a stranger in paradise

Last week, 13-year-old child bride Sarah Cook embraced life in a Muslim culture. Here, Elizabeth Parker remembers the day she fell foul of Islamic law

In some Islamic countries, being caught alone with someone of the opposite sex to whom you are not married is frowned upon. It can even carry a jail sentence. Five years ago, Elizabeth Parker and her friend, Ahmed, were arrested for breaking Brunei's "Kawalat" laws.

iwas sitting on a black and white striped kerb under a street lamp in front of the dipped headlights of Ahmed's car. In my hand was a half- full bottle of Coca-Cola, and my ears were being assaulted by Brunei's musical equivalent of Ozzy Osbourne.

When the sets of headlights swept towards us, we turned to see a large group of men getting out of three cars. Twelve. I had counted them, and worked out that they definitely weren't friendly, even before two of them hurled Ahmed against the car.

Definitely not friendly.

One of the men came over, and stood above me as I sat on the kerb. I stood up balancing on the raised kerb edge. Trying to look taller and, of course, blonder than him. Sometimes it worked. He was wearing typical gang-gear. But it couldn't be too serious - he wasn't wearing cowboy boots.

He asked, in Malay, for my ID card.

"I only speak English. Sorry."

He repeated the order, in broken English. I insisted on seeing his first. He gave me his card. I looked at it, and tried to smile - the type of smile I imagined you're supposed to flash, in the company of 12 secret policemen. I didn't have my ID Card, I had been caught alone with an unmarried Muslim boy, and I was a young, European girl. This time, I was in Trouble.

Another policeman was writing in his notebook, after some consultation with the others. He was, I discovered later, busily describing the "soft lighting", "romantic music" and the "beer".

After much deliberation, they decided not to handcuff us. They shoved us into separate cars. I sat, squashed between two of the policemen - who were pressing against me as closely as possible - while the tubby young man in the passenger seat was telling me that I would probably be forced to marry Ahmed.

I went very quietly for the rest of the journey.

I stayed quiet in the local police station. Leaping up only when I heard Ahmed shout from a distant interview room. Handcuffs were waved at me and I sat down again.

They took me to "Another place, not here", and told me that Ahmed would not be following. Suddenly, I became frightened, rather than just angry and worried.

When we drove to the Central Police Station I was relieved. Relieved that I was, at least, being taken somewhere official. But then I remembered the rumours I'd heard about what went on in the cells there.

They wouldn't let me call my parents. Instead, I was taken to a tiny room and surrounded by plain-clothes policemen. One of them, leaning against some lockers, was sneering at me. "So?" he said.

So? "I want to call my parents," I tried.

"No. What were you doing with that boy?"

"I really think my parents should be here. We were talking."

"I don't believe you!" He was shouting, now. His English was surprisingly fluent. "Who is that boy?"

"He is a schoolmate. In the local school. I was there last year." "Schoolmate? I don't believe you! What is the name?"

"Elizabeth."

"His name!"

"Ahmed."

"Full name?"

"I don't know. Abdul Ahmed something, I think."

"Haji?"

"I don't think so. Not yet." I knew that Ahmed hadn't' gone to Mecca yet.

"What were you doing with him?"

"Talking. Please let me call my parents." I didn't like begging. But if it was what would get me out of this ...

"No."

It went on for a long time. He was shouting at me, and then moving closer. He was a lot bigger than I was. The others were watching. Most of them, I remember, were laughing. He was trying to make me cry, or something. But because I knew it, I wouldn't let myself get upset. He went on shouting the same questions over and over again. And then, finally, he asked for my home phone number.

I half whispered it, in relief.

He tried three times before I remembered the phone was left off the hook at night.

An escort took me to another part of the building. Ahmed was sitting on a bench.

"Did they ... do anything?" He had come because he had been worried.

"No, how about you?"

"No worries, lah. They said they are jealous because of you."

A uniformed policeman came over. He crouched down in front of me. I stared fixedly at the wall. He sniggered.

"I like the blue eyes," he said, and touched my hair.

Eventually, two policemen were dispatched to my parent's house. After a long delay - because he'd had a flat tyre on the way - Dad arrived to take me home.

The next day, the policeman who had shouted the most, rang me.

"Can I take you to dinner?"

As I put the phone down on this voice, I hoped that he wouldn't be giving evidence in court.

On the day, no one gave evidence in court. Ahmed and I were put in separate rooms, to write statements. In the huge, dirty, stuffy courtroom, which managed to look like it was modelled on the Western ones, there was a Khadi, a representative of the Religious Police; his assistant; Ahmed; my father and me. Six of us. A judge, two prosecutors, two defendants, and a helpless onlooker. It was several minutes before I realised that the defending lawyer I had, in my Western ignorance, anticipated, was non-existent.

They used the formal form of Malay, and I only knew a little street-talk. I still do not know if the statement that was read out in my name had anything in common with the one I had actually written. After these statements had been read, the Khadi summoned Ahmed to the stand, and barked several questions at him. And then, apparently, we were free to go.

When we left the court room, I frantically asked Ahmed what was to happen to us.

"Sorry. You didn't understand?" He was gentle. Caring.

"No. Nothing."

"The judge. The Khadi. He was kind. I am at school, and have no money. Because of this, we don't have to marry. But before we were inside he told me that if I wanted to be your husband, then he would force you! But I know you lah. I said no." He smiled, kindly.

"Thank you." I smiled too. "What else?"

"I have to pay a fine. Sudah. I already did that. Now I can't see you for two years."

"Anything else?" After all the drama, I couldn't believe that it was all over so easily.

"Maybe. If I go on the Haji. To Mecca. I will get it back. The money. That is all. It is OK now. No worries, lah."

No worries, lah. As we walked out into the street, the midday sunshine was reflecting off the river. It looked beautiful. And then I suddenly began to feel as though I was being watched. I turned around. Two men, in baseball caps, T-shirts and jeans were squatting in the delicate shade of a palm-tree. Two young, typical-looking Brunei men. Looking exactly the same as the secret police. I would never know. That feeling of being constantly watched stayed with me until I left.

8 All names have been changed

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