In fact, much in Saudi Arabia should probably be judged by the rapidity of recent change. In Dhahran, the oil-producing capital, I ask if we can drive by the ruins of the al-Khobar barracks, where a massive car bomb killed 19 American servicemen in June 1996. It turns out that the government has leveled the remains, perhaps to try and obliterate the memory. No one has yet been convicted of the crime, but many assume that it was the work of Islamic right-wingers. These are an important constituency in Saudi Arabia, a country that knows what Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran learned at his cost: that modernization without respect for tradition can backfire violently. The government is taking a middle road, but one that curves sharply into the future.
Blessedly, my trip ends in an area where there are none. The rest of the group has returned home, but I am accompanying Peter Voll on an exploration of a somewhat remote region near the town of Najran, south of the border with Yemen and hard by the Empty Quarter, a desert the size of France that makes up nearly half the kingdom. Many people think desert when they think Saudi Arabia, and Peter is considering adding a desert stop to his itinerary.
Our Toyota bounces off the highway to join three other SUV's parked in the sand. The drivers confer a moment, and then we're off, over the desert, which they treat like a big, soft highway with no lanes. The speedometer keeps climbing until we hear the warning beep that all Saudi vehicles emit when they reach speeds over 65 mph. The sound is almost drowned out by the roar of the wind. I'd guess we're going about 75 miles an hour. Occasionally there is a big drop, or an unexpected bump--Voll and I, way in the back, brace ourselves against a pile of suitcases. Not how I want to pass from this life, I think to myself. A pickup truck I've never seen before shoots diagonally across our path, less than 10 feet away, like a stray comet. Sand sprays the windshield. Our driver takes one hand off the wheel--no, no!--picks up the mike of the CB radio, and begins chatting animatedly with the driver of a truck 20 feet away.
"This is giving me a negative impression of the culture," I warn the Canadian woman who has set up the trip. She works for a prince in Riyadh, a nephew of Prince Khalid, and is friends with the local mayor, who arranged a desert night for us in hopes that it might induce Voll to include it on his itineraries.
"They're just like boys sometimes, aren't they?" she asks, sounding fond. As abruptly as the hellish ride began, heaven appears: a tented camp in the crook of a dune three stories high. We take off our shoes, but before moving to the rug I linger on the sand. It is warm and dry, even well below the surface, and feels great. A campfire, ringed by rugs, is burning outside a large campaign tent, into which workers are carrying new mattresses and blankets. A Kalashnikov is draped casually over a tent pole.
We are on the edge of the Empty Quarter, near dusk. This is one of the sights I had most hoped to see, the land that Wilfred Thesiger skirted with bedouin in his book Arabian Sands. A goat, slaughtered before our arrival, is soon on the grill. A bedouin assistant to the mayor who, unlike the other assistants, wears a greenish thobe and ghutra, demonstrates how to make bread by rolling some dough in ashes, placing it in the hot coals, and turning it judiciously. The mayor, an attentive, sharp man named Muhammad Atiah, asks where we're from. While I'm falling deeply in love with the severe beauty of our surroundings, he steers the conversation to the pleasures of rain. He has spent time in Paris, he says. "You know the Champs-Élysées, the arcades where the shops are?I love to stand there in the evening and watch the mist. I love rain."
In Saudi Arabia, I guess it's literally true that the grass is always greener somewhere else. But I am delighted to be here. Among the highlights of the trip, I tell the mayor, was an afternoon with teenagers in a park. They were drinking tea and Sprite, reading a new book of poetry by Prince Khalid, and smoking sweet Indian fruit tobacco in large, elaborate water pipes known here as hubbly-bubblies.
"Ah, you like the hubbly-bubbly!" says Mayor Atiah. He speaks in Arabic to his bedouin assistant, who looks sheepish and delighted at the same time. Yes, the man confesses, he has brought his hubbly-bubbly. He did not want the mayor to see it, in case he disapproved. But now he brings the hubbly-bubbly to us.
We smoke and talk around the fire until late. The mayor ushers those who are tired into the tent, where the mattresses and blankets await. But I find the crackle of the fire so restful, the low hum of Arabic so soporific, that I drag my bedding outside to fall asleep by the fire. Later, certainly past midnight, it gets a little smoky so I pull the bed up a dune and resettle. The sky is moonless but bright with stars. As I close my eyes something moves: silhouetted atop a nearby dune is a Saudi in flowing robes. Has he gone there to pray, I wonder, to admire the glory of the land?Then I hear a faint electronic ringing. He's taking a call on his cell phone.