Before I went to Saudi Arabia in 1986 to work at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital, I bought a small book of Arabic phrases. The language, with its strange guttural sounds not made in English, and its curvy script read from right to left, fascinated me. I memorized the usual first phrases: min fadlak, shukran, marhabah, and ma’asalama— please, thank you, hello, and good bye. Easy enough. I would be ready. I would know something about this exotic language.
Six weeks after my arrival in Riyadh, I got the courage to walk out of the housing compound to the neighborhood grocery store. I covered myself properly with my new black abaya, and threw a scarf across my shoulders. As a Westerner, I was not obligated to cover my hair, but my bare head marked me as a foreign woman, and we all know what some Arabs think of foreign females.
Halfway to the store, in the middle of a long block of residential villas, with walls surrounding them to hide the women, a small pick- up truck pulled up beside me. I noticed a bale of hay in back, half covered with canvas, but no animals. The driver, an Arab dressed in a white thobe and checkered headdress, rolled down the window and said, “Marhabah.”
I returned his greeting, “Marhabah!” That was my first mistake. I knew he’d ask me to get in, and sure enough, the next word– in English– was, “Ride? Ride?” As I wanted to show off my acquisition of Arabic phrases, and be polite at the same time, I said, “La, shukran.” No thank you, with a smile. That was my second mistake.
Suddenly, the truck pulled in close to the curb. I noticed no other person walking. In that neighborhood, only crazy foreigners walk in the broad daylight of desert heat. No other car passed in either direction. I secured the flaps of my abaya across my body, and set my gaze straight ahead. He jumped out, and rushed up in front of me, tripping and holding his manhood through the skirt of his thobe. His eyes narrowed, marbles embedded in the leathered creases of an old desert dweller. He smiled across a stubbly beard, unashamed of the gaps between his teeth, or what he was doing, and made grunting noises much like the noises made by the goats and lambs that he surely carried in his pick-up truck from time to time.
I shrieked, and ran across the street. He ran after me, hiking up his thobe to get a better grip and show me what he thought I wanted. I shrieked again, picked up the bottom of my abaya, and ran fast in the heat until my lungs burned and I reached the main street, where six lanes of traffic whizzed back and forth, and he couldn’t possibly keep hanging on.
The next day, I was told by my laughing Arab colleague that my polite American response had been more of an invitation than a refusal!