Reporters on the Job

A Bedouin Dinner and Interview: Talking to Islamic reformists in Saudi Arabia is easier for a female Western reporter than getting the perspective of religious conservatives (page 1). But staff writer Faye Bowers pestered a Saudi professor until one afternoon he called and invited her to his diwaniyah (a salon where men drink tea, smoke, and talk politics).

Faye and a female colleague arrived at his house around 10 p.m. "We're instructed to take our shoes off, and that no notes, no photographs are permitted. These are conservative men, and they don't believe in any depictions of humans. They're not wild about Western women invading their sanctum either," says Faye.

She and her colleague are ushered behind the house to a stucco building with an interior that replicates a Bedouin tent. "The walls and ceiling are done in pastel fabric. A fire is blazing in a tall fireplace. Twelve men are sprawled on Persian carpets, leaning against bolsters. Most have the long, untrimmed beards and short thobes (the robes worn by conservative Muslims). They don't get up to shake hands when we enter. In fact, they only nod when introduced. But after what I perceive is a poor start, the men begin to open up. In fact, they later tell me it's OK to take out a notebook - just before dinner," says Faye.

The dinner is laid out on two tablecloths spread on the floor of a long room in the main house: On a pair of huge silver trays is a bed of rice topped with half a roasted lamb, head included. Bowls of roasted vegetables and fresh fruit hold down the corners. Faye is placed at one tablecloth with six men, and her colleague at the other tablecloth with the remaining six men.

"The food is delicious and the conversation lively," says Faye. The men show me how they eat with their hands, and even serve me lamb from the large platter (using utensils). I'm so busy asking questions and taking notes, though, that I barely have time to eat.

"All of a sudden I notice the guy next to me, Nasser, finishes a pear and throws the core at the tray. All the men jump up and leave. I sit there with my chin on my chest, wondering what I've done now.

"Our host is at the other tablecloth with only the member of the muttawaeen (religious police) and my colleague remaining. He laughs and explains to me that it is traditional to jump up from a meal when you're finished, to make room for others who are waiting to eat. I jump up too, then - and head out for the living room, where we drink several more tiny cups of tea and coffee and talk until 2:30 a.m."

David Clark Scott
World Editor

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