AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY: AN ARMENIAN IN THE SAUDI DESERT
Added: (Mon Nov 13 2017)
Pressbox (Press Release) -
AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY: AN ARMENIAN IN THE SAUDI DESERT
From Arthur Hagopian
(Nov 12, 2017)
It was a clandestine, unexpected journey, undertaken some years ago, the details classified, but against the backdrop of momentous developments unfolding in the Middle East, the telling of the untold tale provides just the right element of fascination, reminiscent of the setting of an Arabian Nights interlude.
I was slogging through the graveyard shift at the Kuwait Times, putting the finishing touches for the morning's lead story when the phone rang.
"News desk, Arthur speaking," I said.
"Arthur, écoute," it was Yousuf Alyan, owner and editor of the tabloid daily. A former Saudi Arabian diplomat, he liked to tease me about my faltering French, a language he himself had picked up from his chique Parisienne wife, Christine.
"Sois prêt (be ready) en 15 minutes."
"Tal umrak, (may you live long)," I said, using the mandatory respectful address when speaking to a sheikh or high-ranking dignitary, "what's up? I'll need a bit more than a quarter of an hour to put the paper to bed."
As news editor, I had my hands full, and had an unforgiving deadline to adhere to.
"Ma yikhalef (never mind), let Josh handle it," he came back. Josh, a cheerful Indian, a native of Kerala, was our indispensable "bulldozer" sub whose wry sense of humor, often helped ease the omnipresent stressful atmosphere of the newsroom.
"C'est encore la visite du Roi Hussein, notre front page lead?"
"Zain, (good)," he switched to Arabic. "Can you be ready in half an hour's time?"
"What's up?" I asked again.
"We're going on a trip."
"It's just after midnight," I protested, needlessly it would seem.
"Listen, ya bani adam (son of man - his favorite expression of mild reproach), just hand over to Josh, and get over here."
"Do I need to pack?"
"No need. Christine will put something together for us," he said, then added, "bring a coat. It might be cold. And don't tell anyone, not even Josh. The whole thing is deniable."
"But where are we going?"
"Across the border, that's all I am allowed to say. I received the invitation from the Ministry [of Guidance and Information] only a short while ago. Blair will be coming with us."
Blair Slater, a Scotsman, was an irrepressible acquisition, an appendage who acted as all-around aide, fiercely devoted alike to Alyan and Johnnie Walker: once he had me stay up all night regaling me with tales of his colorful adventures, a bottle to keep him company. I had purchased it from the Gray Mackenzie outlet, housed in a Quonset hut, in the city centre: the British company was the sole distributor of alcoholic beverages to its select clientele of Christians.
"I don't have a visa for either Saudi Arabia or Iraq" (the two countries bordering Kuwait), I reminded Alyan.
"You worry too much, ya bani adam. It's a border crossing. You won't need a visa. We're traveling in the Minister's convoy."
Sheikh Jaber, the Minister, was a man with a deceptive smile stamped across his rugged features, who ruled his fiefdom with a fist of iron. An uncompromising conservative, he had once threatened to deport me after I filed an article for the Associated Press, describing how a school incident had ended up with the Minister of Education slapping a high-school girl.
"Agool (I say), there is no censorship here, but next time you write something like that, I'll put you on the first plane home," he told me.
His message was unequivocally clear: cabinet members were untouchable.
Half an hour later, we were driving south towards the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Blair drove Alyan's the car with familiar ease. Eschewing the friendly persuasion of his fellow sheikhs, and Christine's unvoiced pining, Alyan had discarded the luxury of the ubiquitous prestige icon, a Cadillac, and opted for a more practical Mercedes.
It was a moonless night, phalanxes of clouds scudding in silent array across the sky where stars had long taken over.
Alyan sat in the back, reading directions from a map, with the aid of a cigarette lighter he had borrowed from Blair.
We were scooting along the ribbon of the paved road, a straight silver streak in the pitch darkness, interrupted sporadically by the ghosts of sand dunes that stretched incongruously into the distance.
Blair turned round: "Did you hear about the Armenian, the Kuwaiti and the Scotsman who went to a pub in an oasis in the desert?"
Alyan punched him in the back. "Not now. And I hope you left that flask behind."
Blair nodded, sorrowfully. "Never thought the day, or night, would come when I would be bereft of the golden nectar."
The paved road ran out and we reached the randomly marked border with Saudi Arabia. Aside from a ramshackle post, there were no other milestones or signs indicating the beginning of foreign sovereign territory.
Blair parked the Mercedes near a stunted bush, and we got out to stretch our legs.
We were all dressed in the traditional white dish-dasheh and kefiyyeh: the three of us looked like uncertain phantoms under the starlight.
