Her long pale brown hair sets off her alabaster skin and clear blue eyes. She is slim and chic and beautifully spoken. Her English is perfect. Her manners impeccable. Her clothes elegant. If one didn't know, one could easily mistake her for British aristocracy. But she is not. She is Nouha al Hejailan, the wife of the Saudi Arabian ambassador in London.
She stands at the entrance to the embassy drawing room, an immense room done in antique French furniture and brocades. She sits on a love seat and lights the first of many cigarettes, while a manservant serves tea.
Her parents, she says, lived in Syria. She was born and raised there. She is 37, educated in Damascus to be a lawyer. She married at 21 has been stationed abroad with her husband a foreign service career man, for the last 16 years - Denmark, Venezuela, Spain, "16 years of roaming about." What that means to her is a life almost free from the stricture most Saudi women know in their own country.
As any diplomat's wife should do, she speaks carefully, weighing her words. But she is not afraid to say what she thinks. She smiles easily, has a nice sense of humor, talks thoughtfully.
She understands perfectly the image most Westerners have of Arabs, particularly the British.
"I know that the English don't like the Arab invasion of London at all," she says, "but they don't say it bluntly. In fact my British friends never talk to me about their feeling on the Arabs here. At the same time they realize this invasion is bringing a large amount of money which is quite helpful. And of course they don't like it that somebodyelse has the money. And that the somebody is not them. And that the somebody is different from them."
Madama Al Hejailan takes a sip of her tea, places it delicately on the table nearby and smiles.
"You may not like this analogy," she says, "but 20 years ago the Americans came to Europe. They were rich and handsome and they were spending. I never remember hearing about the nice wonderful Americans. I remember spending at least 20 years not liking 'the Americans' until I got to know them. People would say. 'Don't rent your house to the Americans. They aren't clean and their children will paint on the walls and destroy your chairs and they are so badly disciplined. Don't give your maid to the Americans. They will overpay her and spoil her and let her entertain her friends in your home."
She says that today if you are walking on the Champs Elysee and you see 'somebody in a flowered wild shirt and bright green pants with a camera slung around his neck everydoby will say, 'Look at the American.' And it may not be an American at all.
"That is what I feel," she says, when I see an Arab lady with a mask on in London or even a beautiful lady in a Rolls Royce and I hear the English saying 'Humph.' At the same time, I try to remember that we must allow them to be what they are as long as they can afford it. Because we are all human beings."
It is quite clear that Nouha al-hejailan has spent a great deal of time thinking about these questions, preparing, with her legal background a defense of sorts. She answers every question with clarity and precision, every thought with a thoroughness born of a certain discipline, a certain pain.
"Those people who come from the tents, from the desert," she says, "are like raw gems. They have this intelligence, this wit. They do see everything. They might come from centuries behind but they bring with them the wisdom of centuries. They know the Koran by heart. That's like knowing all of Shakespeare by heart. All of the poets. And even if they don't know anything they have this wisdom. They are hospitable and generous. This must be for something."
She says that the shock between the two cultures is always big and is not always understood. Particularly the British lack of understanding about the role of Arab women in their own countries. She is circumspect on this subject and one senses that her uncharacteristic freedom the past 16 years plus the fact that she has been and stayed married has made her more charitable to the customs at home.
"The traditions are there," she says. "They are good and they are bad but there are many more good ones than bad. The only bad one, maybe, is the veil. But it is an inherited thing which has come down through the years.
"You wouldn't find, I don't think, that the women feel frustrated. If you talk to me or them you will find no difference. If I wanted to take it all off I would have long ago. It wouldn't mean as much to me as it does to you. When it does, we'll take it off. It doesn't alter us. The veil is for any man to whom you could get married, to any other man but your husband, your father and your brothers. Many of the young generation are having parties and do not wear veils.And you certainly don't sit in a party with a veil on. You can go shopping with a veil. And you can go shopping alone now, by the way. But people on the street are not yet accepting unveiled women."
She becomes rather heated and flushed with anger when the subject of the British accusing the Arabs of being dirty comes up.
"They say that the Arabs are dirty. Well, I know how the Arabs are clean," she says, in a tightly controlled voice. She hesitates. "We do things that give the impression that we are not clean. We take food in the elevators back and forth in apartment buildings.People say, "How horrible. Can't they cook in their own houses?"
"But for us it is customary and hospitable to bring food to others. Of course, if you go to Egypt you will see people in the streets who don't wash. But this is poverty, this is different. In Saudi Arabia, we still have to wash five times a day (before praying to Mecca).
"They say that the Arabs play at the casinos, doesn't everbody? Casinos have been here for centuries and they never went broke. European kings, Italian magnates have gambled in casinos long before the Arabs.
"People say the Arab men like women. I'd say they are normal."
She stops to chuckle with indignation. "As if the Arabs can't have their own weak spots."
Her husband, Faisal, arrives home from the office at that moment, a short, dark man with a beard, dreesed beautifully in an English suit. He apologizes for having to whisk her away. They are off to a dinner party. She doesn't hesitate a moment to get up and accept his beckon. She smiles her apologies too. Then adds, as she leaves:
"When people use the expression 'The Ugly American' they are wrong and they are right. You can't for instance, say that because of Nixon all Americans are bad. You cannot generalize about the Arabs. When you have 150 million in the world to compare, how could you?