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Still not a correspondent

14 May 2011

Rosa damascena trigintipetala

If I was chuffed a fortnight ago to have my radio piece from Cairo aired on From Our Own Correspondent on BBC World Service, I’m even more chuffed today to have a follow-up piece aired so soon – and this time on the BBC’s domestic Radio 4 network as well.

For my schizophrenic tale from Saudi Arabia – half about the rose industry of Taif, half about a very unusual encounter – click here for audio (my bit begins at 0:18:15) and/or click here for the article transcript. The latter includes some very odd rewriting of pounds, pints, litres and dollars to suit the BBC’s internal guidelines on weights & measures: don’t blame me!

Incidentally, I changed key details in the airport meeting story to protect the (unknown) identity of the person involved. For the record, I did not meet him in an airport – not Taif airport and not any other airport – he did not say he was an accountant (he told me a different job title), he did not say he was from “a small town in the north” (he told me somewhere else) and he did not say he was returning home from a company meeting (he told me something else). Otherwise, in every respect the encounter was as I described it.

And I still don’t really know why he did what he did. The conversation was interesting but unremarkable until he showed me the crucifix. That was a pointlessly risky thing to do – unless he wanted to make a statement. Was that statement simply self-aggrandisement? I didn’t think so at the time. It rang true to me: in a few short minutes together he chose to reveal to me depths of emotional and personal complexity in his life that most people would never normally dream of sharing with strangers. Partly by telling, partly by implication, he exposed to me his relationships, his aspirations, his frustrations, his failures, his hopes – and his courage. For what? So that I should think worse of his country? So that I should think better of him? I don’t know.

And what prompted it? Was it the political upheavals elsewhere that were passing his country by? Was it something in our personal chemistry together that made him feel he wanted to confide in me? (I didn’t feel the same: I wouldn’t have dreamed of confiding such stuff in him…) Or was it just the anonymity, that he felt he could get something off his chest with impunity by speaking to a foreigner, someone who he may have figured was just passing through on business? Again, I don’t know.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime encounter. In 20-odd years travelling around the Middle East and the world I’ve never had anything remotely similar happen.

It makes me want to write a book.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 May 2011 11.00am

    You should write a book! Good to hear you on the radio (again! you practically are one of our own correspondents), and most interesting background… Hels

  2. 15 May 2011 12.35pm

    Fascinating encounter Matthew – you don’t think he might have been some kind of security tail do you? Agent provocateur? Or is that an inconceivably conspiratorial idea?! Never having been to Saudi!

  3. 15 May 2011 2.23pm

    Great piece Matthew. Loved both angles: the rose industry and the act of defiance by the Muslim. Strange how people open up to others whom they believe they’ll never see again. Similar things have happened to me all over the world–but certainly nothing that would carry such terminal consequences.

    Enjoyed it and maybe it is time you wrote a book. Congrats on all the BBC attention too.

    Doris

  4. 16 May 2011 12.34pm

    Thank you all – and sorry for ill-judged fishing tagline at end of original post. Bleurgh. Should have self-edited.

    @Richard – nothing is inconceivably conspiratorial when dealing with the Middle East – but no, I think the guy was genuine (otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered pitching a story to the BBC, etc etc!). Bearing in mind the true circumstances of our meeting (i.e. not in an airport), it’s possible to dream up an outlandishly unlikely scenario in which he was an agent planted specifically in order to engage with me – but it’s then hard to see why there was no governmental follow-up while I was in the country. Was he trying to get me to espouse revolutionary sentiments, in order then to arrest and/or deport me? (I didn’t.) Or was he – as, on balance, I think he was – simply someone who started out full of bravado trying to impress the foreigner, but who then almost unwittingly found himself unloading emotional baggage onto a stranger, walking away feeling better for finally telling the truth to someone he’d never see again?

    Then again, perhaps I am now on a blacklist and will be refused a visa to enter Saudi next time…

    @Doris – thank you, too, for the comment: really great to see you here again! Thanks for kind words; very much appreciated.

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