One thing that any decent journalist would be ashamed to do -- and journalists can be shamed, though it's not easy -- is to lead off a column with an illuminating conversation had with a cab driver, especially a foreign-born cab driver from the place the journalist is writing about. "You know what would make a good quirky lede," my friend said, "is if somebody asked the cabbies how they feel about being drafted as experts." Well, I did once, but my Pakistani driver was not quite current on his American-journalism cliches, so the conversation never achieved lift-off and became rather awkward and confusing for both of us.
Which is why I was so pleased to read the following anecdote in the book Gen. Tony Jeapes wrote about the SAS's part in fighting Communists in Oman in the '70s -- as far as Western tropes go, this fellow has our number:
Shams had been told of a water-hole in a fertile wadi only an hour’s drive away from Oven and determined to visit it. Wherever you find water in Arabia, you find people, so he took some tins of corned beef and some tinned fruit as a gift. . . .The head of the family sat under a tree and rose to greet Shams. He was an elderly man, already grey, dressed in a futa and shirt with an indigo cloak slung across one shoulder. They shook hands.‘Salaam aleikum,’ began Shams, ‘Khayf haalak?’
‘Good afternoon,’ came the reply in perfect English. ‘Where have you come from? I do hope you did not come too far out of your way?’ He smiled knowingly at Shams’s speechless astonishment. ‘You are surprised to find someone like this,’ he gestured about him, ‘who speaks English. Well, let us sit down and have a cup of tea. An Englishman always drinks tea when he is at a loss for words, does he not?’ He called out to his wives in Jebeli.
The old man explained that he had, like so many others, gone into exile under Said Bin Taimur’s rule and had learnt English in the Gulf. He had travelled widely and prospered, but always he dreamt of the valley where he had been born, and he resolved to return one day. Now he had more than enough money to buy all the goats, camels and wives he needed, and he was as happy as the day was long. He saw few people, he said, but for several hours he and Shams discussed the affairs of Oman, the Gulf and the world, and Shams was amazed at the depth of knowledge the old man possessed of affairs outside his own little wadi.
It was a fascinating afternoon and Shams was reluctant to leave, but at last he rose to go and uncertainly handed over the tins of food. The old man took them, examined them for a moment and then looked up at Shams with a twinkle in his eye.
The book also notes that the SAS's best Arabists were all Scotsmen -- something to do with glottal stops and rolled R's coming easier to them.‘What, no beads?’ he said.