Had we responded in any other way, we might have avoided the relatively low-speed but high-stress police chase through Al-Akaria shopping centre in downtown Riyadh. 

Or, more accurately, the religious police chase.

My friend Reem,* who like me was half-Saudi and half-something-else, was there, as was one more friend whom I now can’t remember. And the monologue that launched the shopping centre chase went something like this.

“Stop!” A shout bounced along a wide corridor. “Woman! Stop!” Repeated over and over was this command, staccato against the hard floors and walls of the mostly empty mall.

We turned to face the cries behind us. Two short men, both wearing thobes that stopped at their ankles and beards that fell to their bellies, bulbous beneath the white robes, walked briskly toward us. Their headdresses lacked the typical black ‘igal, the thick, black cord that would normally snake its way around a man’s headdress to hold the red and white checked shemagh in place. The ridiculous outfit, coupled with the oily, overly long facial hair and, of course, the entitled shouting, could mean only one thing. Religious police, I thought, as my heart raced with a blend of rage and fear.

Jabbing at the air with his index finger toward the floor near our feet, one of them decided to add a few new words to his repertoire of squawks, “I can see your trousers underneath your abaya!”

It was true. Beneath our black capes, we all wore baggy jeans, en (unfortunate) vogue at the time, and Nikes. The bottoms of our jeans were visible below the abaya line, which stopped somewhere around our ankles.

“You should not be wearing trousers!” he continued with his arm now frozen in a point. “Trousers are for men!”

Reem and our friend and I made brief eye contact and, for reasons that must have made simultaneous sense to three teenage girls, we bolted.

“Run, run, run!” one of us shouted. So suddenly did the moment arrive and with such a surge of adrenaline that it might even have been me. Mid-stride, I gripped the thin black cloth of the abaya that covered my body and lifted it up to free my betrousered legs to move faster. And as it was a religious, rather than a normal, police chase, instead of officers in trousers and shirts, dressed for the task of chasing teenagers, the mutawwa wore thobes that billowed and bunched like curtains with every step behind us.

“This way!” Reem, who had slotted into the role of ringleader, shouted as we approached two escalators. One, moving up, was clogged with several families. The other, moving down, was empty. “We have to go up that one!” She pointed to the one whose steps looped lazily downward.

It was the first and last time I would ever run up an escalator moving in the opposite direction, and we somehow managed to make it to the top where, only a few glass storefronts down, we found our salvation.

An abaya shop.

“In there!” Reem yelled. Breathless, we clambered into the shop and made for a corner where two racks met. A confused shop assistant had no time to protest before we hid among the coat-hangers dressed just like us.

The momentary camouflage worked. The two men ran past the shop further into the bowels of the mall.

And when we finally emerged from the colourless racks, we laughed so hard we cried.

Reem’s name was changed to protect the identity of one of my oldest, dearest friends with whom I am lucky to still share a deep friendship and many memories like this one. We survived quite a few other encounters with religious police that did not end quite so well.

Image: JulyYu, “Run” (License)

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