For middle and upper class elite, entertainment in Jidda is overwhelmingly centered around commodities. In particular, the city’s Tahliyya Street is a monument to commercialization in Saudi Arabia: a string of shops and fast food restaurants such as Benetton, Esprit, McDonald’s and Sbarro, mixed in with local entrepreneurial creations, such as Stallion Records and Dujaj al-Tazij.

Jiddah youth use these commoditized spaces for flirting and carrying on covert courtships. Social ritual there is so highly charged that the mere mention of “Tahliyya Street” evokes thoughts of tantalizing encounters, minor adventures and daring evasions of religious and familial authority. More than commoditized zones for consumerism, these sites are where social networks and reputations are forged. In Saudi Arabia, public space has long been an arena for asserting and challenging hegemonic gender, generational and moral hierarchies. In modern Jidda, the increasing commoditization of urban space is transforming power structures and social practices.

Jidda has no bars, clubs or movie theaters. In the 1990s, unmarried men spend their evenings on Tahliyya Street. They may cruise the street in flashy cars or rendezvous in the evening at a coffee shop — perhaps Barney’s, a hip and expensive espresso bar — before eating dinner at Pizza Hut, Sbarro or Fuddrucker’s. They can check out new CDs at Stallion Records, wander the electronics shops and clothing stores in Jidda International Center, browse the posh indoor Audi dealership or look at sports equipment opposite the “Safestway” supermarket. Young women, with somewhat less display, also spend evenings visiting malls and restaurants. Some places go to heroic efforts to make women feel comfortable in public. Restaurants are obliged to provide separate seating areas for women and families. A few women’s clothing boutiques — Donna Karan, Versace — are owned and run exclusively by women, and only women are allowed inside. Most stores, however, serve both a male and female clientele.

Young men in cars often aggressively pursue women or follow them in shopping malls, especially if there is a group of several women together. Some young women go out in groups, at times coyly glancing in the direction of their pursuers and talk extensively among themselves about the men they see at night. Men pass women their cards or telephone numbers, urging them to call. If the women respond, a phone conversation might lead to just a passing flirtation or it might develop into a furtive romance. Often the only place for secret lovers to meet is in public, since unsupervised, private meetings are strictly forbidden, potentially dangerous and difficult to coordinate.

The risks of such liaisons go beyond parents and relatives discovering an illicit relationship. Historically, different groups in Saudi Arabia have competed for the right to define appropriate social behavior in public spaces. Young unmarried men attempt to claim social spaces such as Tahliyya Street as their own, less in conflict with each other than with the mutawwa‘in. These religious authorities, sanctioned and funded by the state but operated by semi-independent religious organizations, also patrol Tahliyya Street to enjoin morally upright behavior in public. While conducting such flirtatious encounters, Jidda youth are constantly on the lookout for the characteristic dress and cars of these religious authorities who would, at the very least, berate them for inappropriate behavior and might even register charges against them for breaking Islamic codes of conduct.

Unmarried men often boast that they can deflect the mutawwa‘in through judicious displays of conciliation or political clout. One young man told me that if stopped by a mutawwa‘ he would speak respectfully in a Bedouin accent and politely agree with the man’s admonitions, thus appeasing his anger. Another said he would drop the name of his uncle, a powerful political figure, if stopped and hassled. Unmarried, unchaperoned women are less confident and often express real fear of being caught, taken to the police station and shamed in front of their parents. Many young women draw their tarha over their faces if a mutawwa‘: is spotted, just to avoid trouble, whether or not they are “misbehaving.” The disciplinary gaze of the mutawwa‘in is simultaneously restrictive (especially for young women) and productive, lending a thrill to the ensuing games of evasion, resistance and appeasement.

