The phone rang on my desk in Porto some 15 years later and I was put through to a very influential person in Lisbon (my boss) who requested me, as a personal favour, to meet a friend of hers (the Libyan Chargé d’Affairs in Lisbon) at the Meridien Hotel in Porto the following morning and give him lunch and generally show him the sights.
So the next morning I met the gentleman in the foyer of his posh hotel.
He was a charming man, polished and multi-lingual; he was easy to entertain and I knew just where to take him. The venerable old Porto Stock Exchange (the Palaçío da Bolsa) was situated in the old part of city behind the church of S. Francisco with its golden rococo wood carvings, (deconsecrated now, it’s just a museum).
We went through the grandiose portals of the Stock Exchange and climbed the wide tiled staircase to the first floor and entered the fabulous Salão d’Arabe.
I could see that he was impressed and moved to find such unexpected tribute to his culture.
It bought home to me the full force and meaning of the term arabesque – the depiction of the human form is anathema to that culture.
He pointed out with a smile that some of the tiles on one the columns quoting from the Koran had been laid in the wrong order.
Over lunch I recounted my episode in the Saharan date garden in Algeria and we spoke about the Persian poet Omar Khyam.
I deposited him back at his hotel in the early evening and he was effusive in compliments saying that he had enjoyed his day up in Porto.
A few weeks later I went down to Lisbon to attend a Director of Studies meeting and late morning Her PA summoned me into the Presence; She told me how much her Libyan friend had appreciated my hospitality and had left a small gift for me – a wooden box of the finest hand-picked Libyan dates!