The War Nerd: Murder on the Orientalist Express

By Gary Brecher , written on December 4, 2014

From The War Desk

A few days ago, a Hungarian-American woman was stabbed to death in Abu Dhabi. The cops are saying they’ve made an arrest in the case now, but for a while, this looked like it was going to be the most exciting murder mystery in the Gulf for generations.

Killing a Western woman is unusual here—well, intentionally killing one. Traffic accidents are another matter.  But it was where she was killed that really scared my fellow expats. The victim, Ibolya Ryan, was stabbed to death in a women’s restroom at an upscale mall called Boutik, on Reem Island, a posh district of Abu Dhabi.

Those malls are biospheres for most of the expats here. We get our weekly field trip to the Kuwait malls, and a lot of people look forward to that excursion all week. If you can’t feel safe at the mall—and in a women’s restroom in the mall—well, those things are sacred in our culture, aren’t they? The mall, and above all, the mall toilet. The ultimate sanctuary—violated.

I’ve written about malls in the Islamic world before—and my point is that mall culture, which is very big here, is where the alien, or if you want, “western” culture pushes hardest against the traditional local rules, putting boys and girls in sight of each other in various scandalous states of undress, forcing whole families out of their walled compounds and into public view, and, worst of all, selling a whole range of stuff that contradicts local culture.

The mall where this American woman was killed is called “Boutik” (not “Bourik” as early stories said), and bills itself as “Italian.” It’s probably not very authentically Italian, since it doesn’t even spell its name the way Italians do, but it’s certainly alien enough to offend any conservative Khaleej. We visited a very similar Italian-themed mall in Dubai called “Mercato” a few weeks ago, and if you go to that mall’s website, you can tick off the offensive ads, one after the other. The main page has a big Christmas banner, “Merry Mercato”.

That would be unimaginable in Saudi Arabia, where Christmas (like Ashura, Orthodox Easter, and Diwali) is not even to be mentioned, let alone celebrated. So, if you’re a conservative Khaleej, you’re slapped in the face before you even go to the mall’s sub-heads. And when you do…well, check out the options. The “Pets” category features a Great Dane—about as haram as it gets—and the lingerie ads, the “Fashion—Accessories” listing with several models showing their bare arms and faces, the “Fashion—Sportswear” showing more women with bare arms and faces, punching karate-style…and maybe worst of all, the category “Arabic Men’s Fashion” reduced to a single category, with a lonely kaffiyeh, as if the local garb had been demoted to a boutique (or “boutik”) taste, a quirk.

So it would make sense that a true jihadi killer might pick a mall as target. But we all refused even to consider the idea that this was a jihad killing. We argued instead that the footage showing the suspect in full conservative Khaleej gear, swathed in black from head to foot: abaya (cloak), hijab (headscarf), niqab (face veil), and gloves, as you can see on this video released by the cops after the murder, meant she was either a relative of the victim’s male lover, or a jealous local lover in disguise.

Most of all, we just watched and re-watched that CCTV footage.

It’s an amazing sequence, equal to the best shark-sequences in Jaws. Even the lo-fi quality of the images seems to add to its effectiveness. In the cops’ edited version, you don’t see the murder itself, but you do see the murderer entering the mall, going up in the elevator, asking a guard for directions (to the nearest women’s room, I assume), and then running out, with scared shoppers scattering and half-heartedly trying to stop her. She brushes them off, presses the button for the elevator, and escapes, even though a guard belatedly tries to hit the buttons to stop her. In the last shot, you see her heading back out into the parking garage, still fluttering all that black cloth, but running now—running kind of fast for the squat, middle-aged matron she’s pretending to be.

I admit, my first thought was that it’s got to be a man in disguise. Yeah, I’ve probably watched way too many cheap cop shows, but that’s what I thought. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had the bright idea of using the full-on Saudi style of women’s wear as an effective disguise. After all, one of the purposes of so much loosely-draped matte-black cloth is to hide the woman’s features and body-shape from lustful male eyes.

You hear a lot of stories about men dressing up in the abaya/hijab/niqab outfit to escape the cops, but most of those stories surface on dumb, Islamophobic sites with no real proof. In 2007, the Imam of the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) supposedly tried to flee dressed in a burqa after Pakistani troops stormed the mosque complex, but that’s the kind of story intelligence agencies love to toss to the press after an operation to make the target look weak—the “Rocky Dies Yellow” tactic applied to CI propaganda.

You hear a lot of other stories about the magical effect of dressing up in this kind of conservative women’s costume.

There were lots of smugglers’ tales in Najran, right up against the very tense, militarized Yemeni border, and many of them involved smugglers dressing up in abaya, hijab, and niqab. According to one favorite border tale, the most famous marijuana smuggler in Najran’s history used to hire a half-dozen male accomplices to dress  up like that—he preferred short guys because they were more convincing in drag—and to sit solemnly in the passenger seats of a big Chevy Suburban before crossing into Saudi with a few bales of weed.

Apparently, the border cops, who were all male, were so horrified at the idea of searching or even questioning women in the full regalia that the smuggler got waved through a dozen times in a row, making a tidy profit, which was presumably handed to his heirs when his final trip ended in search and subsequent beheading.

