Friday, April 11, 2014

Keeping ourselves occupied

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 11/4/2013
So let me count the ways Saudi families can find entertainment in our beloved country. There’s eating. And then there’s…
OK, let’s not count the ways. I considered my family’s limited options the other day when we decided to go to a mall for a bit of entertainment shopping and entertainment eating. We stumbled upon a bowling alley tucked away in a corner on the bottom floor and decided to give it a try. So my husband and I, and my two nieces and nephew threw gutter balls and hit the occasional pin. I might have scored 35 out of a possible 300, but my day had been made.
There were not many people bowling and there was plenty of lanes open. Behind the alley were billiard tables where a couple of young girls were playing. On the other side in the bachelor’s section there was no bowling but plenty of billiard tables. They had the added bonus of a go-kart track, but Saudi Arabia being what it is, girls were not permitted behind the wheel.
The occasional amusement park in Jeddah and children’s arcade at the mall are off-limits to single guys. Between the restrictions enforced at the bowling alley, arcade and go-kart track there are very few options for entire families to enjoy.
And although I am Saudi and I am supposed to have insider knowledge about the inner workings of Saudi government and policy (at least according to my expat friends), I am completely baffled about the contradictions in our society. We emphasize family unity, but fail to provide venues for family entertainment. When we do find available entertainment, we exclude single guys or women altogether. We wage awareness campaigns to combat obesity and diabetes, yet eating rich food is our primary form of pleasure away from home. Saudis are sinking in credit card debt, but mall shopping is second only to eating as a way to occupy our free time.
At the bowling alley, the family next to us was a religious guy in his short thobe, and what looked to be a couple of black-gloved, black-socked fully covered daughters. He didn’t bowl, but he happily watched the girls have fun. He defied the stereotypes of religious conservatives wishing to inflict misery on the Saudi population by having us sit alone at home 24/7 with only our thoughts to entertain us.
But with any stereotypes, there is a grain of truth in our perception of the so-called experts on religion. When I was a kid in Madinah, families used to go to the desert and rent horses for a day of horseback riding. Those horses, however, disappeared on the pretense they were abused, when in fact it was an exhilarating activity that kept families engaged with one another for hours at a time. But like the recent closing of children’s arcades in Madinah malls, someone thought that too much fun was somehow haram.
These so-called experts define for Saudi society what is acceptable and what is not, conveniently forgetting that the Prophet (peace be upon him) enjoyed playing with children, socializing with other families and enjoying recreation. Didn’t the Prophet (pbuh) compete against Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) in running games and didn’t he encourage sports?
There are plenty of Hadiths that point to the importance of recreation because it helps us regain our vitality and increase our productivity at work. In fact, Islam encourages us to alternate our schedules that include worship, recreation, managing our affairs, having rest and being attentive to our spouse and children.
The dearth of entertainment venues contradicts the fundamental principles of Islam. Our religion encourages us to recharge our batteries to regain that vitality and become more productive at work, which in essence is another form of worship.
Finding no place to go bowling, play billiards or table tennis, or waiting for the day that a cinema opens, is not acceptable in a society that puts a premium on family.

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