Beliefnet
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) - The question - ``Do you sell Valentine Day's gifts?'' - petrified the salesman. He wordlessly pointed to his colleague and disappeared.

The colleague, apparently more schooled at assessing real buyers from undercover religious police agents, smiled broadly and said: ``Officially, there's no Valentine here; it's banned. But there are a lot of Valentine items you can choose from.''

The prohibition on Valentine's Day is part of carrying out the strict and ascetic school of Islam the kingdom has followed and applied to daily life for 100 years.

Like Valentine's, all Christian and even most Muslim feasts are banned in the kingdom, the birthplace of Islam, because they're considered ``religious innovations'' Islam doesn't sanction.

The feared muttawa, or religious police, ensure that everyone behaves. Sexes are segregated in public: in schools and universities, at cultural festivals, in restaurants and even at fast-food outlets - screens separate the women's takeout lines from the men's.

Dating is taboo, and unmarried couples caught together will be dragged to jail.

But that doesn't mean that Saudis don't find ways to squirm out of the shackles.

Take Valentine's. With a young generation more exposed than their parents to the outside world through travel and satellite television, banning people from observing the lovers' holiday is becoming harder. Half the population is below 18.

The rules, though unwritten, have been mastered by buyers and sellers over the last few years.

Everyone knows that as Feb. 14 gets closer, the chances of finding a Valentine's gift or any red-colored present decrease. It's not because stores cannot meet the demand; it's because that's when the religious police begin looking for anything suggesting the holiday.

To get around this, stores begin selling the gifts weeks in advance.

Gift arrangements include teddy bears with ``Love'' and ``Me'' respectively traced on each paw, clocks and frames decorated with hearts, huge ``beating'' hearts fitted with blinking lights and baskets of plastic red fruits: apples, strawberries and grapes. Most come with torrid messages of love expressed in poetry.

In most cases, the gifts are not presented on Valentine's Day. A woman may not get permission from her parents to go out that night. Stores call up the recipients in early February and ask them to pick up their presents as soon as possible. They don't want to be saddled with the incriminating items when the muttawa begin making the rounds.

As Feb. 14 gets closer, the flush of red slowly fades. Every heart, every rose and every item that's red or that suggests love and romance descends underground, to the black market, where its price triples and quadruples.

Entrepreneurs who take the risk of maintaining a red hue in their stores could end up spending days in jail.

In schools, students are sternly warned against marking the day or even wearing an item of clothing that's red, including ribbons or socks. Restaurants receive leaflets from the muttawa, ordering them not to light red-colored candles or decorate the tables with red roses, dim the lights or play any kind of music. Music is banned in public places.

This Valentine's season, the muttawa have been giving restaurants a gift - CDs with a recording of the sound of running water. One restaurant manager said the police told him the CD is meant to calm the nerves of the diners and protect the management from the temptation of playing music.

But it didn't turn out to be so soothing, he said. ``The diners kept saying: 'Turn off the taps. Why are you wasting water?'''

Flower shops are ordered not to carry red flowers of any kind - some have had their supply destroyed for disobeying.

In a column for last Valentine's Day, Dawood al Shirian, regional manager of the Saudi-owned, London-based Al Hayat daily newspaper, noted that the problem can't be solved by eliminating red socks and ribbons. After all, he wrote from Riyadh, some Saudis eat egg sandwiches with ketchup and pepper sauce, not to mention traffic lights, stop signs, and the emblem of the Saudi Red Crescent Society.

Saudi authorities don't have the right to ``deprive people of the color red that Allah has sanctioned, or prevent them from riding their red cars, wearing their red-checkered headdresses, eating delicious watermelons, enjoying the taste of red American apples, smelling red roses,'' he wrote, ``because those things have nothing to do with the redness of hearts and love.''

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