I don’t know if that story is even true, because one of the lessons I’ve learned in a long, sad life is that no one can be trusted—no, not even drug dealers, I’m sorry to say. But whether true or not, these stories are grounded in the extra respect women get when they dress in the most conservative way available—which is exactly how the Abu Dhabi suspect was dressed.

You’ll see the respect this woman gets in every scene from the CCTV footage. First, she strides into the mall from the parking garage. Now watch again to see how far back from the door the attendant, a South Asian guest worker, stands. The door’s already open, so he can’t open it for her—he would if he could—but he still wants to show respect, so he holds his hand out toward the entrance, standing well back to give her plenty of room, plenty of respect.

She goes up to the floor she wants, gets off, and again strides confidently to a guard, presumably asking him where the women’s toilet is. And again she gets the hunched posture of respect.

Those clothes mean money, but more than money—they mean you’re a local, an actual citizen of the UAE, as opposed to a foreign worker. It’s very rare to see a woman from the Subcontinent wearing that outfit. A few Indonesians, but most of them are forced to wear the nurse-like uniform of female servants, which has the opposite effect—it means you are marked as deserving of no respect whatsoever.

It’s the escape that really shows you how much respect this garb can get you. First you see women and kids running out of the corridor, followed by the suspect. They know she’s done something bad, but no one really tries to stop her. One woman—a local, I think, but dressed in light-colored Western clothes—makes a weak, half-hearted attempt to grab her, then flinches away. Only when she’s gotten on the elevator does one of the guards—who are invariably low-ranking males, almost always non-citizens—try to press buttons to stop her.

But it’s too late. In the last sequence, she sails out into the parking garage, mission cumplida, moving much faster now—not like a middle-aged matron at all.

Which made me and every other amateur detective in the world, start to wonder: What if she wasn’t a woman at all, but a man, a jealous local who plotted to kill Ms. Ryan?

That was the initial guess of every single person I talked to about this murder. Frankly, once you’ve been here a while, you just don’t take the jihad stuff very seriously anymore. Jihad schmihad; if you die here, it’ll be in a car accident. I used to hitchhike to work in Najran, jumping in the first car that pulled over, and the worst thing that ever happened to me was a gouger asking me for five riyals for the run to work.

But this was no accident; this was a very gory and deliberate murder.

We kept playing one scene from the CCTV footage over and over, wondering what it meant. You can see it for yourself. Look carefully at the scene where the suspect gets off the elevator and goes over to the guard to ask directions. You’ll see her turn and head down a narrow corridor— the kind that leads to mall restrooms—but before she does, you’ll see her take a free magazine from the rack at the corner.

Why did she take that magazine? If she was following a particular woman to settle a personal score, she wouldn’t have time to sit in the toilet doing crossword puzzles or checking out the photo spreads on what the well-dressed assassin is wearing this season.

Then, something much more convincing occurred to me: these malls are gigantic. They have dozens of restrooms. If you were trying to kill a particular individual, how could you predict which one they’d use, or if they were going to use one at all?

So she clearly wasn’t following anyone in particular. Which leaves only the one conclusion that we’d been avoiding as hard as we could—that the suspect was planning to wait in a toilet stall in the women’s restroom until she saw someone who looked or sounded Western.

That made the conservative Islamic garb something very different from a disguise. In irregular wars, the guerrilla often has to dress as his or her worst enemy, like when Taliban suicide bombers dress up in police or army uniforms to get into the middle of a crowd of collabos before detonating.

But if this mall killer was a jihadi, then dressing up in the most conservative Islamic clothing wasn’t a disguise at all. It was convenient, since it hid her features (though that didn’t delay the cops from finding her for very long), but it wasn’t in any way a pretense. It was a weirdly perfect way of disguising herself as what she really was, dressing up exactly as the enforcers in Raqqa demand.

And that’s what happened. The suspect waited in a toilet for 90 minutes, waiting for the right demographic to come in, and stabbed her to death.

Ninety minutes sitting in a mall toilet. It’s hard to imagine. What did she do? Look under the stall door, checking for pale ankles? That wouldn’t really work, because there are plenty of pale Khaleej and dark Westerners. Did she listen for native-speaker English? Again, unreliable, because so many Khaleej have studied in the US for years. There are many locals with totally unaccented, fluent English.  My wife tells me there is sometimes a ‘family room’ near the toilets that has armchairs and sofas. So maybe she sat in one of those sofas with the knife hidden under her free magazine, waiting for someone who embodied, as they say in the cultural theory biz, all that was alien—and found it in Ibolya Ryan’s blonde hair. I’ve talked before about how absurdly people here love blonde hair, but like most fetishized traits, it can turn on you fast, going from free pass to target on your back.

And now the woman who supposedly stabbed Ryan to death has been arrested. Of course cops love to grab someone fast after a high-profile murder like this, and don’t care much who they get, but it sounds like they have real proof this time. They even sent a camera crew to film their SWAT team swooping on a house—a very big, wealthy-looking house—and arresting a young-looking woman. They blurred her face, but you can see she’s a lot younger than she was trying to seem, in her mall gear, which explains why she was moving so much more quickly on her exit from her mall than on entry.

It will be interesting to see who she is. I’m finishing this article at 7:45 p.m., Dec. 4 (Kuwait time), and the news of the arrest is just coming in. But I’m going to update this story as the details come in, because it has too much echo to ignore.