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".