Mozart In Saudi Arabia


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91)

DON'T OVERESTIMATE the power of the tease. As long as its oil and its oil wealth gives them the upper hand, the Saudi crown will not be fools when it comes to doling out tidbits to its first world dhimmis in this real-time international game of chess. Just a taste they will offer, then back to business as usual. The following event should not be taken as a crack in the dam, as the German ambassador suggests, but merely a rare toss of bone scrap to the cur dog infidels (and a few of its own ruling elite, of course. No harm in that) extending the long arm of taqiyya precisely enough to keep the kingdom’s dhimmis in check.

It's probably as revolutionary and groundbreaking as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart gets these days. A German-based quartet staged Saudi Arabia's first-ever performance of European classical music in a public venue before a mixed-gender audience. The concert, held at a government-run cultural center, broke many taboos in a country where public music is banned and the sexes are segregated even in lines at fast-food outlets.

The Friday night performance could be yet another indication that this strict Muslim kingdom is looking to open up to the rest of the world. A few weeks ago, King Abdullah made an unprecedented call for interfaith dialogue with Christians and Jews—’the first such proposal from a nation that forbids non-Muslim religious services and symbols, and often uses this type of open call for propaganda purposes to soften up resistence to its own Wahabi supremicism that it is busy exporting al over the world, particularly in the West.

"The concert is a sign that things are changing rapidly here," said German Ambassador Juergen Krieghoff, whose embassy sponsored the concert as part of the first-ever German Cultural Weeks in Saudi Arabia. Public concerts are practically unheard of in the kingdom. Foreign embassies and consulates regularly bring musical groups, but they perform on embassy grounds or in expatriates' residential compounds, and the shows are not open to the public.

Friday's concert of works by Mozart, Brahms and Paul Juon was the first classical performance held in public in Saudi Arabia, said German press attache Georg Klussmann. It was advertised on the embassy's Web site with free tickets that could be downloaded and printed. The excitement in the 500-seat hall was palpable as the largely expatriate audience walked in.

Japanese pianist Hiroko Atsumi, the quartet's only woman, said there was some debate before the concert about whether she should perform in an abaya, the enveloping black cloak all women must wear in public. She settled on a long green top and black trousers.

Among the first to arrive was Faiza al-Khayyal, a retired Saudi educator, with her 15-year-old daughter. Miss al-Khayyal said she had inquired about seating arrangements and had been told the audience would be mixed. Did she mind bringing her daughter to a mixed gathering? "It's OK with me," she said, adding with a smile: "I'm with her."

Faleh al-Ajami, an Arabic-language professor, brought his wife and two sons to the concert—a rare opportunity for the whole family to do something fun together. "It's a good step to introduce Saudis to classical music," Mr. al-Ajami, 50, said during the intermission.

For the expatriates, the evening was an opportunity to have a normal evening out in Riyadh, a city with no movie theaters and where women are not allowed in outdoor cafes. One foreign couple held hands, while another husband put his arm around his wife's shoulders—rare public displays of affection in the kingdom. The mutawwa, the dreaded religious police tasked with enforcing public morality, were nowhere to be seen for a change.

"I'm glad for an opportunity like this," said Mary Ann Jumawan, a 40-year-old administrator at the South Korean Embassy. "It's the first time in nine years here as a married couple that my husband and I go to a location like this."

But this last paragraph says it all. Not everyone was impressed, however. Saud al-Sabhan dismissed the notion that gatherings involving men and women together might one day become the norm. "Saudi society wouldn't accept it. And girls aren't used to such mixed gatherings," he said, adding that if he had a sister, she certainly would not have been allowed to attend.

See what I mean? Of course, I would rejoice to be proven wrong in this matter as in most matters of this nasty war which seems to have no name we can all agree upon. Unfortunately, my instincts and my education instruct me otherwise. Because if I am any judge of girls, I am inclined to believe that they "aren't used to" being burned alive either. For those of you who don't recall my reference:

Saudi Arabia's religious police stopped schoolgirls from fleeing a burning building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress, local newspapers reported. In a rare criticism of the kingdom's powerful "mutaween" police, the Saudi media accused them of blocking attempts to save 15 girls who died in the fire March 18, 2002. About 800 students were inside the school in Mecca when the fire started. The daily al-Eqtisadiah reported that firemen confronted police after they tried to keep the girls inside because they were not wearing the headscarves and abayas (black robes) required by the kingdom's strict interpretation of Islamic law.

One witness reportedly saw three police "beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya." The Saudi Gazette quoted witnesses saying the mutaween—or Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice—stopped men who tried to help the girls, warning "it is sinful to approach them." The father of one of the 15 girls claimed the school watchman even refused to open the gates to let the girls out. "Lives could have been saved had they not been stopped by members of the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice," the newspaper concluded.

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