Friday, February 13, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day in the Islamic world brings out the religious police.

Associated Press files this:
As Feb. 14 approaches, the police begin inspecting gift shops for items that are red or are intended as gifts to mark the holiday — a celebration of St. Valentine, a 3rd century Christian martyr — which is banned in Saudi Arabia. Such items are legal at other times of the year, but as Valentine's Day nears they become contraband.

At best, shops caught selling Valentine's gifts are ordered to get rid of them. Some salesmen have been detained for days.

The Valentine's Day prohibition is in line with the ascetic Wahhabi school of Islam that the kingdom follows. Marking Christian holidays is banned in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and a country where non-Muslims are banned from openly practicing their religion.

Celebrating any holidays but the two most important for Muslims — Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr — is taboo . . .

"My colleague spent a night in jail last year because of the color red," said one salesman, who insisted on anonymity, fearing his colleague's fate.

It is a challenge for courting Saudi couples to be together at any time of the year because of strict gender segregation. Unmarried men and women cannot take a drive together, have a meal or even talk on the street unless they are close relatives. Dating consists of long phone conversations and the rare tryst. Infractions are punished by detention.
Now in John's Gospel there is the famous story of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. It's a serious story, a story of the Good Shepherd reaching out to save a lost sheep. But, is it just me, or can one detect in this sometimes playful repartee something suspiciously like flirting?

I'm susceptible to this sort of speculation inasmuch as I fear that flirting — like so many other aspects of the man-woman relationship — has been damaged by the decline of the sexual morality that is its underlying secret. I may well be too old and sad for more advanced expressions of the attraction between men and women, but the inverse of that sad possibility is that I'm all the more easily and readily charmed by genuine femininity, of which our world is in far too short a supply.

My blessed mother, God rest her, lost her husband (my father) when she was 30 years old. She never took off her wedding ring, and she died at age 86, living alone most of her life. She was, however, a consummate flirt. There was never any hint that her flirting was preliminary to anything else, and she was the soul of Catholic moral rectitude. But she was a flirt.

My wife Liz, God rest her, was the most modest woman I've ever known, but flirting was a regular source of levity and tenderness in our relationship, strictly limited though it was (I'm happy to say) to our private moments together.

So flirting is not something that should be restricted to the courting stage. (Does anyone remember courting? A quaint ritual the natives once practiced.) Except for that between spouses themselves, however, to be morally proper and in good taste, flirting should be limited to the unmarried. It's a token of my mother's genius for the art, however, that she would occasionally flirt with married men, but only in the presence of their wives and only in order to have a good laugh, for which she also had a renowned gift.

I can't claim either to have my mother's natural gift for flirting or to have achieved any great competence, but I do think it's underrated and misunderstood by both the moralizers and the meretricious.

In this month's Emmaus Road Initiative sessions, I have been talking about Euripides' The Bacchae. Donald Sutherland is one of the translators of the play, and in his commentary he says that "the everyday pleasures, if you are lucky enough to have them every day, are the best.”

Flirting is not, alas, an everyday pleasure, but it seems to me to be a kind of natural grace, one of the unofficial gifts of the Holy Spirit. For like the Spirit, it is elusive and unpredictable and a reminder that the nuptial mystery is the human analogue of the Trinitarian mystery. As my sainted mother beautifully demonstrated, and as I have experienced now and again, one is never too old or too sad to enjoy it. If I'm not mistaken, Jesus didn't pass up the occasional opportunity. He was, after all, like us in all things but sin.


Kevin said...

Thank you for so graciously and expertly expressing an understanding of flirting which I have known in my life but have never had the words to express properly.
I am a consumate flirt and have many friends who also enjoy the rapartee. Indeed most of them are married, decidedly so, and the give and take is simply a fun way to express being human and very much alive.
As for the strictures in Arabia, I wonder at times if the best thing we could do is simply bring out of that benighted realm all of the women. If the men want to live that way, knock yourselves out.
I'm being rhetorical in this, but in all seriousness it would seem the least we could do is have an asylum policy which states if a woman from Saudi Arabi, Afghanistan, Iran or other such places applies for asylum they get it.
I should probably include India in this as well. I heard a strict Hindu sect wants no one expressing affection in public in the Indian cities.
The good news is the authorities, especially the police are pushing back against this.

Let me close though by saying thank you again for discussing such a wonderful subject near to my heart in a gracious and eloquent manner.
Take care Gil.

Mark Gordon said...

What a wonderful little meditation, Gil. Like so much in our culture, the art of flirting - as practiced both publicly and privately - has been undermined by the loss of a sense of mystery. The same might be said for modest clothing, by which I don't mean the shapeless sacks worn by the ostentatiously devout, but clothing that by its cut and flow accentuated the complementary mysteries of femininity and masculinity. Maybe it's a sign of my own advancing age (I turn 50 this year) but one could imagine flirting with, say, Audrey Hepburn, adorned primly in Capri pants and a light turtleneck sweater, even if nothing were to come of it. Just the interplay of man and woman, dancing at the edges of mystery, enjoying its life-giving gravitational pull, without succumbing to sin. By contrast, one cannot imagine flirting with today's paragon of impoverished femininity, Paris Hilton. There's no mystery there, just meat, and nothing even remotely alluring.