With students at Chinese colleges accused this month of conducting cyber attacks on US businesses in and outside China, plus the alleged Mossad involvement in the assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai, I’m reminded of Paul Ulrich’s spy thriller Saudi Match Point, in which Chinese and American spies compete to seize control of the Saudi oilfields. An excerpt below.
“WAIT A MOMENT, MUSTAPHA. Pull over.” Nick instructed the driver to bring the consulate’s vehicle next to a beat-up car with its hood propped open and a man in Indian dress bent over the engine, peering inside. Nick had noticed the same broken-down sedan on the roadside of Dhahran twenty minutes before while en route to the commissary.
“Can we give you a lift?” Nick called out.
A bedraggled man straightened himself and wiped the sweat from his face with a dirty sleeve. “Thank you, that is most kind, good sir, but I do not wish to leave my car. I think the battery has died.”
“Hold on, we’ll help you jump start it.”
First, at Mustapha’s suggestion, they tried the easy way, seating the man behind the wheel, shifting the car to neutral, and pushing. But the engine still failed to turn over and catch. They then opened the back of the consulate’s vehicle to fish out some cables for a jump start. As Mustapha and the stranded driver began attaching them, with Nick looking on, a second SUV pulled up.
“Nick, what are you doing in this heat?” It was Ma Ling, unveiled, in the front passenger seat. “Get in. We’ll give you a ride.”
“I’m trying to help out this fellow. . . .”
“Your driver seems able to handle it. You haven’t forgotten our game, have you?”
“No, Mustapha was going to drop me at the club. I suppose your taking me will save time and leave him with one less thing to worry about.”
Nick grabbed his bag, climbed into the back seat behind Ma Ling, and gave his driver some final instructions. “If the cables don’t do the trick, please stop at the nearest service station and have them send a tow truck for this guy.” Mustapha did not reply but cast a bemused look at Ma Ling and back at Nick.
As they pulled away, Nick asked, “Ma Ling, don’t you think this might seem improper?”
Ma Ling turned with her elbow propped on the front seat. “Oh, you are an old ninny, Mr. Hansen. I always sit up front. We Chinese are egalitarians.”
“Not just that. I mean, driving with an unrelated man…”
“Who? You or Mr. Huang?” she said, looking at her driver who was decked out in a tan cap, matching gloves, and loose-fitting Mao-style jacket. “That is one of the local inconsistencies, isn’t it? If the religious police found me alone with you—a non-related man—they could take me away to be whipped as a prostitute. But I’m not allowed to drive, so must have this unrelated man take me all over town. Of course, with Huang Lei, no one would dare insult me in such a fashion. Please introduce yourself. He’ll be amazed to hear you speak Chinese.”
Nick greeted the silent driver, whose broad bulk and close-cropped, gray hair reminded him of a calmer Ambassador Gewalt. Huang’s face lit up in a big smile. He looked at Nick in the mirror and replied in a deep voice that Nick couldn’t understand. Ma Ling translated. “His accent is very strong, so you won’t catch much of what he says, but he follows you perfectly.”
Nick said, “If it weren’t for that driving outfit, I’d think he might be a bodyguard.”
“And you’d be right! Oh, you are clever!” Ma Ling laughed. “I tell Huang the gloves are a bit much, but he is too vain about the scars on his hands.”
“I’ll have to be more careful around you.”
“Before my husband left, he would often drive me when I needed to go out, but Huang has been a good companion since then.”
“I didn’t realize you were married…”
“Divorced and, fortunately, there are no children to fight over. We came out here three years ago as employees of China Oil and I became liaison to Saudi Oil, but there was little for my husband Ruan to do.”
Nick tried to imagine what Ruan was like. He must have had his hands full with this one.
Ma Ling continued. “He is a Party member and did some work for the embassy in Riyadh, but I think resented my getting on better than he could. I guess my being Muslim and knowing Arabic helped. Or could it be my vivacious personality?” She turned around and winked at Nick.
“So you’re not in the Party? Isn’t that the way to get ahead?” Nick asked.
