Now that we’re an old married couple, one of the things Mr. Mostafa and I can’t resist doing is speculating about the relationship status of couples we see at tables next to us in restaurants. The routine obviously began in the States, where the cultural standard for privacy is very different and families and singles sections don’t exist, and neither do massive partitions designed to surround tables so that families can dine without any other patrons observing them.
The first time we engaged in this covert ritual, I leaned over to him and whispered, “I think that couple at the table next to us is on a first date.”
He looked at me like I had just suggested that we rip off the woman’s top and feel her up to establish whether or not her boobs were fake. “No, no!” he exclaimed as vehemently as a whisper would allow. “Don’t listen to their conversation! Give them privacy! That’s terrible!”
But now, ever since he realized that it’s not about gossiping or making fun of the people at the table, but rather about appreciating the various stages of finding love, whether you’re on your first date or your 700th, he’s become more engaged in this activity than I am. Before I even notice that a couple is sitting at a table near us, he’ll lean over to me and say, “What do you think…third date?” And off we go.
Of course, it’s obviously much more difficult to engage in our amateur habit of relationship analysis while we’re in Riyadh, which is why when we find an opportunity, we jump on it. Since it’s technically illegal for unrelated men and women to consort in public in Saudi Arabia, dating is essentially prohibited. But of course, dating happens. Frequently. Sometimes in public, sometimes not. For example, I once saw a security guard at Tamimi who was obviously simultaneously on the clock and on a date. He strutted up and down the aisles like a proud rooster, accompanied by a giggly girl wearing a niqab. When they noticed a man with a long beard, a short thobe, and no iqal (i.e., a muttawa) eyeing them from the produce section, they split up and reunited a few aisles later.
But honestly, it’s rare to see Saudis out on dates in Riyadh…or at least, noticeably out on dates. It’s a lot easier to spot dating expats; we see them a lot in restaurants with open seating areas in the family section that imitate a typical non-Saudi restaurant. They stand out because it’s hard to squelch the delight of those first dates, especially while attempting to fake the sort of married couple familiarity that will deflect suspicion in Saudi Arabia. I always find myself wondering if the danger of the possibility of getting caught adds to the excitement, as well, since they, unlike Saudis, could easily choose a restaurant in the Diplomatic Quarter or on a compound where they could get to know one another with a much lower likelihood of muttawa intervention. I don’t know, because I’ve never been the kind of person that gets a thrill out of danger. I hate scary movies. I refused to ride rollercoasters until I was 14 (and much to my shock, I discovered that I loved them–not for the thrill of fear, but because they make me feel like I’m flying). I rarely broke rules as a kid. I lived in fear of Getting In Trouble.
Last weekend, Mr. Mostafa and I decided to go out for lunch at a restaurant near our house. It’s not fancy or groundbreaking in terms of recipes, but we always like the food. So, off we went.
When we arrived, the restaurant was closed for dhuhr prayer time. Instead of sitting in the car, we sat on one of the benches outside of the entrance to the family section while we waited for the restaurant to reopen. There were a few groups of men waiting outside the singles entrance, but we were the only ones waiting for the family section until, a few minutes later, a woman arrived by taxi. She was completely covered, including gloves; she wasn’t wearing a niqab, but she had her tarha wrapped in such a way that she had flipped it over her face in order to keep her face covered. She was wearing a beautiful, formal abaya. She carried an elegant handbag and she wore matching (very) high heels. Even though the tarha covered her face, it was not entirely opaque (as it mustn’t be, in order for the wearer to be able to see through it when it’s covering the face), so even though I wouldn’t be able to recognize her if I saw her without a tarha, I could see that she was wearing a full face of meticulously applied makeup.
After waiting for a bit, she approached us and asked, in Arabic, how long we had been waiting and if we thought the restaurant would open soon. She sounded young, and perhaps a bit agitated. A few more families showed up to wait for the family section.
Shortly thereafter, the doors were unlocked and the restaurant opened. We didn’t pay attention to where the woman went as we were escorted to our table, a booth near the windows at the side of the restaurant.
Within a few minutes, a waiter came and took our order. I told Mr. Mostafa to go to the soup & salad bar first while I sat with Lavender, and then I would go once he got back. Within a few seconds after he left, I heard the man at the table behind me call for the waiter and request a partition for his booth. Two waiters set up the heavy partition in front of the open areas of the booth, so that no one could see in.
When Saleh returned with his bowl of soup, he slid into the booth, leaned across the table, and whispered, “Hey, you know that girl that talked to us outside? I think she’s here on a date. She’s at the table behind us with a guy.”
“How do you know?” I whispered back. “I just heard the guy ask for a partition.”
“When I stood up, she had her face uncovered, and her makeup is done like she’s going to a wedding. Eyelashes and everything. Girls don’t get dressed up like that to go out to lunch with their husbands, do they?”
I looked down at my bitten fingernails and pushed my glasses up my nose. “Ha…well, some don’t. Anyway, she came here alone, remember? That’s a pretty good indication that the guy isn’t her husband.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right. When I stood up to go to the salad bar and I saw her sitting at the table, she panicked and covered her face again.”
“So that’s when the guy asked for a partition.”
“Yep, it’s definitely a date!”
“Well, good for them,” I said.
“Astaghfirullah,” he said jokingly.
“No, I’m serious,” I said.
“I know,” he replied. “I understand. It’s a culture thing, but I get it. In the Saudi marriage way, it’s hard to really get to know someone before you marry them.”
I said, “I mean, there are certain experiences I think a couple needs to have before they marry. Not necessarily…you know…every experience, but like, you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat waiters. I know it’s a culture thing, and I understand folks who choose to respect that, but I don’t understand why people aren’t allowed to meet in public and have a meal together. Like, those two kids are now behind a partition, alone, because they’re so worried that people are going to see them sharing a meal in public. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? If they weren’t so scared of being seen, they’d just be sitting across a table from one another, amongst dozens of other people, getting to know each other to the point where they can relax and make an informed decision about whether or not this person might be a good candidate for spending the rest of my life with.”
He shrugged and said, “If they insist on dating, I’m just glad they came to a public place. Be safe. Take precautions. Don’t go anywhere alone with some son-of-a-gun boy. Don’t trust him to protect you. Protect yourself.” He paused, and then he chuckled, “Listen to me. A liberal guy with a beard.”
“You can be a liberal guy with a beard. And anyway, your beard isn’t just for religious reasons. It’s also because I love it,” I pointed out.
“That’s true,” he conceded. He sipped his soup as I stood up and walked to the salad bar, past the now-enclosed table of couple who were hopefully on a very lovely date.