Missionary Impossible Part III

3

 

Paris, France.

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.

Missionary Impossible Part I

1

 

Avenue Kleber.

 

The Saudi ladies fall silent at the call to prayer.

 

I see some of their lips moving as they listen to the Adhan.

 

The words of response play in my head: “There is no strength or power except from God.”

 

Amen.

 

It interrupts our small party for a moment, but the ladies know the ritual; they leave the room in a staggered fashion to perform the ablutions and prayers.

 

They will need to cover the hair they have done up for the get-together and slip an abaya on in order to pray.

 

Our hostess orchestrates the whole thing. As the room she has set aside for the prayers clears, she comes and nudges another woman who files out of the room.

 

I love to see her like this, without the hijab she always wears to the classroom.

 

She has cut her hair short, in a pixie-cut, and her pants are so tight she must have rolled them on.

 

In class I catch glimmers of this fashion-conscious woman: in the way she ties her hijab into a bow or how she navigates modesty without looking totally out of place in Paris.

 

Not that she’s walking around all that much.

 

The driver drops her off at school in the morning and picks her up in the afternoon.

 

On a rare occasion we’ll go out.

 

We walk down the Champs-Elysees to the Buddha Bar to lounge for a few hours until her husband demands that she go home. He is probably out at Victor Hugo, but he wants her home.

 

Arm-in-arm we wander around the Champs-de-Mars and she confesses her ambition to have a hair salon.

 

“That’s ridiculous,” I respond. “Your sense of smell is so sensitive you’d quit after two minutes!”

 

She laughs freely, then, in the way that I love. Followed by that look: the how-do-you-know-me look.

 

How do I know her?

 

She is an Arab and I am an Anglo-Saxon.

 

And yet, here we are in Paris.

 

We head back to avenue Kleber where she cooks kebsa for her husband and I gaze out the window at the people in the street below. If I look left I can see the Arc-de-Triomphe.

 

But I don’t have time.

 

Her son wants to play.

 

I refuse to join the video game so we race up and down the long hallways, scrambling for the ball. We kick it; we throw it, we struggle together.

 

My friend’s husband raises his eyebrows and asks her, “Do we have one child or two?”

 

I tell their son about Solomon’s wisdom and God’s grace bestowed up this son-of-David.

 

My friend asks if I am trying to convert him.

 

I am insulted.

 

“How dare you!” I say, piqued by her impudence.

 

She sidles up to me and rolls her eyes.

 

She smiles.

 

“I’m just checking.”

 

It’s not till months, perhaps years, later that I realize how unique our short season on Kleber really was. Arabs and Anglo-Saxons cohabiting. What a world.