They were both in New York on business, she a Washington beauty with Scarlett O'Hara skin, and he an Arab gentleman who loved his investments perhaps no more than her. "Where would you like to have dinner tonight?" he asked.

"Chicago," she replied.

(She could have said Los Angeles. Or Atlanta. But thinking it over for about 10 seconds, decided she kind of felt like the Pump Room.)

That was at 5, which gave them plenty of time for a limo to LaGuardia. By 11, they were on the first course. And by midnight . . .

"Arab men will sweep you off your feet," she says. "If one is walking down the street, thinking of you, and he passes a flower shop, he'll send you flowers. If he walks by Cartier, he'll probably nip in and buy you a necklace."

And American men?

"American men," she sighs, "have just lost that art of romance and seduction and gallantry."

Arabs and Americans, inevitably intertwined by a small ocean of oil lying under the Saudi sand, have come to coexist in Los Angeles banks, Riyadh boardrooms, the embassies of Washington. Business deals between the two worlds are now almost routine but as yet still perplexing -- the most recent example being Billy Carter's $220,000 loan from the Libyans.

Personal relations between Arabs and Americans just might perplex more. The most recent example in this genre is Sunday night's flight of a young Saudi woman and her American husband to Dallas. They were living in Spain, but were told their marriage was invalid under Islamic law and they feared she would be extradited to Saudi Arabia and tried for adultery.

As exotic as Chicago for dinner or fear-filled flights to Dallas, or as mundane as studying together for the law boards -- here there are no written rules and no patterns to follow. From casual dates to love to marriage, American women and Arab men can find themselves in a curious cultural clash that delights as well as devastates.

"It becomes a unity of diversity, and it can be a very creative relationship," says Clovis Maksoud, Arab League ambassador to the United Nations. "But at other times, the cultural differences are not matched by a deep intimacy and understanding. Naturally, they become a problematic factor."

Either way, the Mideast and Midwest seem to cast lures of equal mystery.

"He took my hand and he kissed it, and of course he spoke with an accent," says Mary Drysdale, a Washington interior designer who was once married to an Arab. "I was in love."

"I thought I was landing on the moon," says Saudi Information Office director Hassan Yassin, describing his first reaction to American women 26 years ago.

"I still think of it as exotic in a way," says Gail Harfouche, a Washington accountant who married a Lebanese. "You can picture him in the desert. It's sort of romantic."

Westerners, from James Joyce's "Araby" to Rudolph Valentino's "The Sheik" to PBS' "Death of a Princess," have long sterotyped Saudis, Kuwaitis, Jordanians, Abu Dhabians, Palestinians, et al., into one collective sheik. "He appears as an oversexed degenerate," writes Edward Said in his book," "Orientalism," and " can often be seen snarling at the captured Western hero and blond girl . . . (and saying 'My men are going to kill you, but -- they like to amuse themselves before.'"

And Arabs, accustomed to the veiled women back home, are said to consider the American female who drinks or bares a shoulder as loose and beyond. The reality hardly stops the misconceptions, and besides, the misconceptions are fine entertainment. "I Had an Arab Lover," said a headline in Cosmopolitan magazine last year. And the smaller print: "He was as handsome as Alain Delon, with a smile that had Belmondo's demon irony . . . I threw myself on the velvet pillows on the floor of his room . . . "

Explains Peter Iseman, an Arabist and author of a forthcoming book called "The Arabians":

"The Arabians remain an enigma . . . college girls who marry Arabians, businessmen who deal with them, and journalists who write about them all come up against the same paradox of the Arabians' dual lives. We usually meet them individually or abroad, in either case excised from the society that defines them. The baffle us with contradictions." The Spell That Blinds

Mustafa Saeed was a young man from Khartoum, a fictional Arab-African in the book, "Season of Migration to the North." He was a man, the Arab author wrote, "whose mind was able to absorb Western civilization but it broke his heart." Mustafa Saeed was transfixed by the women of London, by the young, laughing girls with white skin and light eyes.

"I am South which yearns for the North and the ice," Mustafa Saeed said.

In Washington, in real life, there have been others so transfixed:

"She was 17," begins one, "a redhead, cute, freckled. I was 15 1/2 years old, a junior in high school and I felt like a ton of bricks. It was just like your typical, obnoxious puppy dog. Naturally, it was the biggest turn-off you can imagine."

This puppy dog is now a 36-year-old named Cherif Sedky. Born and raised in Egypt, these days he lives in Georgetown and looke like the prosperous, securities lawyer he is. There is a gold pin to hold the small, white collar and in his speech a hint of the Queen's English from the British school back home.

He came to this country when he was in high school and was immediately struck by the redhead, Anne. In Egypt, there were proper introductions, formal calls, parlors -- and fathers. "If he came in and saw you with your arms around his daughter, he'd kick you out and you'd never see her again. It was that simple."

But Anne was giggly and outgoing and her father, apparently, had other things to do besides monitor boyfriends. Sedky was hooked like a fish of the Nile.She wasn't.

"It's sort of deceptive," he explains. "It's very easy to fall madly in love. But then you learn that just because she's being nice doesn't necessarily mean she loves you. For somebody who doesn't know the rules, it's a very disconcerting thing to learn how to deal with."

