The white Land Cruiser approached the rear of our saloon car, flashing its lights. I was overtaking a small bus filled with low-paid immigrant workers. The men were heading back to their work camp after completing their latest twelve hours of on one of the highway developments going on all across Qatar. Outside, a flat expanse of brown sand and marching electricity pylons filled the view: a typical scene outside the major towns. In the distance, a red sun was rapidly disappearing over the horizon.
Flash! Flash! Flash! The Land Cruiser was almost upon me, but I was still passing the bus in the second lane, my foot pressed flat down on the accelerator. A few workers wearily gazed at me, blankness in their eyes, tiredness on their faces.
FLASH! FLASH! FLASH! The silver grille of the 4×4 filled my rear-view mirror.
“There’s another idiot behind me,” I said to my wife. “He’s up against my bumper.” Angela turned round and shook her head. Both of us were used to this type of behavior from aggressive Qatari drivers. I edged past the bus then decided to stage a small protest. I carried on for a few moments in the fast lane, relishing the fact I was annoying the man behind. He moved within a centimetre of our car, flashing more furiously than ever, but I hung on until I was ready. Two seconds more and I indicated I was going to move. The Arab driver was immediately upon me. The problem was that he miscalculated his overtaking manoeuvre and clipped my left bumper.
Two things happened.
First, the engine stalled and, second, the impact sent us careening onto the rough patch of highway that served as a rudimentary hard shoulder. Instinctively, I braked and came to a standstill, the inertia and silence inside the car almost unreal. Angela looked shell-shocked, gripping the side of her seat. The bus passed; every passenger staring. I released my grip on the steering wheel and glanced in the rear view mirror. Behind me, also at a standstill, was the white Land Cruiser.
“What the hell was he playing at?” I said to my wife. I was furious! Before Angela could stop me, I climbed into the heat of the Middle East, a temperature that could sap the strength of the unwary in minutes.
The Land Cruiser was twenty metres away, and the driver, a man in his thirties wearing a white thawb, the long, ankle-length garment favoured by men in Arabia, was already emerging from the door. Dust was eddying around his car’s headlights.
“Salaam alaikum,” he said politely, peace be upon you, the standard greeting across the Arabic world. He didn’t seem bothered or upset that he’d just rammed me off the road. His expression was neutral, perhaps even friendly, and, despite my bubbling anger, I noticed he was impeccably turned out: a gold pen in his top pocket, manicured black stubble on his angular face, expensive sandals on his feet and a white headdress clipped into place with a sturdy black band.
I didn’t reply to the man’s greeting. “You were that far from my bumper,” I said sharply. I shook my head and tutted. Any accident, no matter how small or trivial, was a police matter in Qatar. Without an official piece of paper saying that the police had attended a bump, then no one would repair any damage. But at least the man had stopped, I reasoned. He could’ve easily driven off.
I looked at my rear bumper and mercifully saw no damage, not even a scratch in the paintwork. The Arab man inspected his car; it seemed damage-free, too. And that was when I noticed the hooded falcon inside his car. It was sitting in the central compartment between the front seats. I opened my mouth and then closed it.
“How is car?” the man asked, gesturing to my bumper.
“It’s fine,” I said.
“Good. So there is no problem.”
“No problem? You just rammed me off the road!”
“But everything okay. No problem.” He turned to leave.
I laughed despite myself. It seemed such an absurd situation to be in: a Qatari man transporting a hooded falcon across the desert while ramming cars off the road. I said, “We need to call the police.”
The Arab man turned. “Why? No damage! Everything okay. Police waste our time.”
He had a point. The police would take ages to arrive, and, when they did, there would be a lot of form filling and interviews. Then we’d have to contact our insurance companies – all for a collision that had caused no damage. Did I really want to sit in the desert for an hour if there was no need? I nodded at the man. He nodded his head in return and we both walked to our vehicles.
“What did he say?” Angela asked.
“Nothing much. There was no damage, though. There wasn’t much to say.”
“Did he apologise?”
“Not really. He acted as if he did this sort of thing all the time.”
I turned the ignition key and heard only the empty click of the starter motor. I tried it again, with the same result. The jolt from the Land Cruiser had probably knocked it out of commission. I tried it for a third time. Nothing. Maybe the Arab man had some jump leads we could use, and I glanced in the rear-view mirror. He was still there, speaking into his phone. I jumped out and ran to his car.
“My engine is not working.” I said, miming me turning the ignition key and nothing happening.
The man in white nodded. “No problem. I push.”
I nodded, fair enough. Maybe a jump-start would do the trick, especially since our car had manual transmission, though I couldn’t imagine how he would push it; especially along a flat piece of rough terrain, but that was his problem, not mine. I rushed back to my car, engaged second gear and pushed in the clutch pedal. I informed Angela of our plan.
“He’s going to push it? Are you sure?”
“That’s what he said.”
I looked in the mirror and saw the Land Cruiser rolling up behind me, bumper to bumper. So that was his plan – to push me with his car! He was waiting for me to give the signal. When I did, he gently made contact with the rear of our car and then let rip. A second later, he propelled us at speed along the sandy verge, crunching and jolting, until we reached sufficient speed for me to lift the clutch. I did so, gunning the accelerator at the same time, relieved when the engine caught and powered into life. I stuck my thumb in the mirror and the Land Cruiser slowed, allowing us to move under our own power. I drove for a few more seconds, waiting for the engine to conk out, but when it didn’t, I swung onto the highway, relishing the smooth surface again. The Land Cruiser moved onto the highway too, pulling parallel to me. The man who had barged me off the highway was grinning. When I gave another thumbs-up, he waved and then tore off, no doubt to flash his lights at someone else further along. But I couldn’t help but be impressed: the Qatari man had been calm, poised and polite throughout – a true gentleman, in fact.
If you've enjoyed reading this, then maybe you'll also like the book it came from. Meeting the Middle East: Travels in Arabia.