(As the world rushes to Riyadh to attend the funeral of the late King Abdullah, I find myself reminiscing about being there the last time a Saudi king died. Oddly enough, I ended up at one of the best parties I've ever attended...)
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia -- It's 4:45 a.m., and Faisal is trying to encourage a little romance among his guests. Slipping through the crowd of partygoers assembled in his living room, he reaches the CD player and puts on a slow, sensual track.
Two young men respond to the change by moving to the centre of the makeshift dance floor in Faisal's ornately decorated living room. One, a thin twenty-something in tight blue jeans, grabs a purple head scarf and wraps it flirtatiously around his waist before thrusting his hips at his partner in an imitation of a female Egyptian belly dancer.
His gender-bending turn wins whistles and laughter from the other partygoers, who are packed tight onto the plush couches that surround the dancers. A pair of thickly rolled hashish cigarettes travel through the gathering.
"Bet you never thought Jeddah had a queen scene," laughs Ra'ed, a colleague who invited me to this most unlikely of Arabian nights intent on demonstrating that there is more to his country than oil, al-Qaeda and repressed women.
The party isn't strictly gay, either. The thing that shocks me most as I enter the room is the presence of young women with cascading black hair and blue jeans instead of the headscarves and abayas demanded by the country's ruling clique. They're the first bare-headed women I've seen in nearly a week in Saudi Arabia, and two respond to my surprised look by casually sliding over to make room on the couch. "Welcome to Saudi Arabia," smiles Samar, a professional in her 30s, wearing a tight white dress. "Is this what you expected?"
No, it certainly isn't. This is a side of the country rarely glimpsed by outsiders: bored, Westernized young people who live in this strictly religious society and who, desperate for entertainment, break stereotypes, taboos and the law almost every weekend at such gatherings. Like Ra'ed and Samar, most at the party are young professionals who went to colleges and universities in the United States and Britain and find it hard to adjust to the same old repression that they grew up with now that they're back home.
Cans of Pepsi, 7-Up and Red Bull energy drink mingle with dripping candles on a glass table in the centre of the smoke-filled room, which is dominated by a mirrored pole that looks as though it were borrowed from a Las Vegas strip club. There's no alcohol on this Thursday night, but much moaning at the currently exorbitant black-market price of whisky. A 750-millilitre bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label is running at upwards of $200 (U.S.) this week.
The party is campy, fun and would be unremarkable on any university campus in the West. But because of its location -- Faisal's two-storey home in an upper-class neighbourhood of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's second-largest city -- this is a party with a definite edge to it. There are innumerable things going on around me that could draw the attention and ire of the muttawa, the feared religious police.
As I've been warned countless times since arriving in the kingdom, the penalty for being in the same place as narcotics is death. Homosexuality and the mingling of unrelated men and women are also treated as serious crimes and affronts to Islam. In recent months, the muttawa have rounded up hundreds of suspected gay people; most have received jail terms ranging from six months to two years, as well as 200 to 2,000 lashes with a rattan cane. Women caught in the company of men who are not their immediate relatives are often treated as prostitutes and receive jail terms and lashes as well.
I seem to be the only one concerned about such matters, perhaps because I'd been to visit the place in Jeddah where the weekly beheadings are, a place known locally as "chop-chop square." Among the more minor offences being committed by the partiers is having the music up so loud that the muezzin's call to go to mandatory Friday morning prayers goes unheard in the din.
"Don't worry," laughs Mohammed, a 17-year-old student, pausing between long drags of hashish. "In Saudi Arabia, a man is king of his own home. They can't come in here."
Though I'm sure the muttawa can and do raid private homes, I'm comforted to learn that many at the party are sons and daughters of the Saudi elite, and therefore considered close to untouchable by the police. Ra'ed tells me he's been at secret parties where some of the younger princes from the ruling House of Saud have been in attendance. (Despite this, I was allowed to attend and write about the party only on condition that no one there would be named. None of the names above are real.)
"Life in Saudi is like a prison, so we need to escape," Mohammed tells me. "Sometimes we have a party in a house like this, sometimes we go to a private beach and there are even women in bikinis."
