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    « Reading Stephen King in Riyadh | Main | In which my friend tells me he's leaving forever »

    Last night, at the checkpoint


    The blogger stood beside his compact green sedan, the police lights washing over his polo shirt, jeans, and sneakers. I coasted over, surprised at how slight he seemed in person. The gears of my Chinese-made bike clicked, and I felt in my breast-pocket for the comforting heft of my U.S. passport.

    My wife had explained to me that her Saudi visitor would need someone to meet him at the gate of our walled compound. But we no longer rented a car -- I had become terrified of traffic and the idea of blood money -- so I would face the checkpoint police born on the unenviable conveyance of two wheels.

    The night air was cool, and men with guns swarmed. Stretching beyond the guards was a long line of vehicles, each waiting to gain entry. Next to an armored personnel carrier, two heavy-set soldiers in berets sat smoking in the shadows. I noticed the glowing red bulb of a burning cigarette. It was the gunner manning the .50-caliber cannon.

    The blogger looked around, resigned. My wife had told me about his troubles. A half dozen decorated officers conferred behind sandbags and iron security fencing spikes. I snapped my kickstand and stuck out my hand.

    "Pleasure to meet you in person," I said.

    "Sure," the blogger said, his face screwed up in demurral.

    I was eager to get him away from all this, so I caught the eye of a too-skinny cadet. "This is my friend," I said, pointing at him, pointing at myself. "He's visiting me." The cadet ignored us, his eyes refocusing on the line of idling cars.

    I wheeled my bike -- clicking, clicking -- to the sandbags. The tallest soldier was a wide-shouldered, big-bellied Saudi with flecks of grey in his beard. Lips curled, he met my eyes and scowled deeper. I handed him my passport. He fingered the worn blue cover and paused -- sizing up my new friend, nostrils flaring -- before slapping the passport into my hand.

    "Halas," he said -- Arabic for finished. We were free to go.