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Feb. 6 2010 - 6:06 am | 309 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Last night, at the checkpoint

Biometric United States passport issued in 2007

I need one of those, the blogger said, eying my passport. (Image via Wikipedia)

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.

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    About Me

    Since graduating from Deep Springs College, I've written and edited for magazines (Rolling Stone, The Atlantic Monthly), newspapers (The Village Voice, The National), and websites (NPR.org, SixBillion.org). In the summer of 2007, I packed a bag and walked from New York to New Orleans, a trek that took five months, three pairs of shoes, and a couple thousand miles. These days, I live in Saudi Arabia with my wife, Kelly McEvers, who covers the region for National Public Radio.

    See my profile »
    Followers: 41
    Contributor Since: August 2009
    Location:Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

    What I'm Up To

    The Review

    I’m a regular contributor to The Review, which Reihan Salam calls a “younger, radder” New York Review of Books.

    Past pieces include:
    -”Down in the floods,” something in Saudi Arabia may have changed
    -”Checkpoint Qatif,”among Saudi’s Shiite minority
    -”Excursion into the desert,” in which my landlord pulls a gun.
    -”You’ll never walk alone,” a night of soccer in sweltering Riyadh.
    -”Get on the bus,” a story of public transport in Riyadh.
    -”Saudi Arabia’s got talent,” from the nation’s first-ever open TV auditions