An American woman who has lived among Arabs in the Middle East agrees. "It's horribly wrenching for them. They come from this conservative environment and they don't know how to act. They come to this world and say, 'My God, these women, their legs aren't covered!'" A World Apart

American women in the Middle East suffer culture shock as well. Arab women wear veils and can't drink, drive or do any sort of business, and these standards, though looser for Western women, begin to apply when a Westerner marries or becomes serious with an Arab man.

In the book "At the Drop of a Veil, Marianne Alireza describes what it was like for her, an American woman, to be married to Ali Alireza, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington. "I had discovered in just one day that there were many things that were fascinating and thrilling in Arabia and many things that were neither," she writes. "There was a great gap between outward luxury and confinement of body and soul . . .

"Arabia was too new and too old, and my ears were to ring often in the days to come with my own silent shouts: I am an American! What has all this to do with me?"

An exasperated Harvard PhD candidate who dated an Egyptian while studying in the Middle East, feels much the same way. "It just seemed," she sighs, "that the gap was so enormous, there was too much to be bridged." She finally gave up.

But she tried. And besides, at first she was attracted by what she calls his "ruggedness, his good heart." He was a veteran of both the 1973 war and Yemen six years earlier.

So they went out for a while. Then one Christmas, an American male friend -- just a friend, she says -- came to visit. He stayed with her, on the couch. Her Egyptian friend went crazy, arriving at the door one morning at 7:30. He confronted both of them, feeling the couch to see if it was warm with use, then getting in such a state of hysterics, she says, that he pulled a mirror on top of himself.

"I thought he'd killed himself," she says," so I stood there screaming for a minute or two. Then I was to get the doorman to get a doctor. But he was okay."

There's more. Several months later, she was set to go to England with some American friends. Her Egyptian didn't take well to this, and one day, she noticed her passport missing.

She accused him of taking it. But no, he said, it was thieves, and he was off to find them. "So late that night," she continues, "the doorbell rang, and there was this bloody hand with my passport in it. There was dust all over him and he was all disheveled. I got him in, wiped him off, and there was blood -- but no wounds."

She lets out a long sigh. "There was no idea of absolute truth," she says.

"It was perfectly okay to say whatever you had to to get what you wanted." and there were other problems:

"You can't really be too serious about your work with them," she continues. "A man would look terribly interested in what you were saying, and you'd go on and on, and then he'd say 'oh, you have just beautiful eyes.' It would make you want to find a frying pan and crack it over his head." Mondo Macho

Some American women might wonder why other American women subject themselves to certain Arab men who suffer, they say, from what in this country might be called terminal sexism.

"Don't kid yourself about liberation," explains Jean AbiNader, the outgoing executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans. "Liberation is still more economic and political than it is emotional. Most women -- and men -- still want to be taken care of."

You might apply this principle to a recent Arab-American love story that includes lots of transatlantic phone calls and international jet-setting. The woman involved is a striking, 30ish blond who works in Washington, lives modestly with a roommate in Georgetown and finds Arab men "desperately charming." The man is international business executive she met at a Tennessee Williams opening in New York.

"Really handsome," she says of him, her Southern drawl flowing sweet as momma's molasses. "A lot of style, a lot of dignity, a lot of presence. A tiger. And tailored just so."

They exchange cards, and the next night, he took her to Sign of the Dove, then Regine's. He flew off to the winds soon after, calling her daily, she says, from "Italy, Spain, Paris, Cairo -- anywhere." Finally, he begged her to come to Egypt, at his expense.

("I mean," she says, "he'd spend millions and millions of dollars. What was a couple of thousand to send me over and back?")

The visit oozed into 21 languorous days on the Nile. She was awakened by a servent who brought tea with milk and when they were properly awake, marmalade, eggs, cheese and tofu to the dining room. Then off he went to work, and she went off in the chauffeured car to sightsee, shop, lunch, whatever struck her fancy. He gave her money for pretty dresses.

The car was air-conditioned, which kept her shielded from the hot, dusty streets. "Beggars would hit the car," she says with a delicate grimace, "and there were sweating servants with goats."

At night, there were dinners and nightclubs. One evening, he suggested they give a dinner party. Delighted, she said she would cook Southern-style chicken.

He hired three cooks. "One bought the chicken, one took the innards out and someone else cleaned it," she explains. "All I did was sort of slip it in the pot with some spices."

Now, seemingly she should have married this man and lived happily ever after with the chauffeur, the pretty dresses and the three cooks. But there were times when she'd talk about her work and he wouldn't listen, instead saying she had limpid eyes. And she had a job, or rather, a career. So she came back to the States.

"The chase and the seduction are lovely," she says. "It's a fabulous big deal. Very interesting. Very romantic." But, she adds:

"It's better to be a girlfriend than a wife. Far better."

Peter Iseman puts it another way, as least at it relates to Saudi men. "American women who become involved with them are often disappointed and hurt themselves," he says. "Filled with Holywood fantasies and stereotypes, they have great romantic expectations. But for their Saudi lovers, time in the West is only an interlude, and eventually they all go home."