x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Christmas tree grows in Jeddah: the first green shoots of tolerance?

Everywhere you look there are signs of change in Saudi Arabia, if you are willing to look beyond the obvious.

With the festive season here, whether it be Eid or Christmas or any other religious celebration, there is always that air of possibility, positivity and, well, dare I say it, miracles? As my family and I were driving along one of Jeddah's main roads listening to classical music (our favourite family pastime), my father interrupted the trance and said to me: "Rym, look to your left."

And there, in the midst of rows and rows of palm trees lining the street, stood one lonely two-metre high Christmas tree. I couldn't believe it. My father drove as close to it as possible, but couldn't stop as it was a fast busy road. "What do you think, should we call in the morality police and score some brownie points?" he joked. My mother, who is Christian, celebrates Christmas in Saudi Arabia by setting up a massive plastic Christmas tree decorated with ornaments she has bought abroad, or found here and there in odd shops in Jeddah. Only two or three malls, if you know where to look, carry Christmas-related items. It is not openly celebrated in Saudi, where malls don't play Christmas music (and sometimes no music at all), and public places don't have any of those green, red and white decorations up. It is celebrated privately in people's homes, and inside housing compounds. So for my mother it was a delightful surprise to see a live Christmas tree right there, outside the car window. "It is a miracle!" she said with a smile.

A few days later we passed by again, and this time the tree had a single white shiny Christmas ball decoration dangling from one of its lower branches. I guess we hadn't been the only ones who noticed this odd tree in the middle of nowhere. I am no tree expert, for all I know it is some arboreal desert variant that just looks like a Christmas tree. When I told one of my Saudi friends about the tree, and where I saw it, she remembered it. "Oh yes, it is quite unique, and I saw some lovely white flowers growing on it earlier this year," she said.

All I know is that my mother spread the news, and soon that tree became a central discussion topic at more than one dinner, and prompted more serious discussions of religions and their place in Saudi Arabia. In one gathering with young Muslims of different nationalities, including Saudis, they brought up the recent historic move by King Abdullah to bridge the gap between Islam and other religions by leading an interfaith dialogue, which was praised and hailed by all as one of the best examples out there for Muslim countries.

"There are talks of building churches here, can you believe it?" said one of the Saudi girls. "I think some of the people will object at first, but once they see how it unites people, they will embrace it," she said, referring to some of her family members who are more conservative than she is. "Change is slowly coming here," she added. It is coming to certain parts of Saudi, anyway. And there are examples of change everywhere, if you look beyond the obvious. When I arrived at Jeddah's international airport on my way to Mecca for Haj, I had some Christmas decorations for my mother in the suitcase. Three of them were big window decorations of snowmen, stars and Christmas trees that light up when you plug them in. After placing my bags in the scanner on the way out, the security guard asked what I had in my bags. I listed for him all the electronics, but I skipped the decorations.

The officer smiled and said OK, and let me through. In the past, the customs people used to be very strict and open each and every bag and dig into them, and many things that you didn't think were not allowed into the kingdom would be confiscated. Video and DVDs or even magazines would be browsed through and returned, but other things, such as crosses and Virgin Mary pictures, had to be smuggled in.

Now, that has changed. I felt things had eased up: there is more awareness, more acceptance. There are clear signs everywhere indicating which things are not allowed in, such as drugs and alcohol. You are also reminded of these restrictions before you travel to Saudi and are asked to respect them or face punishment. Each country has its own rules, and they should be respected. So will we see Christmas and other religious holidays openly being celebrated in Saudi Arabia? Why not? A lot has changed over the years, and the push for change is coming from within Saudi, which I believe is more lasting and telling.

Until then, I know a couple of people will be sneaking Christmas decorations on to that lonely Christmas tree in Jeddah in celebration of its unexpected arrival in Saudi. rghazal@thenational.ae