“Certainly, but to be in the Communist Party, you must be an atheist. That is incompatible with my religion. Even though I’m not devout, it wouldn’t be right. But like the other Hui, I support my country and will fight for it.” She clenched her tiny fists to make the point and shadow boxed with Huang’s large shoulder. “Did you know that one of the five stars on China’s flag stands for us Hui?”
“But it’s still one of the four smaller ones, right?”
“Yes, but unlike the other Chinese Muslims—the Uighurs—we do not harbor terrorists and we look Chinese, so the government trusts us.”
Nick nodded. “I doubt I would ever see any Uighurs posted here. Your embassy would assume they would be scheming with al-Qaeda. The last thing you need is to turn Xinjiang into a Chinese Chechnya.”
“Actually, I grew up in Xinjiang and have many friends who are Uighur. There are only a few bad pears—or what you call—‘apples.’ ”
“So you must be a natural for this place. Oil fields and deserts are nothing new to you. Tell me, how does China view the U.S. in the Middle East?”
“The same way I view you—warily.” Ma Ling laughed. Then turning serious again, she said, “Although we keep our heads down, we are a proud people. You know, the West humiliated us for centuries.” She glanced at Huang. “But now, like a sleeping giant, we will one day stand up and challenge America.”
Nick took this comment as an idle boast, borne of feelings of insecurity, and thought of his stay in Beijing in 1999 as an exchange student. Then, the U.S. bombing of China’s Belgrade embassy had led to government-organized street protests that subsequently fizzled. What if something similar happened now? Despite aggressive U.S. policies in recent years, neither side could afford to rattle its sabers any more.
The two fell silent as the car reached the Saudi Oil club. John, Fatima, and Ahmad were already suited up and waiting for them. Approaching from behind, Nick overheard Fatima chatting with John: “When I first told Ahmad I wanted to play tennis here, he said, ‘Well, I don’t know. What you and Faisal do in the U.S. is your business, but when Father is away, I am responsible. Let me consult the Koran to see what it says about games with sticks.’ ”
“I was joking!” Ahmad protested. Then turning and seeing Nick, followed by Ma Ling, Ahmad waved at Ma Ling and shook Nick’s hand in both of his. “Mr. Nicholas. Good to see you again. I came with Fatima.”
Nick grinned at them and said, “Yes, it’s a good idea for Fatima to have a chaperone, particularly with John present.”
Kaddish parried the barb. “Now, now, boy. Ahmad and I go way back at Saudi Oil—don’t we, mate? We’re both propeller heads—technical nerds, that is,” he explained to Ma Ling’s puzzled expression. “Although this is the first time he has introduced me to his sister, or even told me he had one.”
“Well, John, your reputation preceded you.” Ahmad laughed.
Fatima kept John on the defensive. “And I was safely hidden in the U.S. for much of that time.”
Kaddish turned to Nick to deflect the ribbing. “And you are escorting…?”
Nick introduced John to Ma Ling, who gave a mock curtsy to his exaggerated bow. All five then walked to the courts, Ahmad climbed into the referee’s chair and said, “Now someone tell me how to keep score.”
John called across the net, “Nick, shall we go for the usual thirty-point spot per game?”
“Let’s see how the rallies go.”
In the milliseconds that enabled him to rate another player by the swing of the first stroke, Nick noticed that Fatima had the graceful motion of someone naturally gifted as a late learner or brought up from childhood with lessons. He suspected the former to be the case. Ma Ling, on the other hand, hacked at the ball as she had warned she would. After some limbering up, Nick won the racquet toss for first serve.
“Okay, we’ll start each game with a love-thirty handicap.” He consciously downgraded his serving speed to enable Fatima to return the shot.
Before Nick’s serve to John in the backhand court, Ma Ling backpedaled from the net to the baseline. “Thanks for the vote of no confidence, Ma Ling. I’ve made some bad shots but never hit my partner in the back.”
“Oh, I trust you, Nick. It’s just that Mr. Kaddish shoots his balls like rockets.”
“Don’t worry. Only a few of them go in, so there’s little chance of one heading straight into you up there.”
