We travel north through the desert past the camel souks for Book Club each Friday. Today we are singing carols and reading a special Christmas story. There will be mince pies and coffee to follow. It’s only a fortnight till Christmas but in Saudi, Christmas doesn't happen. Today will be different.
The songs are all familiar but when we come to sing ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’, I look out the window to my left.
We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we travel afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star
The desert is yellow and endless under a bright blue sky. It occurs to me I am now much closer to where the song’s events happened – and about as far away from home as I could possibly be.
Events proceed at a slightly chaotic pace. There are pauses in the story telling to hand out chocolate gifts to the children. “These are gifts, a bit like those from the three wise men, except that these are rewards for behaving. They’re not bribes,” explains Rob, who is in charge today. Nobody really believes him, but we laugh and carry on. Today especially, it feels so good to be part of a wider family group.
The children unwrap and eat their chocolates. There are appropriate breaks in the story-telling for them to come up and place small porcelain figures; shepherds, animals, a mother, a father, and a baby, all in a little miniature stable. Candles flicker nearby in the air-conditioning, and the stable scene takes on a glow all of its own.
Listening to a small fair-haired girl taking her turn to read the next part of the story, I feel suddenly nostalgic. I remember my own children, three heads, two of them plaited and fair-haired, bent over a book around the breakfast table on Christmas morning. The same story but a different time and place.
‘O Come all Ye Faithful’ goes at a gallop with some very interesting accompanying chord progressions. It probably wasn’t a carol designed for guitar, I think. But what is lacking in accuracy is made up for in gusto and volume. The reading and singing over, we chat for a bit and then make our way to the door.
“Of course, you know what the first miracle in the New Testament was?” says Rob to my husband as we leave. “Three wise men from the east,” he finishes.
We laugh together and head down the stairs.