Blair rummaged in the boot and extracted the thermos of coffee Christine had prepared. In the arid wilderness, and creeping cold, it was like manna.
"Let's hope they won't be late," Alyan said.
"They have to be," remarked Blair. "It's the Arab way."
A half hour later, the sound of engines erupted into the silence and the darkness was shattered by twin pinpoints of light coming from the direction of the kingdom.
"That must be our escort," Alyan said.
Two Land Rovers, with no markings, scudded to a stop a few feet away, and disgorged a squad of black-clad men toting M16s.
Their leader moved towards Alyan and rubbed noses with him in the traditional Bedouin way of greeting.
Alyan asked him how long it would take to get to our destination, and the man said barely 15 minutes, but we had to wait for Sheikh Jaber.
He gave an order and one of the soldiers set about removing the Kuwaiti licence plates of the Mercedes. He handed them to Blair who deposited them in the boot.
Sheikh Jaber arrived half an hour later. His Cadillac crunched to a halt but he did not get out. Instead, he waved to Alyan and the two chatted for a few seconds. Once his car's licence plates were removed, the convoy started on its way.
We drove along a track in the sand that looked more like a groove etched out by a giant bandy-legged monster, the dust cloud the wheels churned obscuring all behind us.
"All right, Arthur, now listen carefully," Alyan. "We are now in Saudi Arabia, heading towards an undisclosed location where we have been invited to witness a 'sulha' (reconciliation) between two one-time warring clans from Iraq. It's of paramount importance for both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia that the outcome be successful - the risk inherent in bypassing the Saddam Hussein regime is great that is why it's all hush-hush: we will not be allowed to report the event, just witness it. You understand?"
"Clear, tal 'umrak."
In the distance ahead, a black monolith, studded with twinkling lanterns, began to rise out of the torrid darkness. It was the huge camel's hair Bedouin tent where the meeting was to take place.
Rows of gleaming American sedans and limousines flanked the tent on one side.
We left the car there and walked towards the tent where a couple of heavily armed men checked our names against a list and ushered us into a liftout from the pages of the Arabian Nights.
I had been inside one or two Kuwaiti palaces before, and had sat in sitting rooms featuring ornate fountains with fish spouting water into lucid pools, and hand crafted carpets strewn across marble floors, curtains fluttering in the gentle breeze emitted by A/C vents in a languid pas de deux.
But this tent was a more modest replica: no water fountain and no curtains, but heavily carpeted.
There were only a few people inside, but the tent soon filled up.
We were led in and invited to sit down. An elderly Bedouin served us mint tea and dates.
The tea, brewed over the embers of a low coal fire for hours on end, scattered the cobwebs of sleep that had begun to sweep in my brain as soon as I had begun to relax on the carpet.
"The party's about to begin," Blair nudged me.
The tent flaps parted and two groups of men entered from different directions. There was aflurry of nose-rubbing and handshaking before they settled down for their peace parley on each side of a low slung table.
A wizened imam read the "Fatiha", the opening sura of the Quran, and the talks began.
Alyan was sitting with the Kuwaiti delegation but I and Blair were both too far away to hear the frenzied back and forth that soon developed. At one stage, the two opposing parties looked like they had reached an impasse, but whatever had caused it was soon resolved, and the talks resumed.
For another two hours.
When it was all over at last, conflict resolved and accord at reconciliation attained, the assembly heaved itself up like a tidal wave amid more hugging and hand-shaking, in a euphoric outpour of gratification.
It was now time to celebrate, and no less than a regal "mansaf" would do. The last time I had been to one was years ago at the wedding of a friend in a Bethlehem.
But that was a poor cousin, a tepid imitation of the massive feast that was now laid before us: plumes of rice towering over the dunes of two roasted sheep, sprinkled with pine-nuts, and a concoction of spices.
Everyone dug in with their hands - you don't use knives or forks here - the "samneh baladyeh" (home concoted fat) dripping down our arms: the trick is to grab a little fistful of rice and meat in your palm and flick it into your mouth (I am a pseudo-vegetarian, and sampled the rice only). For the Arab guests, it was no big deal. For me and Blair, it was no joy: we ended up with more food on the floor than in our belly.
The banquet lasted almost as long as the parley, and the stars were slowly beginning to wink away, when a mass exodus from the tent began. It was tacitly understood that the business at hand needed to be settled before the sun came up.
We returned to Kuwait city in time to pick up a copy of the morning papers.
"King Hussein to visit Kuwait next week", ran the front page banner headline of the English-language Kuwait Times.
But no mention of the Armenian crossing the desert of Saudi Arabia.