Unlike John, Nick didn’t go for winners. He preferred to keep the ball in play and would rather lose with both sides playing well than win if the other played badly. Nick made sure to congratulate opponents on their good shots. Not aggressive enough, his coach had said.
In the end, the ball boy got the best of the workout, chasing errant shots across the empty courts on either side. The only damage done to Ma Ling was self-inflicted: a volley deflected from her racquet’s edge off the side of her head and miraculously landing back over the net, a feat that had the others laughing, her smarting, and Ahmad climbing down from his perch to help settle the point.
“Time for some drinks,” John called out, and handed the ball boy a fistful of bills as a tip, equivalent to a day’s wages for the youth. The boy beamed as John thanked him. “Shukran jazeelan, ya walid.”
They all went to the clubhouse patio and sat at a shaded table. Nick noticed Huang seated with his eyes closed, apparently asleep in the corner, and asked Ma Ling to invite him over.
“No, he’s meditating. Besides he doesn’t speak English so would not understand the conversation.”
Ahmad ordered a round of carcadays—a purplish drink made from hibiscus. When the sweating glasses arrived, John, ever the showman, sipped first as if sampling a fine wine and said in an affected southern drawl, “Mmm, that packs a twang.” He then promptly leaned next to Ahmad and ignored the others to talk about work. Glad to have the women alone, Nick thought of how to draw Fatima out. He asked how she and Ma Ling knew each other.
“We met at the Saudi Oil clinic. Ma Ling came in with a twisted ankle from…”
“Sticking my high heel into the wrong place.”
“…and we talked. I think you had already met my father then, right?”
Ma Ling nodded and Fatima continued. “Mother had recently died, and Father wanted me to have the steadying influence of an older woman, so since that time, Ma Ling has become a regular at our home in Dhahran.”
“And I was alone—Ruan had returned to China—so I enjoy the company.”
Nick said, “It doesn’t seem easy for women to fraternize—er, socialize—like—um, you know, to mix with friends, as it is for men.” His cheeks colored as he tried to choose the appropriate words.
“Having lived in the U.S., I’ve become a bit of a feminist. I often ask Ma Ling about women in China,” Fatima said. “It’s not so easy there, either.”
“Our society considers women inferior,” Ma Ling said. “When I was young, some parents didn’t even bother to name the baby girls and just referred to them as ‘Number 2’ or ‘Number 3’ depending on their order of birth.”
Nick remembered his stay in Beijing and laughed. “One of my friends in China—an old chauvinist—still refers to his grown sisters like that.”
Neither Ma Ling nor Fatima seemed to appreciate the humor.
Fatima sighed. “At least Chinese women are allowed to drive.”
Ma Ling made a subtle dig at her Saudi friend. “Not everyone grew up in a wealthy family—or one that could afford a car.” The three fell silent. As if to emphasize her point, Ma Ling looked around at the opulence of the Saudi Oil club before continuing. “Here, at least, the embassy brought hundreds of drivers for us.” She gestured toward her slumbering Buddha. “Like the dependable Mr. Huang over there.”
Fatima’s voice rose, losing its musical lilt. “In Maryland, I don’t have to ask Faisal to take me around. I drive myself to college every day, but in this country I have to have a driver. Saudi men say it’s because they treat us like ‘queens,’ because we all deserve chauffeurs. That’s absurd. What did the prophet ever say about automobiles? And what about women who have no money to hire a driver? Women in every other Muslim country can drive. Why not here?”
Ahmad and John had stopped talking and were listening. Never quiet for long, John butted into the conversation and assumed the role of raconteur. “Ah, driving in Muslim countries. That reminds me of my days traipsing about North Africa and Yemen. Part of my self-styled graduate education, you might say—a one-year, global tour. We Kiwis go for long vacations ’cause it’s so damn far to get to everywhere else.”
Ma Ling asked John why he had come to Saudi Arabia, but he didn’t answer directly.
