x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Innocents at home

Last word Returning to New York after a season in Saudi Arabia, Nathan Deuel finds robotic Santas, cold curiosity and a struggle to explain.

Returning to New York after a season in Saudi Arabia, Nathan Deuel finds robotic Santas, cold curiosity and a struggle to explain.
It's late December, 2008, and my wife and I are on furlough from Islamic lands. Snow falls on New York as we roll up to a friend's building. Buzzers list dozens of names, from dozens of countries. The door snaps open and we hear the Christmas classic Jingle Bell Rock emanating from the belly of an animatronic Santa Claus. It's a shock: We're just a few hours off the plane from Riyadh, where music is effectively banned. There's no Christmas there, and certainly no animatronic Santas.Representing as it does the human form (in Saudi, forbidden), Christianity (very forbidden), and celebration that doesn't glorify God (also forbidden), this hip-swivelling elf is a bracing reminder that we're temporarily free from life under Saudi's implacable rules.

But with our visit just begun, the bigger surprise in store for us is that our own friends in America will, in their way, be nearly as uncompromising. The next night, over a barbecue dinner at a music- and art-filled apartment, old friends marvel at how far we've travelled. All the way from the last forbidden kingdom, where they practice the most intense strain of Islam, where booze is outlawed, where women can't drive. The usual shorthand.

I steel myself to honour new Saudi friends by pushing talk beyond gloss and stereotype. I speak with feeling about life so close to Mecca, about the emphasis on family and tradition and religion. "It sounds like the opposite of everything I care about," a friend says. I clench my teeth. Staring down my meal of forbidden meat, beans, and beer, I begin with the corny, first-order language of tolerance: I tell him that, as unfamiliar as Saudi may sound, there's still a lot we can learn from each other. I steady my glass. Maybe you'll never experience life in Saudi or among its neighbours, I say, but their claim to good living is just as heartfelt as ours.

Then comes their opening salvo: So why must women still cover up? With lips kissed by barbecue sauce, my wife and I rally our response: Some see the abaya and other such coverings as a means to be unjudged by physical appearance. Some in Saudi (and in Turkey, Indonesia, Brooklyn) tell us it's an empowering convention, that donning the fabric is a way to honour generations of women who've done the same.

Our friends are unmoved in finding the practice offensive. The reaction from one of them, half-eaten pork rib in hand: "Don't they see they're kidding themselves?" My wife and I hang our heads. After the plates are cleared, talk settles queasily on the matter of public beheadings. On the fact that murderers, drug dealers, and certain sex offenders are drugged and dragged to a public square in downtown Riyadh, where a burly professional commands a scimitar. Kelly and I report honestly what we've heard: People clamour to watch the ceremony - and when non-Saudis are present, they're sometimes pushed to the front. Is this pride? I'm not sure, I say. Is it anger at disingenuous gawking? Also possible, I say.

The friend who says he'll never visit Saudi says, "I'd go see one. How could you not?" His wife is aghast. "What good could possibly come from that?" She regards us all unhappily. For a minute, the room is hot and too small. There's accusation and judgment even in considering Saudi, regardless of whether any of us has actually seen the blade fall. But I'm not ready to stop. I explain that we're not there to change their lives. We're there to observe, to bring back data, to ease misunderstanding in both directions. (Saudis can't fathom American divorce rates and hate the idea of elders in nursing homes.)

The topic settles. With Barack Obama's change train barrelling toward Washington, talk soon veers to our country - and the headlines reporting that a certain subset of Americans is suddenly calling for Obama's head. Why? The friend horrified by executions says it's because the president-elect has invited a fundamentalist to speak at the inauguration. We're on the same theme, different religion. The so-called fundamentalist is Rick Warren, the Christian megachurch leader and author of best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life. Earlier this month, to the shock of certain Obama followers, Warren compared gay marriage to incest.

All of a sudden I'm rallying again. It gets us nowhere to dismiss Warren, I say, my voice rising. Or if you must take the hard line, you should at least be inspired and challenged by Obama's effort to invite Warren and his followers - disagreeable as they might seem because of their belief. How much easier would it be to snub, to end the conversation! But when Obama said he'd reach across the aisle, that he'd ignore partisan differences, he actually meant it. Certain people heard him say such a thing. Certain people were excited he said such a thing. They donated money and volunteered time.

I continue, pulse quickening: The amazing thing, I say - beyond that fact that Obama is actually keeping his word - is how hard it is not to feel uncomfortable, even for those who would otherwise pride themselves on professed tolerance. What Obama's done - giving a figure like Warren a place on his stage - wasn't easy, I say. The room is quiet. My upper lip is sweating. In my mind, I'm back in the lobby of that New York building where I first saw the swivelling Claus. My wife and I are standing there, eyes and ears buzzing from the cold and the culture shock. Our large-hearted friend who lives in the building comes to greet us. A Catholic engaged to a Jew from Long Island, he is uncharacteristically emotional: "Why just Christmas?" he says angrily, pointing at all the Christmas decorations in his lobby. "Don't they realise how many different kinds of people live in this building?"

It's a small question - Why exclude? - but also a deceptively powerful one. The basics of pluralism are still the basics, as vexing as ever. Back at dinner, I sit there sputtering, beginning to realise how much more work there is to do - at home and abroad, on the largest stages and in the most intimate of dining rooms. And I begin to see a strange logic in pushing bystanders to the front. Maybe that's what people like Obama are doing: pushing us all to the front. Because openness doesn't mean much unless we get close enough to witness the depth of our differences. But for now, as dinner unwinds, my wife and I let discussion move to happier talk.

Nathan Deuel, a former deputy editor at Rolling Stone, is at work on a book about walking from New York to New Orleans.