I wrote this in the week before leaving. Now I'm back in England, and it seems like an appropriate final memory of Saudi.

Arabs don't have a concept of camp...but they know all about camping.

Going out into the desert, collecting dry wood on the way, pitching a tent and making a fire - then sitting around it cooking food, drinking coffee with cardamom, telling stories and building companionship into the night.

Of course, the tent is Made in China, the pitching is done by the same pakistani or philipino menial on minimum wages who also makes and serves the coffee, and the fire is started with a blowtorch, but the spirit is the same. The fire is also inside the tent, because it gets much too cold outside.

When you need to empty your bladder of all the coffee, there's a portable toilet (combined with shower facility) because you can't just pee on a sand dune when you're a hundred kilometers from the nearest city. Though that's exactly what I did when it was 'engaged'.

Here's something we don't do in the west on our camping trips: Perform classic poems for each other. The poetry may be read from smartphones nowadays, but the last time you were around a campfire, did you do readings of Milton for each other? Ging-Gang-Goolie it isn't.

Someone mentioned my dubious achievements as a singer, so I was encouraged to Do The Show Right Here. I gave my rendition of "Sweet Dreams" (which was called "deep and insightful" by the audience) and even managed to recall a poem to recite - Blake's "Sick Rose".

Then...someone set off fireworks in the distance, causing much excited murmuring. It seems fireworks are the traditional signal that a hunting party have found and killed a wolf - so we jumped into out giant people carriers (Arabs don't do small cars) to go and see.

I was initially reticent about going to look at a newly killed animal, but then realised I'd been spending the night munching on bits of sheep and cow grilled on the fire.

The wolf was grey and thin, surprisingly small - maybe four foot from long snout to tail...which was still twitching it's last as we arrived. There was a bullet wound and a trail of blood from it's neck, and after less than a minute all movement ceased. My hosts and their friends posed with the gun for each other's cameras, holding up the wolf's head by it's ears. I was struck by the sightless eyes that seemed to point directly at me, and the long, lolling red tongue.

The children got to pose too, including the youngest - a boy of ten who I'd played hide-and-seek with earlier. I posed with them - I've seen dead animals by the roadside before, but never touched one, let alone one still cooling. Everyone seemed happy. I asked whether the wolf would be eaten, but was told it was forbidden to eat any animal that eats meat.

Back in the tent, all dozen of my hosts said this was the first time they'd ever seen a wolf. Hunting for them was common, but seeing was rare, and killing almost unknown. They explained that wolves were a major problem, not just killing for food but being cruel and destructive simply for fun, killing 30 or 40 sheep on a farm in one night, but carrying just one on his back (sic) to the den.

So how many sheep farms were there locally? Apparently none. I considered asking how wolves could be such a threat if they were so rare...but didn't bother. There are probably less than 200 arabian wolves left in the wild. I wonder how long hunters will continue to search after they're extinct.

Two subjects always come up when saudis get into conversation with westerners. 1) Is it true that if they go to the west they can have all the sexual partners they want without shame? And 2) Why aren't you a muslim?

The second turned into a Q&A. They trotted out all the usual arguments, I responded with the usual refutations, and they replied that although they accepted the arguments presented failed, they still believed. At the end, they understood that faith isn't a matter of evidence, but of needing a certain kind of love in one's life. Most people need it, I don't, so until our needs change, our beliefs won't. All very amicable and civilised.

Except for the one inevitable idiot who repeatedly insisted that although he couldn't justify his faith, I had a duty to read every justification until I found one that was convincing. But not for anything that wasn't the wahabi varient of the sunna varient of islam.

But: it was interesting to hear the muslim version of Pascal's Gambit, specifically: If you don't accept any religion, and any one of the infinitely many possible religions that claim an afterlife is true, you'll go to hell. So by accepting islam, you increase your chances of heaven by an infinitely small amount...and isn't that worth it?

I've been here 14 months. My plane leaves in 4 days. Suddenly I'm surrounded by people who say they'll miss me when I'm gone. I have no idea how I'll feel about saudi when I'm back in england...and no idea how I'll feel about england after getting to know saudi.

I was in the limbo of "about to leave but not yet gone" writing that. Now I'm in the limbo of "lots to do but can't quite yet start it".

The Missionary Imposition - Update

It's finally happened. I've heard an argument from an evangelist which I haven't heard a thousand times before. In fact, three of them.

1) Islam is true because it prevents car crashes. Music is forbidden in islam, because music excites your emotions, which makes you drive too fast, which makes you crash. But no music means no dangerous driving.

2) Islam says music makes you think of sex. Islam says thinking of sex is bad. Islam saves you from things which islam says is bad. Therefore islam is true.

3) In answer to my comment that you can't persuade someone into or out of a religion for the same reason you can persuade someone into or out of love: In islam you *can* persuade someone to fall in love. The reason being:

3.1) It's forbidden to fall in love before marriage, because doing so might lead to the man declaring his intention to marry the women, but then changing his mind, which always causes severe psychiatric problems for the woman.

3.2) Getting married is a complicated, costly procedure involving the man seeking permission from the woman's father, and paying a large dowry. If he divorces her later, he loses their house and property, which he probably can't afford. Therefore he will decide to stay with her, which after a few years will lead to love.

