Christmas cards are not exactly a staple of Saudi culture; in fact, they skirt the boundary of what's legal. But Mohammed Hamdan and his colleagues at UNICEF have made a go of it nonetheless.
Keep Santa tucked on the bottom of the pack, put floral pictures or wintry scenes on top and, voila: a rare hint of the season in a country where the public expression of any religion other than Islam is prohibited.
"It is a little bit tricky," said Hamdan, greeting card sales manager for the Saudi branch of the U.N. Children's Fund, which sells more than 100,000 Christmas cards each year to Western diplomats, corporate clients and the large number of foreign workers in the health care industry and other fields here. "When we do ads and things on local television, we are just very careful. . . . Don't talk about religion. Don't talk about anything. Just talk about children."
For non-Muslims in the Arab Middle East, practicing their religion and celebrating holidays like Christmas can be a sensitive matter.
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam traces its roots to the patriarch Abraham and recognizes a kinship with those other monotheistic faiths that, at least in theory, requires that their adherents be allowed to practice freely. But what's actually acceptable varies widely from country to country.
Outside the Arabian Peninsula, many Middle Eastern countries have Christian or Jewish populations of long standing, although the size and vibrancy of those groups varies greatly. Egypt has a sizable number of local Coptic and expatriate Christians; in Syria and Iraq, there are small Jewish communities.
In the Persian Gulf region itself there are millions of foreign guest workers who are not "People of the Book." Many hail from India, Bangladesh and elsewhere in Asia, and are Hindus or members of other faiths. There are also large numbers of Catholics from the Philippines.
In Kuwait and the other smaller Gulf countries, the attitude toward these foreigners' religious practices is surprisingly open in some places. Kuwait City has several large churches clustered in the middle of town, not far from the main mosque. In Qatar this fall, Indian expatriate workers held public ceremonies during one of their holy days, and the celebrations were featured in the local newspapers.
None of this can happen in Saudi Arabia.
Home of Mecca and Medina, the cities that gave birth to Islam and hold its holiest shrines, the country follows a puritanical mix of tribal and strict Islamic mores. Its rulers consider themselves key guardians of the faith; the head of state is not simply known as King Fahd, but also as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
So strict is the code that the only public holidays are the two festivals, or eids, sanctioned under Islam: one that follows the month of Ramadan, and the other that follows the annual days of pilgrimage to Mecca. Even the Saudi national day is treated as any other, and there certainly is not--as there is Egypt and Iran, for example--any celebration of ancient holidays that predate Islam.
Churches and temples are outlawed, and diplomats speak of maids or others who have been cited by the motawwa, or religious police, for wearing a cross in public or gathering too many people in a private home for Sunday worship.
None of which is lost on the people at UNICEF.
So far, said Minto Thapa, head of UNICEF's Gulf regional office, the agency has not had any visits from the religious police, partly because the card selection is "global," and partly because the group's marketers make sure that the nature of the business is emphasized--not to celebrate any particular holiday, but to raise money for projects benefiting needy mothers and their children around the world.
"Naturally we try to transcend these things," Thapa said. "As far as we are concerned, it is about children."
CAPTION: Mohammed Hamdan, the manager of greeting card sales for the U.N. Children's Fund in Saudi Arabia, shows off some of this year's selection, which avoids all references to religion.