I spent time with Saudi men, too.
I spent time with women and with men, but not together.
I entered a sort of twilight zone where normal rules no longer applied.
I stopped trying to make sense of it, but only after a long season of failed attempts.
It was a different world. I had entered the world of women–the double wardrobe, the submission and spunk, the hidden ambitions–and the world of men was not the same.
The men I spent time with were devout in their way.
We stopped classes for prayer, of course.
Even when we were out smoking shisha on the Champs-Elysees they would disappear to find a place to pray.
We listened to Rashed Al-Majid’s “Wailou” and the stories of beloved camels back home.
“They cry when they see me,” recounted one man wistfully.
I know Saudis have a bad rap, but I never had any trouble with my friends.
Of course, I was not one of their sisters or wives. That makes a difference.
One night we were out to the wee hours watching Moroccan women dance and by the time I got home the friend driving was exhausted. He took a twenty-minute nap on my couch before making the drive back home. There was never any question of indecency between us.
My female friends complained about the Moroccan prostitutes on the Champs-Elysees with whom their husbands passed the time.
Sometimes the worlds collided: at a friend’s house, an unknown gaudy earring appeared between couch cushions.
My friend held up the shiny hoop with a curled lip.
“Whose is this?”
The other women played on their phones or fussed with their purses.
I watched as my friend dropped the earing onto a bowl on the counter.
That was the world they lived in, and I somehow managed to see both sides.
I stayed in with the women and went out with the men.
Then I saw all of them in class.
It was a strange existence.
Sometimes other people came to my Arab-dominated classes and I loved to observe the shock.
“What do you mean you would shoot your sister if she had sex!” cried one young Parisian man.
“No, that is the right thing to do,” said the young Georgian man to the Saudi student.
The Saudi young man shrugged. “I know I am right. This is my religion.”
He put away his phone, on which he had been showing us photographs of his friend’s tiger and some bejeweled machine guns.
“But you cannot do this!” the Parisian sputtered.
I laughed. The Georgian laughed. The Saudi laughed.
“Yes, he can,” I pronounced, and got back to my lesson.
I usually got the characters in my classroom, including one strange and seemingly homeless man from Malaysia. As far as I could tell, he was a gay prostitute in Paris to make some money.
He smelled so bad he drove the ladies to absent themselves. I had to plead with the administration to get him removed. At first we tried a shower but when that didn’t work we had to give him a refund and expel him. He left the office as audacious as he had entered it.
The Georgian dragged on his cigarette and flexed his muscles, desperate for a fight.
The gaudily-dressed Malaysian strut past down rue St-Jacques, gold sneakers shining in the sun.