3.3) A man is incapable of loving any children he didn't personally progenitate, therefore is incapable of raising them. But if he and his wife do procreate, then fall out, the presence of the offspring will force them to stay together, which will force them to decide to fall in love.

And as an extra added bonus:

4) Hospitals in the west are replacing medicine with readings from the Qu'ran, which cast out demons and thus work much better than nasty drugs. It says so in a little book, and books are always reliable because if they weren't, the police wouldn't let people publish them.

And the moral of the story is: For one who wants to believe, any excuse is good enough...but no amount of excuses is ever enough.

The Missionary Imposition

I've never met a Jewish evangelist.
I've met a few zionists, but none of them were jewish. In the same way as I've met a few maoists, but none of them were chinese.
I've yet to meet a buddhist who's actually from a buddhist country. Almost everyone I've met from a hindu country, if they mentioned their religion, was muslim.
The proximimate reason why I've not encountered evangelical jews is...most jews don't believe in a god. Some of them might regard their right to a homeland as god-given, but that's in a different compartment of their brains. Compare with those atheists who kind-of wish there were a god so they could *hate* him.
But even the hassidic types with the cool broad-brimmed black hats and curly forelocks...the ones who really do say "Oy Vey!" and use "schmuck" to refer to a part of the body which they mutilate...they don't look for converts.
They might believe you're going to Sheoul for not following all the dumb rules they've interpreted into their magic book, and they might personally think you'd look better in a skullcap...but they don't try to *push* you into salvation.
Christians on the other hand take it as a personal affront that you're not one of them.
Even the ones in sects which believe they-and-only-they are the elite, hand-picked by the almighty for paradise, where they can virtuously enjoy watching the rest of us burn for eternity...even these are insulted if you don't want to join.
Which is a little odd, because you can't be the elite few without being few.
You can see the same kind of double-logic in most marxist groups. The rightous are in the oppressed minority, therefore the smaller and more oppressed the minority, the more rightous they are.
But how *dare* the majority not *want* to join us?
One doesn't need to believe in a magic man in the sky to believe in a holy cause. Or adopt the hypocrisy.
Muslims are different again. They might find it incomprehensible that you're not already one of them, but if they try to convert you...take it as a compliment. Because it means they like you - they think you're worth saving.
I've got my own double-standard here. On the one hand I find the arguments tiresome and simple-minded. But I *do* enjoy humiliating soul-winners when they try it on.
There's absolutely no excuse - it's like beating a retarded child at chess...and feeling affirmed by it. *And* getting angry when they don't realise they've lost.
Usually I know their holy texts better than they do, and half a lifetime of careful thinking means I'm fairly good at out-thinking people who don't think much. There's no trick to it.
Especially when the arguments all look like these:
"If there's no god, where do you go when you die?". "My religion is true because the believers of the other one eat babies". "It makes me happy to believe, so it'd make you happy, so it's true".
"This line of scripture sounds a little like a fashionable bit of science, therefore gay marriage is wrong". "You can't explain X, therefore god did it, therefore Obama is the antichrist".
"Atheism is a religion, and you believe science is infallible, so...something something something".
In science, the least interesting thing about an idea is who had it. In the wider world, the least interesting thing about a superstition is...the superstition. Why it was invented, why people believe it, and the tortured ways they justify it - these are the stuff of anthropology, psychology and history.
And that's why it would be interesting to meet a jewish evangelist.

Name that Voice

They say you learn a lot when you teach.

Mostly what you learn is
(1) You don't know the subject as well as you thought you did, or
(2) The books are wrong, or
(3) The subject has got really weird quirks and byways.

Usually you discover these things when students ask questions. For instance: What's the English word for the sound made by camels?

So far as I can tell, there isn't one. We can certainly have a stab at describing the noise - a long gutteral croak, or a low wet mournful keening. Terry Pratchett described it as "like a herd of donkeys being chainsawed"

We can attempt to *transcribe* sounds, like "woof" or "arf" for dogs, or "boc" and "cock-a-doodle-doo" for chickens, but I'm talking about a noun naming the sound or a verb indicating it's production.

Lions roar, dogs bark, small dogs yap, very small dogs yip. Cats mew or miaw, angry cats hiss, sheep and goats bleat or baa, cows low or moo, birds chirp, parrots squawk, horses neigh, pigs snort or oink, ducks quack, donkeys bray, pigeons and doves coo, wolves howl, chickens cluck and elephants trumpet.

So there's plenty of special words for animal sounds, and a selection of words for more general sounds that we can also use for animals - bears and gorillas grunt, mice squeak, tigers and panthers growl, monkeys chatter, some birds sing, and if they don't, they call or cry. Dolphins and whales also sing.

Crickets chirrup. I once read in a book about psycholinguistics that grasshoppers make six distinct sounds, with meanings like "I'm hungry", "I want to have sex" and, rather wonderfully, one used specially for "I've just had sex". But for those of us who aren't grasshopper experts (Cicadologists? Locustophiles?), they probably just chirrup too.

Hippos, rhinos, deer, reindeer, moose (or is it mooses?) oxen and bison - these join camels in the list of animals whose utterances we don't designate with a specific word. They just "grunt".

I've absolutely no idea what sloths sound like. Maybe they're too lazy to speak.

Esperanto has a word meaning "to make the sound appropriate to the animal": Blek. The closest English has to this is probably "call".

So what do humans do? That's easy, we txt.