11:15 06-Dec-04

The next-to-last time I saw Mohamed—11:15, Dec 6, 2004—a blast-resistant window separated me from the Afghan businessman with good English, admiration for the U.S., and a carpet enterprise in Virginia.

The last applicant of the morning at our visa counter in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Mohamed was alone in the waiting room when the high-low alarm began to wail.

‘Just a minute,’ I said. Time to duck beneath the counter. ‘Get low. I’ll be right back. Sorry for this.’

‘No problem.’ An Afghan male taking refuge in Saudi Arabia, Mohamed knew patience where visas were concerned.

Gunfire erupted just outside. To this day I have no idea how Mohamed reacted.

‘Some drill,’ I said to a colleague crouched beside me.

‘No drill,’ he said. ‘Those are AK-47s.’

The Marine called over the intercom, ‘Gas! Gas! Gas!’

Was this the poison gas we trained regularly against? We had no masks at the counter. I crawled to my office for a Quickmask and lay under my desk watching the shadows cross the blinds above me wondering: clouds or terrorists?

I wondered, how many doors between me and the gunfire? The gas? The explosions?

A colleague in Riyadh called and described the coverage on CNN: black smoke billowing from our compound. ‘Turn off your phone,’ he said. So I had that to think about. I counted the doors between me and the outside. I wondered how Mohamed was doing all alone there in the waiting room.

Things would get worse that day before they got better: five colleagues killed outside the chancery. Ten sent to hospital.

The last time I saw Mohamed, months later, we didn’t speak of December 6. We didn’t speak of his visa application. Tickets to my next diplomatic assignment in hand, I visited his shop in Jeddah for gifts. I chose an hour when we’d be locked-in alone together while the rest of the city knelt in prayer.

The conclusion of this recollection is scheduled to appear in a forthcoming issue of the Foreign Service Journal. The gift I find in Mohamed’s shop is most unexpected.



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