The clock is ticking, the public is engaged, and the goal is worthy of the upcoming charitable season of Ramadan: Raise roughly $1.3 million to save the life of a young man in Mecca.
If the money is not found, he is scheduled to be beheaded.
"This is the talk of the town," local journalist Saad Metrafi said of the unusual drive underway to raise the 5 million Saudi rials in blood money being demanded by the family of a man who was killed during a traditional dance ceremony.
The convicted killer has been sentenced to death. Under Saudi Arabia's version of Islamic law, the penalty must be carried out before the start of the Muslim fasting month, Ramadan, which is to begin Wednesday evening. But the life of a convicted murderer can be spared if the family of the victim offers forgiveness--an act Muslims believe carries a high spiritual reward--or if the accused pays a specified amount.
Although the names of the individuals and families involved have not been released, the large amount of fidia asked by the family of the dead man to spare the life of the killer has sparked local media interest, spearheaded by the al-Madinah newspaper. A steady flow of donations, a few rials at a time, has been rolling in to the newspaper.
"This is a small amount of money that I wanted to give to save the young Saudi boy from execution," wrote one 11-year-old girl who donated 75 rials, about $20, to the campaign, according to the local English-language Arab News.
The combination of ancient, eye-for-an-eye justice with a media-inspired fund-raising campaign captures the competing forces in modern Saudi Arabia, a country that remains tribal and traditionalist at its core but also is increasingly open to outside influence, travel and education.
For example, public entertainment is prohibited, but the local music stores carry the Western hits, including Tupac Shakur (liner text and lyrics edited, of course) and the new album by Mariah Carey, featuring a photo of her in a cutoff shirt.
Women must dress in modest robes and head scarves, and open displays of any religion other than Islam is prohibited. But satellite television channels beaming into Saudi homes show Santa dancing with festive Christmas candy . Even Arab-owned and operated stations promise the "best in Western entertainment"--and all the sex and violence that implies.
But in this murder case, the facts alone were enough to stoke interest. The dance involved, the mizmar, was once a sort of stylized battle in which opposing participants clashed sticks, then administered a beating to anyone who happened to drop his. The original, aggressive form of the dance is now prohibited, but in this case it appears to have been practiced nonetheless: The victim died from a blow to the head, said Metrafi, who has been following the case for the Arab News.
Add to the sensational story the unusually high amount of money demanded, and the case becomes a major public cause.
Financial levies can be set in cases of murder as well as other crimes, but they traditionally represent a very personal squaring of accounts between families or tribes and are not a matter of broad public involvement. One can imagine the complexities if wealthy expatriates, human rights groups or others from the outside began contributing money simply to undermine capital punishment.
In this case, the sum is so large by the usual standard, it has the ring to Saudis that a billion-dollar court verdict might have in the United States, and has left people wondering what might happen if something short of the full 5 million rials is offered. As of Friday, about two-thirds of the money had been raised.
"It is the first time a family has asked for this much money, and the execution has to take place before Ramadan," Metrafi said. "It is a case of saving a human being's life. . . . That has made people interested in donating. Small children, retired people, they are sending as much as they can."