“I had to get out of New Zealand: the job was too boring. Pulling telephone cables through office buildings—that wasn’t for me. I am, after all, just a self-taught computer hack—no genius programmer like my friend here.” He patted Ahmad on the back. “So I went to see what the rest of the world might offer. “Skipped Asia completely, which means I have no China war stories to tell. But I did get to Europe and at one point found myself on a steamer from Gibraltar to Morocco with a small-time thief and drug dealer. Managed to shake him and avoid having hashish planted in my knapsack.” John patted his pockets as if to see whether he was still carrying any.
“Got waylaid by the usual carpet hucksters who don’t take ‘no’ for an answer even though it’s impossible to carry a six-by-nine-foot carpet in a forty-inch backpack. Apart from some Arabian Nights adventures with ladies along the way, I managed to stay out of trouble, avoided the prisons, and befriended some people who showed me the famous Arab hospitality.”
Nick saw Fatima and John smiling at each other and wanted to take him down a peg. “So you repaid the hospitality by dallying with their daughters… or wives.”
John ignored the comment.
“What about the driving?” Nick prodded. He cupped his hands behind his head.
“That was in Yemen, but let me get there first, mate. “So I bummed around Morocco and did some odd jobs in Casablanca. It didn’t look at all like the movie, believe me. Next stop was Algeria, soon after the killing had ended. That place had some horror stories—fundamentalists slaughtering people. You better hope it doesn’t happen here one day.”
Nick was tapping his feet, “Uh huh, uh huh…” He knew his interruptions were childish and felt like a little kid clamoring for attention, jealous of another’s charms.
“Okay. Let’s fast forward to Yemen. Not the safest place a few years back, but I could speak a bit of Arabic and wanted to hike in the mountains. If you can handle a rifle on your back, you’re okay—not that I carried one, though sometimes wished I had. Instead I slung a curved Yemeni dagger around my waist and drove from one hilly range to the next in their bus taxis—big, old, American station wagons belching exhaust and crammed with a dozen passengers who smelled like goats.
“On those long drives with your arms wedged to your side between two guys that look like they’d slit your throat on a dare, there’s not much to do but talk. During one ride, the two on either side of me seemed to like my appearance. A little flattery is okay, but I didn’t enjoy the way the conversation was heading, so I steered it to my favorite topic—women. That got them going. One had marriageable daughters and asked if I was Muslim. I hesitated, said I respected Islam, and might even consider converting if I hadn’t been born a Christian. They got even more excited at that, and by the end of the trip had me witnessing three times that there was no God but Allah, no prophet but Mohammed, and some other mumbo jumbo. To their minds, I had converted—a simple process, actually.”
“You’re a Muslim?” Fatima squealed. Her voice rose to a pitch beyond her normal range.
“Not exactly. I had my legs and arms crossed, and for good measure, a couple of fingers and toes. So I remained faithful to Lord Jesus.” He winked.
Ahmad and Fatima frowned, and she said, “You lied then.”
“Nick, explain to them what it means if you do this when you speak.” He held up his crossed fingers.
Fatima said, “I know, but still it’s not honest.”
“I just wanted to keep these guys happy and off my back—literally. Besides, they were delighted to think they had a new convert. The two were all set to have me move into one of their homes—after some back and forth as to which house was better—and marry their daughters. If they had thought I was rich enough, they would have sold me four of the girls—that’s the Muslim limit, isn’t it?”
“You’re terrible,” Fatima said, smiling.
John let the comment pass. “When we arrived at their squalid village, and I saw my fate dangling before me, I begged off. Said I had an urgent appointment in the next city, but would be sure to look them up when back in town.”
“You, devil, Mr. Kaddish,” said Ma Ling, whose grin belied her words.
“Yes,” he winked back. “And remember that’s spelled with a ‘K,’ not a ‘C.’ ”
“Despite what you say, I think you may in fact be a Muslim—just not a practicing one,” said Fatima. “With the right outfit, you’d look like Omar Sharif.”
“No, no. I’m still a man of the cross. In fact, to prove it, I have a tattoo that says ‘I love Jesus’ on my lower cheek.” He leaned forward and patted his butt. “If I ever do convert—and my grandparents would be rolling in their graves to hear me say that—they’d have to sand this off first.”