Saudi Forum Journalist: Mixing of Sexes in Hotel Lobby “Shameful”
By: Mariam Abdullah
Published Wednesday, January 4, 2012
A fierce online argument among participants at the Second Forum of Saudi Intellectuals was triggered by, of all things, a tweet.
Al-Watan newspaper journalist Saleh al-Shehi took to the famous social media site Twitter to vent his frustration and anger at the “shameful” mingling between male and female participants at the conference in the Marriott hotel lobby, claiming that such behavior “derides Saudi tradition and culture.”
The forum was held for intellectuals to discuss strategies for supporting art projects and individual cultural initiatives as well as to come up with practical plans for promoting Saudi national culture.
However, Shehi’s remark launched an all out cyberspace war via Twitter.
Abdo Khal, a Saudi novelist, was the first to reply to Shehi, addressing the journalist directly when he wrote: “Brother Saleh, is it religiously moral for you to defame people? Fear God, man. Your comment is way off limits, apologize now or you will find yourself facing libel and defamation charges.”
For his part, the Minister of Culture and Information Abdel Aziz Khoja pointed out that “destructive criticism is shameful and unproductive.”
Clips and photographs were broadcast on television and published online showing the intellectuals mingling in the hotel lobby.
Finally the argument turned into an ideological conflict between representatives of two currents in Saudi culture: liberals who criticized and attacked Shehi for his comments and conservative Salafists, who backed and supported Shehi.
The well-known Saudi critic Abdullah al-Ghathami claimed that Shehi’s comments “damage individuals’ reputations and have no intellectual dimension.”
Meanwhile, cleric Mohammad Arifi, who is affiliated with the Salafists, defended Shehi.
In a phone interview, one of the conference participants poked fun at the mentality of the Salafists who participated in the “Marriott Hotel battle,” by quoting from Najib Mahfouz’s novel, The Devil Preaches.
The Forum was one of the largest gatherings of its kind in the kingdom, bringing together about one thousand intellectuals to discuss various issues concerning Saudi national culture.
The lines of the debate were clearly divided in a country where extremists are eager to criticize and attack but shy away from serious discussions of local problems and issues.
Ironically, such strict and conservative traditions, like the mixing of the sexes, were debated on the world’s foremost modern social media site.
As this incident shows, tension between tradition and modernism continues to shape Saudi culture and life, even in 2012.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.