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An Arabian Night (February 5, 2007)

As remembered by Anisa Mehdi

Maybe it was the edge of delusion


brought on by too little sleep and too
much airplane air, or perhaps it was the
kiss of jasmine in the warmth rising
above Jeddah at dusk; it might have
been that we were giddy with
opportunity and pride and gratitude when we all fell silent in the tea room atop
Beit Nassif. Whatever preceded the moment was part of the gift.

This grand old Jeddah home-turned-museum was built in the 1870s. For a long
time was the tallest building in this Saudi Arabian port city. Beit Nassif is
quintessentially Arab in construction: high ceilings with window bays allowing for
cross ventilation on hot days, windows covered with slats for looking out and not
being seen. The doorways are wood-carved and walls, stucco white. Tables are
inlaid with mother-of-pearl from the workshops of Damascus or are round brass
trays from the markets of the old city. Notable and unusual is the interior
staircase. Its steps are wide and shallow enough for a horse and rider to ascend
from the ground floor to the third level.

We climbed all the way to the top with our guide, Sami Nawar, director of tourism
for the city of Jeddah. And on carpet and cushions we inhaled the jasmine air,
drank our fill and refill of sweet tea and indulged in our first real conversation
since arriving in the Kingdom only 18 hours earlier. Sure, there had been a few
press conferences, a security briefing at the American Consulate, and a rapid but
rewarding shopping spree in the gold souk, but now we stopped and listened to
one another.
Mark Davidson, the State Department’s new director of International Information
Programs for the Near East and South/Central Asia, was on his first trip ever to
an Arab country. Azmat Khan, a senior at University of Michigan, had taken time
off from school to be a “citizen diplomat.” Ghiyath Nakshbendi a Maryland-based
businessman, Sami Nawar, who had lived in Oakland, CA, and I rounded out the
quintet that took on a world of topics in the twilight. Have you ever noticed how
pleasurable discussing even world troubles can be when you are safe on the
edges? From the edge, with the softening breeze, the tea and lantern light,
conversation lit on Japan (whence Mark had come), preservation and restoration
of historic landmarks (as is the Nassif house), and Palestine. We were on
refugees and justice when the first call came.

Of course: it was Maghreb, dusk, time for the fourth prayer of the day. Whoever
was about to speak smiled politely, and waited, presuming all would quiet soon.

But immediately a second muezzen dittoed the invocation: “Allahu akbar,” “God
is greater!” A third voice rang out from another part of town, then a fourth, and a
fifth.

Whatever we were talking about would wait.

Like a round, like a fugue, like blossoms popping open in time-lapse


photography, the call to prayer kept coming.

All eyes turned to Sami Nawar, who was beaming. Soundlessly we asked: “How
many?”

“Thirty six,” he whispered.

We leaned back on the cushions and surrendered. There was nothing to do but
be anointed by the azzan, to inhale the invitation, bask in the praise of paradise,
and submit to the miracle of music.
When silence fell it was not the same silence. The air was brilliant with memory
and the echoes twinkled under our skin. There was nothing left to say except
“thank you.”