In a country where an estimated 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 18, analysts say the disaffection that many young people feel is a challenge that King Abdullah will have to move fast to head off if the government wants to keep them and their talents.
In the country that spawned Osama bin Laden, the biggest concern has long been that poor education and high youth unemployment outside the urban centres are creating a pool of bored young people that are easy recruits for groups such as al-Qaeda. But at Faisal's party, the obvious contempt for the country's laws poses other, less violent, dangers to Saudi Arabia's future.
"The young people are going in one of two directions: extremely into religion, or extremely away from it," according to Sami Angawi, an architect and historian from nearby Mecca. He says that while he opposes wholesale Westernization of Saudi culture, the country needs to find a less repressive balance between its Islamic roots and modernity that allows young people to experience both.
"It's not just that we're making criminals out of our young people, it's creating a feeling that if I can't do this here, I'll go outside Saudi Arabia and do it elsewhere. We'll lose all of our new energy this way."
A few kilometres north of Jeddah, in the walled courtyard of another private home on the same night as Faisal's gathering, another party is also well under way. It's a semi-public concert given by a quintet of young Saudis who form Panjiah, the country's first heavy-metal band. There are no women or alcohol here, but the crowd is nonetheless in a rebelliously un-Saudi mood.
As 24-year-old lead guitarist Khaled Abdulmannan thrums the first bars from the band's Metallica- and Megadeath-influenced nine-song catalogue, the nearly 50 people in the courtyard begin to bang heads and jump about. It's a made-for-MTV scene being played out by young Saudis who were supposed to have been studying the Koran, not the wildest in Western music.
Saudi society is governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law, and the religious establishment has banned many websites and books that are either critical of the regime or that are seen as promoting Western culture. The national television channels play recordings of sung Koranic verses for hours at a time, though most affluent Saudis can now bypass those controls through satellite television and even satellite Internet connections.
Other efforts to force youth to follow the strict Wahhabi school of Islam are also being defeated by technology. Sit in a Jeddah restaurant or even a traffic jam with a modern mobile phone and you're likely to receive wireless invitations to swap photographs from others within range. If two people like what they see of each other in the high-tech exchange, they often plot to meet at a restaurant and feign being married so that they can sit together in the "family" sections of the country's gender-segregated public establishments. One of the unintended side effects of the gender-segregation policies imposed by the Wahhabis is that it's far easier for Saudi gay people to meet and date than it is for heterosexuals.
Like the youths at Faisal's place, the members of the band Panjiah speak English as well as they do Arabic, and two members lived in the United States. In a story shared by many of the country's disaffected youth, drummer Yazeed Nazer said he returned to Saudi Arabia in the face of heightened discrimination following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Fifteen of the 19 suicide plane hijackers that day were Saudi nationals.
"I felt the mood change," the 27-year-old said. The band sings in English and many of its lyrics are about the need to overcome discrimination and hate. The name Panjiah is a riff on "Pangaea," the single land mass that existed before the world broke up into continents.
Though hesitant to openly attack the country's system of government -- one of the band members is related to a minister in King Abdullah's cabinet -- they're clearly frustrated by the lack of opportunities for musicians to promote themselves in Saudi Arabia.
Back at Faisal's, it's well past dawn when the party breaks up. Samar and another woman who stayed late leave before their male friends, slipping wordlessly into headscarves and abayas before they head out into the street.
Afterwards, Ra'ed and I chat about the evening, and the risks people are forced to take just to have an evening of fun. I confess to him that I was most surprised by the presence of drugs at the party, given the Draconian punishments on the books.
"I never took drugs before I came back to Saudi," he says. "But there's just nothing else to do here. We're just so bored.
"I think things are going to start opening up a bit more with King Abdullah," he adds, scrambling to inject a positive note. "At least, I really hope so, because I'm getting really tired of living here."
This article was initially published in The Globe and Mail on Aug. 8, 2005, one week after the death of King Fahd, and the ascension of King Abdullah.