RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi artist Maher al-Luqman is always nervous when he goes on stage to eat glass and fire or to walk on nails, for fear the country’s religious police will disrupt his show.
The leader of a troupe of 12 strongmen, Luqman struggles for acceptance in a country whose austere version of Sunni Islam means that many forms of entertainment and unusual feats of strength are sometimes seen as sorcery.
“They have stopped us for two years, branding us as sorcerers, and calling for people to fight us and report us,” Luqman, 35, told Reuters.
Bearded religious policemen roam the streets of the Gulf Arab kingdom of 25 million people to enforce gender segregation, search for drugs and alcohol and to stop behavior they consider immoral.
The Saudi government is trying to promote internal tourism but its efforts are complicated by restrictions on singing, dancing and mixing of unrelated men and women enforced by a powerful religious establishment.
Public entertainment like that provided by groups such as Luqman’s Altineen — which means “dragon” in Arabic — is rare. Every summer the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities organizes public festivals in cities in the kingdom.
Last year, concerts and some circus shows were banned due to what the religious police described as contradiction to Islam.
Conservative clerics and religious police, backed by powerful members of the Saudi royal family, resist some activities that they believe do not comply with the cultural and religious norms of the country.
Jeddah’s annual summer film festival was canceled last year despite the support of local governor Prince Khaled al-Faisal. In Abha in the kingdom’s southwest mountains, some concerts were also banned from a tourism festival.
Luqman’s group had permission to perform last week in a desert town 200 km north of the capital Riyadh but was abruptly stopped from going on stage by an order from the religious police.
“I am fed up. I want to leave. It is so sad to see these talents go to waste,” Luqman said.
He keeps trying to perform because of the loyal fans who flock to his shows.
“I really enjoyed the show. They deserve encouragement,” said Ahlam Abdullah, a woman clad in black after watching how Luqman’s men piled five huge bricks on his stomach and smashed them one by one with a hammer while he was lying still.
“Frankly, this was quite a performance,” agreed Mezher al-Qarni who to came with his daughter to watch the group performing in a park near Riyadh.
Reporting Nael Shyoukhi and Asma Alsharif; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Angus MacSwan