Commercial establishments jockey for customers through strategies of commodity display and, more importantly, through the organization of space that facilitates interaction between men and women. In the case of al-Basatin Shopping Center, commercial success has depended not simply on clever marketing strategies or on commodity display but also on how it is spatially arranged to facilitate covert social interaction while carefully avoiding a reputation for being a site for immoral behavior. It is difficult to maintain this fine line. Men’s and women’s clothing stores are evenly distributed throughout the mall, along with shops for both men and women, so that there is no one section of the mall restricted either to men or women. An ice cream shop has no seating facility, so that men and women may eat their ice cream standing in close proximity to one another. Staggered levels of shops, glass railings and partitions allow gazes to wander freely. Men often stand on the upper level and watch women walking below, who are themselves aware of the men watching. A combination of expensive boutiques with a high turnover of merchandise and less expensive gift and candy shops means that young women and men always have something new at which to look and something affordable to purchase.

At the same time, the obvious opulence of the stores filters out the lower classes and most expatriates. Al-Basatin Center is, in short, the hip hangout on Tahliyya Street and has a notorious reputation for flirtatious encounters. Yet, by marking off a private space within the mall for women at prayer times, the mall avoids being attacked by religious authorities as an immoral place.

These commoditized spaces provide opportunities for young people to resist in small ways the older generation’s hegemonic control over courtship. Men and woman can meet in a public place, an opportunity which 30 years ago would have been almost unthinkable. This enables many young people to avoid arranged marriages by giving them opportunities to seek out their own partners and carry on covert relationships.

Abu Lughod, [1] however, cautions against celebrating commodity consumption as an act of resistance. In Saudi Arabia, the divisive class and ethnic dimensions of this consumer culture are profound. Moreover, when youth challenge hegemonic norms of behavior, they also risk losing the protection of more “traditional” approaches to male-female relationships.

Several young women with whom I spoke had met boyfriends and even fiances in public places. They saw this as one way to find a partner outside of family — and friend-based social networks. Others, however, saw this as too risky. If a potential partner is not bound to the woman’s family by ties of kinship or long-term friendship, there is less assurance that his behavior as a spouse will be monitored and regulated by the extended family and vice versa. When disputes arise between a couple, resolutions are often found through the mediation of relatives or friends who are respected by both parties.

Using a commodity-mediated space to evade or resist the control of the state, religious and familial authorities, upper- and middle-class urban youth thus expand their social networks from groups primarily determined by kin contacts and school friends to those centered around a class-based consumerism. In the act of creating a youth culture which subverts dominant gender, generational and moral norms, the elite youth in Jidda affirm their loyalty to a culture of commodity consumption, where entrepreneurs sell not just products but an image, an atmosphere and a site where social dramas can be enacted. While the promise of new social worlds is sufficiently tantalizing for many to take the concomitant risks, others may be more reluctant to do so either because of personal religious beliefs or the possibility of endangering their honor or future marital prospects. Regardless, if the nightlife of Tahliyya Street is any indication, the expansion of commodity culture in Saudi Arabia is having a fundamentally transformative effect on the social interactions of the urban youth of Jidda.

Author’s Note Thanks to Mohammed Ashour, Omnia El- Shakry, Bob Vitalis and an anonymous reviewer for their editorial comments. The observations and opinions expressed are of course my own. The ethnographic data on which I base my observations derives from a series of formal interviews in the summer of 1994 with 30 Saudi women of varying ages concerning gender ideologies and changing norms about interaction between men and women, as well as more informal interviews and participant-observation with young, unmarried women and two men regarding youth culture and practices of commodity consumption on Tahliyya Street in the summers of 1994 and 1995). Final follow-up inquiries were made in 1996 and 1997. The phenomenon I address here, probably specific to this decade alone, could go in any number of unforeseeable directions in the future, depending on both the economic and political climate in Saudi Arabia.


[1] Lila Abu-Lughod, “The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power Among Bedouin Women,” American Ethnologist 17 (1990).

How to cite this article:

Lisa Wynn "The Romance of Tahliyya Street," Middle East Report 204 (Fall 1997).

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