is an attempt to “westernize” the country. The fest is named after a Christian saint, and it goes against the religious precepts of Wahhabism. While no official laws ban the celebration, a fatwa was issued, stipulating that Valentine’s day is incompatible with what Islam stands for. Indeed, eminent clerics have argued that it is against the Qur’an to celebrate a non-Muslim festivity. This led to a decision to outlaw the holiday along with all objects that ostensibly symbolize or promote it.
Another justification for the decision was that Valentine’s day is believed to encourage pre-marital sex. Being a celebration of love, the day is easily associated with sexual love. Furthermore, authorities try to remind people that Muslims must love God above all and not stray from the path of righteousness by indulging in these meaningless decadent celebrations, alien to Saudi culture.
However, there are always ways to go around the ban. Some people think in advance and buy their gifts ahead of time. Since the actual removal of items starts only a few days before the 14th, one needs only think about what to get in due time. Others manage to get what they want from the black market. Whenever there are restrictions, there are ways to go around, them – no matter what they are. Getting alcoholic drinks in the country is always possible despite strict restrictions, so why would some roses and fluffy presents be any harder to come by?
In fact, some shopkeepers preserve the forbidden items in their depots, smuggling them to customers in search for roses or other presents. Like all under the counter-businesses, this market is very lucrative for those who dare going against the ban. Indeed, the price of red roses can double or even the triple during this week. Then, there are those who get spared from the raids of the religious police: the hospital florists. As a result, some opt for getting their red roses and presents from them. This way, people deal with the facts on the ground.
Rediscovering Valentine’s day
Valentine’s day is not only about buying presents to your loved one, but really about proving your love to him or her. In the country, the obstacles actually open the door to more creativity and willingness among those who wish to celebrate the event. There is the example of couples offering each other symbolic little things, with the only condition that the gift has to have something red. For some, this means preparing a dish with only red ingredients – tomatoes, red turnips, beetroots or strawberries – in it, while others might get red plastic roses, bought weeks before and arranged like a real bouquet. And some simply buy any type of flowers close to red, like pink or purple ones, instead of the ‘real thing’.
Another inventive way is to buy chocolate that comes in red wrapping, like KitKat or Maltesers, instead of the hard-to-get-by Valentine’s Day boxes. Homemade cards replace the manufactured ones. Also, the day might prove an occasion for simply making each other laugh. In the end, it is the gesture that matters. These personal and creative gifts come from the heart more than anything bought in some random shop.
What all this has resulted in is Valentine’s day in Saudi Arabia being a very intimate occasion, celebrated in private and almost never in public. It is also a day when the religious police and those who want to celebrate it play a sort of hide-and-seek, where it’s always the most cunning who ending up winning. In the end, the celebration turns into a less capitalist and more symbolic tradition. It is ironic how banning Valentine’s helps people rediscover its true value: love and not only presents.