Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Saudi Coffee Shop Scene

Young people are protesting Islamism in Iran. The authorities are shooting them, jailing them, beating them and torturing them. The American Democratic Party, from its stronghold in the House of Representatives, has chosen not to allow a vote expressing solidarity with the protesters. 

Democrats are up in arms against President Trump for killing a leading terrorist, Qassim Suleimani. People are certainly right to ask which side the Democrats are on. At the least we know that today’s brain dead Democrats are simply opposed to anything Donald Trump does. It beats thinking, don’t you think?

Anyway, across the Persian Gulf, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is undergoing a cultural transformation of its own. I have reported on it from time to time. Americans who support Iran are generally hostile toward Saudi Arabia, but the truth is, the country’s crown prince is delivering on his promise to reform the country, to modernize its culture and to open it to the outside world.

Fair enough, it is happening at deliberate speed, not at breakneck speed. You did not think that a nation could transform itself over night, did you?

Vivian Yee reports on the coffee shop scene in Saudi Arabia. She sees many signs of progress with a few signs of backsliding. Or better, a few signs that some people are having trouble adjusting.

For insight into these head-spinning times in Saudi Arabia, where the ultraconservative social and religious codes that micromanage daily life seem to spring a new leak every month — women driving! movie theaters! Usher and Akon rapping to sold-out crowds! — it sometimes pays to read the Google Maps reviews of specialty coffee shops.

“I visited this place and was in a total shock!” Tarak Alhamood, a customer at Nabt Fenjan, a Riyadh coffee shop, raged online recently. “YOU r VIOLATING the rules of this country. I hope this place get closed permanently.”

In early December, however, the government announced that businesses would no longer be required to segregate customers — the latest expansion of the social reforms initiated by the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Yet Nabt Fenjan was far from the only Saudi establishment to discreetly drop separate sections over the last few years, after the crown prince defanged the religious police, which once enforced conservative social norms. Nor was it the only place to thrive partly as a result.

“I think the reason coffee shops became a trend is because people are more open to change,” said Shaden Alkhalifah, 30, who was studying at Draft Café in Riyadh on a recent evening.

“It has something to do with the current political dialogue,” she added. (And, perhaps, with the many Saudis who have studied abroad in cities with single-origin coffee bean fetishes.)

Here is another scene:

Some women whose families might previously have allowed them to work only in the privacy of offices, if at all, now hold barista jobs. Saudis can now mingle with the opposite sex not only at home but also at movie theaters, concerts and even wrestling matches. Young entrepreneurs are opening places where Saudis can meet like-minded people of both sexes, whether they are artists, filmmakers or entrepreneurs.

In Iran, women who remove their headscarves are prone to be beaten. A lawyer who challenged the headscarf ban was sentenced to nearly forty years in jail. Such is not the case in Saudi Arabia:

On a recent Friday night at Medd Café, the outdoor patio was crowded with young men and women. Many of the women wore their hair uncovered and their abayas open over jeans and sneakers, styling them more like long, fluid jackets than the traditional all-covering gowns.

And also:

But she was after a larger, more inclusive vision — not only women working alongside men, but also women who wear the niqab, the veil that exposes only the eyes, working alongside women with bare heads.

The changes have unfurled so swiftly that, four months in, she was still not sure whether regulations forbade her from employing female baristas alongside male ones. A municipal health inspector had visited the cafe after a customer complained about the situation, but left them alone.

It is a step in the right direction. Most people are sanguine about the prospects. But most people know that progress can easily be reversed:

“I feel lucky to be part of this generation,” she said. “Even five years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible.”

It can still go the other way. Tala Alzaid, 19, a Kanakah barista, used to work with an all-female crew at another coffee shop (“the whole woman-stays-at-home thing is so last year,” she said), but the women were summarily fired in August after a customer complained to the government.


Sam L. said...

Sounds like the religeous police will be losing their power.

UbuMaccabee said...

As this leaks out, the media and the Democrats will have to find a way to oppose it because Trump. Oh, I know “Khashoggi!”

Greats news from Iran and Saudi Arabia. MAGA!

Ron Liebermann said...

I'm glad that Saudi Arabia is modernizing, but it's still a totalitarian government. We have to be careful not to let them off the hook. They need real elections, with a real choice of candidates. But then again, so do we.

Becky Lawrance said...

thanks for suggestion