"Here, I got another dependent: my wife," he said. He found himself driving her around, chaperoning her as if she were a child. "When they see a woman walking alone here, it's like a wolf watching a sheep. 'Let me take what's unattended.' " He told me that both he and his wife hoped, desperately, that social and political reform would finally dawn in the kingdom. He thought foreign academics were too easy on Saudi Arabia, that they urged only minor changes instead of all-out democracy because they secretly regarded Saudis as "savages" incapable of handling too much freedom.
"For ourselves, the train has left the station. We are trapped," he said. "I think about my kids. At least when I look at myself in the mirror I'll say: 'At least I said this. At least I wrote this.' "
WHEN Saudi officials chat with an American reporter, they go to great lengths to depict a moderate, misunderstood kingdom. They complain about stereotypes in the Western press: Women banned from driving? Well, they don't want to drive anyway. They all have drivers, and why would a lady want to mess with parking?
The religious police who stalk the streets and shopping centers, forcing "Islamic values" onto the populace? Oh, Saudi officials say, they really aren't important, or strict, or powerful. You hear stories to the contrary? Mere exaggerations, perpetuated by people who don't understand Saudi Arabia.
I had an interview one afternoon with a relatively high-ranking Saudi official. Since I can't drive anywhere or meet a man in a cafe, I usually end up inviting sources for coffee in the lobby of my hotel, where the staff turns a blind eye to whether those in the "family section" are really family.
As the elevator touched down and the shiny doors swung open onto the lobby, the official rushed toward me.
"Do you think we could talk in your room?" he blurted out.
I stepped back. What was this, some crazy come-on?
"No, why?" I stammered, stepping wide around him. "We can sit right over here." I wanted to get to the coffee shop — no dice. He swung himself around, blocking my path and my view.
"It's not a good idea," he said. "Let's just go to your room."
"I really don't think I mean," I said, stuttering in embarrassment.
Then, peering over his shoulder, I saw them: two beefy men in robes. Great bushes of beards sprang from their chins, they swung canes in their hands and scanned the hotel lobby through squinted eyes.
"Is that the religious police?" I said. "It is!" I was a little mesmerized. I'd always wanted to see them in action.
The ministry official seemed to shrink a little, his shoulders slumped in defeat.
"They're not supposed to be here," he muttered despondently. "What are they doing here?"
"Well, why don't we go to the mall next door?" I said, eyes fixed on the menacing men. "There's a coffee shop there, we could try that."
"No, they will go there next." While he wrung his hands nervously, I stepped back a little and considered the irony of our predicament. To avoid running afoul of what may be the world's most stringent public moral code, I was being asked to entertain a strange, older man in my hotel room, something I would never agree to back home.