Still not a correspondent

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.