We have all been given more advice than any person could possibly absorb. Wisdom is something that is gained by experience, which means you have it right after you needed it. That’s no excuse, however, for the fact that we ignore most of the perfectly good advice we hear. One such gem of wisdom is regarding social interactions with people of a potentially different mindset; do not ever, ever, talk about politics or religion. Another shiny nugget I heard recently was to never get into the car with a strange Arab and let him drive you to an unknown location. Just like turning left in Riyadh involves three right turns most of the time, combining a disregard for the above advice made for a wonderful afternoon.
Do you turn down an invitation from a Saudi prince for lunch at his palace? Of course not. Around noon today a nice young Somali man showed up at my door, and he was eager to show off his driving skills that he has undoubtedly honed over many weeks of practice; before that I think he had mostly driven cattle, but that is probably a decent preparation for driving in Riyadh (see other posts). I was the only one who put on my seat belt. I don’t care if they think less of me; my life insurance probably has a “stupidity” clause somewhere. More about seat belts, Pepsi and related issues in a future blog.
Upon arrival at the palace, we drive through the open gate. Evidently my host always keeps his gate open, so that friends can enjoy his hospitality at any time. The prince and his entourage greet us and welcome us into the tent he uses for greeting guests. You can understand the cultural identification with traditional Bedouin tents, but they haven’t let the nostalgia get out of hand; this tent has air conditioning and a flat screen TV. An hour filled with warm hospitality and hot Arabian coffee ensues, with laughter and manly cheek-kissing. After that, we retire to the dining tent:
This is obviously not my old camping tent with a Coleman stove and a can of Vienna sausages. As disappointed as I might’ve been over the lack of Smores, those feelings were smothered with an amazing breaded-and-fried-cheese-covered-in-sugar dessert that melted my taste buds. And there was cheesecake. Now I know why 25% of the population has diabetes.
To this point, no universal rules of family reunions had been broken; thoughts of religion and politics were as distant as tofu and Jenny Craig. Then, one of my host’s sons began discussing a recent trip to the Sinai peninsula, where he climbed Mount Sinai to visit the monastery there. This led to a comparative discussion of the three faiths descended from Abraham. It was at this point that my greased tongue moved faster than my brain; I joked that it seemed typical that it was Sarah and Hagar not getting along that started all the trouble… and then held my breath, not able to bring the words back after they had escaped. The ten seconds of translation were more than enough time for me to imagine my imminent discharge from the house, possible arrest, and ultimate public humiliation on CNN as the State Department has to negotiate my release. Smile, sip my coffee, please laugh please laugh please laugh please don’t leave my fate in the hands of John Kerry…
And they laughed. Not as much as they should’ve, because that was a really funny joke, but they didn’t put a bag over my head so I’ll call it a win. The slightly wiser me eventually left with an armful of books gifted from his library, thankful for an uncommon display of grace and tolerance where I never expected to find it.