All Material © Noel Harvey


Affairs were a hazard, but they were not impossible. There were countless unlikely liaisons in that city - it seemed to foster them. What else could you expect in such a barren place, with so few distractions and so much spare time? Usually though, we fraternized with our own, and that was risk enough. Then when the time came we moved on, taking our Persian rugs and Arabian coffee pots, and shedding our relationships behind. They were rarely so portable. As the Arabs say, when you are far from home, you can be who you want.

She told me that, though she never observed it as wisdom. Riyadh was her home; their language her mother tongue. Improbable we should meet at all, yet somehow she had been invited to that interminable weekend gathering, and I watched her from across the room, chatting with two women, and holding a glass of black market vodka and a small tin of tonic water.

She poured some tonic, took a cautious sip, then looked at the rim of the glass, imprinted now with a vivid red smudge. She added more tonic and sipped again, longer this time. She did not seem out of her depth, but in a society so finely polarized, she had clearly strayed from her territory. Did that attract me? Yes, of course it did, but she was a striking girl anyway, with rich black hair and willful dark eyes.

You could find fault if you needed to. You could say her make-up was overdone, or her dress too tight, or her figure too full. If you were new to the Middle East you might even think her a tart. But the Arab style is not given to understatement. Perhaps the desert has something to do with it - it is a place of such harsh contrast after all.

My third drink made me brave. I moved nearer, readying a line, and caught a rush of heavy perfume as she leaned to hear me over the loud music.

'I didn't know Arab girls drank.' I said. She gave a patronizing half-smile, and looked back at her friends. I shrugged, and gazed down at the floor, feeling foolish and unrewarded. 'How do you know this?' she said. Her accent was marked, but evenly cadenced. I looked up. 'Well I don't really', I said. 'I mean, I just thought it was...' I stopped. I was going to say haram, forbidden by the Prophet, but I had been crass enough already.

'So why may I not taste freedom, even in this awful bloody country?'

I don't recall much else of our first conversation, but we were still talking an hour and a half later. When she made her excuses to leave, she said she couldn't give her phone number, but she politely accepted mine, hastily scribbled on the back of an empty cigarette carton.

It was weeks before she called, and the accent threw me initially. I suggested she had a wrong number. No it was her, from the party. Had I forgotten so soon?

And so it began, and it was difficult from the start. Even a twenty minute car ride was cause for debate.

'You do not mind if I sit in the back seat?'

'But I don't look a thing like your driver - I'm not Philipino for a start.'

'Yes, but it is our way. It is safer.'

'Okay. It's safer. If you say so.'

'You are sure you don't mind?'

'No I don't mind. Really.'

If we spoke on the phone our conversations were brief, and pre-arranged to the minute. Sometimes while we were talking she would switch to her own language in mid-sentence, and then the line would go dead, leaving me to wait and wonder what had happened. I hated that most of all. That, and the way she would cancel our appointments at five minutes notice. She never gave a reason. She'd just say she couldn't make it, and leave it at that. 'Please try to understand', she would say. 'My life is not my own.'

But I know I thought her worth the trouble. We didn't meet often, and when we did, we were hungry and eager, with no sense of familiarity. Even now, I remember the warmth of her breath on my ear, and her back arching under me, and how I would hold her afterwards, stroking that gorgeous black hair and feeling uninvolved yet oddly protective. And then she would go, leaving me to think of trivial things like holiday arrangements and investments, but distracted by that heavy Arabian perfume, strong on the pillow.

It wasn't only that. We had little in common, but I found her sensitive and inquisitive, and keen to talk. Once, and only once, she asked about England - not the country, for she had studied there - but the immigration laws. I said it took time, even if you were married to an English national. Did I want to get married? Yes, if I met the right girl. Did I think I ever would? No, not really, not now. Did she? She hoped so, to an American, or a Canadian. England was too poor, and the English did not like Arabs. I didn't challenge her over things like that. I thought of my own prejudices and knew she was probably right.

I'm in danger here of making this whole thing sound romantic. But it wasn't at all. It was a pain. We could never plan anything, nor could we go out together. Paranoia of a kind was always just around the corner. It was my place or nothing, period. And that kind of stuff jades, and it jades very quickly. I wanted more, or I wanted out.

I soon grew frustrated at my lack of control, and increasingly irritated at our broken dates and snatched phone calls. One day she didn't turn up at all, and only called days later. I was angry for the wasted evening, though I knew it was difficult for her. I suggested we call the whole thing off. She said she'd phone when I'd had time to cool down.

She never did, and I never tried to make contact.

Okay, so it was no great loss. My life continued pretty much the same as it did before we met, and I knew from the start she could never change that. Perhaps under different circumstances we might have shared more, but never everything. For all her protests, there was a gulf between our worlds, and I wasn't up to the effort of bridging it.

Even so, I wish it hadn't ended quite so soon. Not like that anyway.