I have been a stranger in a strange land since I was 13 years old and entered the foreign culture of my small-town Idaho junior high school. In that tense, hyper-hormonal world, I was never a “been-here” but always a “come-here.” In this novel, the brilliant Hillary Mantel (of Wolf Hall fame) imagines what it would be like to be a khawwadjih in Saudi Arabia. As expected, it’s much harder on the female than the male.
- if you’re female, you can’t work or drive
- if you’re female taxis won’t pick you up
- if you’re female pharmacists will not look you in the eye, or acknowledge your existence–they speak only to your husband
- if you’re female you can’t go to the mall with a male who is not your husband or close relative, because the religious police will randomly separate men and women into two groups and match you up according to your IDs and you could be flogged on suspicion of wrongdoing
- If you’re female, you end up staying in your dark apartment a lot because big windows could let men look in at you
- if you’re female, and you go out for a walk, you will get catcalls from men in cars, and
- all the expatriates (ex-pats) make their own alcohol out of grape juice, sugar, and yeast. Like the moonshine of old, the potency is wickedly unpredictable
How Culture Makes Fools of Us All
The Saudis are firmly convinced that many Western companies are “Zionist”–like Marks and Spencer, the famous British clothing store. (I thought Marks and Sparks was owned by Dodi Fayed’s dad–the one-time almost in-law of Princess Diana.)
There is some appalling racism from more than one of the ex-pat workers: An Australian named Jeff Parsons refers to the Saudis as “nig-nogs” — ouch.
The Westerners are firmly convinced that the Saudis are only paying lip-service to the Sharia law, and that much hanky-panky goes on behind closed doors.
In this novel, there IS something going on between closed doors, but it isn’t what the main character (MC) or the reader may think. And it’s very dangerous.
The Good Bits
What I liked about the novel is that the MC steps outside the narrow ex-pat box and befriends the locals–a Pakistani woman named Yasmin, who says that conditions for women are much more free in her culture, Yasmin’s maid Shams, who comes from Indonesia, and a Saudi woman named Samira, who wears tight blue jeans in the privacy of her home.
Mantel seems obsessed with countries and periods in time where the punishment for misbehavior is beheading (Wolf Hall is, after all, about Anne Bolyn). Well, it’s only stoning if you’re a woman. Beheading is for men.
Saudi Arabia and Tourism: What is the Deal?
No deal. I was surprised to learn that the absolute rulers, the Princes of Saud, do not encourage or allow tourism. The only foreigners in Saudi Arabia are there on work visas. Period. I was also surprised to learn that the country takes its name from these princes, who have been in power since the 1930s.
I knew Saudi Arabia had a huge desert, the Empty Quarter, but I didn’t know why it was such a big deal in Middle Eastern politics. Turns out the country is about the size of Western Europe. That’s right, it is the 500-pound camel in the Middle Eastern block. Wow.
And another thing: You can’t go to Mecca or Medina unless you are Moslem. Jews are not allowed into the country. Did they used to live there and were expelled?
Of course, if you possess the 2 most holy sites in your religion in your country, you’re going to get hundreds of thousands of foreign Muslims entering your country as pilgrims. And the wealthy Saudis aren’t exactly happy about the influx of the poor and possibly rabid devout.
Wiki weighs in
According to Wikipedia, the Muslim hajj holiday in October brings about 3 million from around the world to Mecca. But millions more come on pilgrimage before the hajj, with the pilgrimage season peaking in summer and autumn. A 2012 study of French pilgrims said more than 80% returned with respiratory symptoms, and 40% with flu-like symptoms.
But back to the book: a Saudi character says to the MC, haven’t you heard about the Haji Flu?
Anyway, I loved this book. It was so interesting to spend time with these characters, and to learn a little about Saudi Arabia even through foreign (British) eyes. I did wish that Mantel would have found SOMETHING about the country to like, or even love, in addition to the MC’s fondness for Yasmin, who after all is not Saudi. But sometimes that is the ex-pat experience. I must confess that my best friend in Germany was a girl called Gabrielle, an exchange student from Argentina.
Salud! Farewell, Argentina. Farewell, Saudi Arabia. Here is to a better understanding of each other through literature.