Friday, October 22, 2010

the last book I read

Eight Months On Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel.

Frances Shore's husband Andrew is something biggish in construction, and has just got a lucrative contract job in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The Shores have just returned from a similar stint in Africa, so while Frances takes care of some packing and domestic stuff Andrew heads off to Jeddah to get started and Frances flies out to join him some weeks later.

As soon as she gets off the plane it becomes clear that the life she's about to slot into is radically different to anything she's experienced before, either in England or in the relaxed environment of Africa. For one thing, there's no question of her being able to work (she's a cartographer); she's also not going to be allowed to drive, and there are severe constraints imposed on her being out of the house on her own. This is reinforced by the set-up of the house that she and her husband are assigned: all barred windows, locked doors and high walls obscuring the view both in and out.

This sets up something of a conflict for Frances: on the one hand she's an intelligent and articulate woman who chafes at the repressive practices imposed by the Saudis' peculiar branch of ultra-conservative Islam, but on the other hand she's conscious of not wanting to piss on her own chips by disturbing the delicate framework of compliance with, or at least lip service to, these constraints within which the various expatriates, her husband included, make great wodges of cash far outweighing anything they could make at home.

So there's a lot of sitting around the house with nothing to do - after all it's too hot to be outside for much of the day, and when Frances does negotiate all the locked doors and gates to get out of the compound she runs the gauntlet of having decidedly non-Islamic sexual abuse shouted at her by men in passing cars. So she starts to focus on her more immediate surroundings - her neighbours Yasmin and Samira, the air and solitude afforded by the compound's flat roof, and the mysterious apartment immediately above her own, which is ostensibly unoccupied but from which Frances has heard occasional comings and goings as well as (she thinks) someone crying. And what is in the packing crate that she can just about see on the empty apartment's balcony from her rooftop vantage point?

But what can she do? As a woman she effectively has no voice, as well as no means of obtaining information. Yasmin doesn't want to get involved, and in any case she has her own problems with her husband Raji and his overbearing mother-in-law who has installed herself in the apartment while Raji is off doing various murky wheeling and dealing, not all of it necessarily within the bounds of strict Islamic propriety. Andrew should theoretically be more inclined to listen to Frances, but is unwilling to start rocking the boat with his superiors or the Saudi authorities.

It takes the arrival of a colleague of Andrew's from England, a dinner at which too much illicit home-brewed hooch is consumed and an ill-timed late-night visit to the roof for a bit of fresh air to bring things to a head, after which everything happens at once. Fairfax (Andrew's colleague) is found dead after a car accident (which may or may not have actually been an accident), Raji survives an attack by Islamic fundamentalists which may or may not have been initiated by his wife, and a body is furtively brought down from the upstairs flat and spirited away.

We never really find out much in the way of detail about any of the climactic events I've just described, in particular exactly what has been going on in the upstairs apartment; this is presumably deliberate, and intended to reflect the informational vacuum the Shores are inhabiting, and the way the Western contingent are tolerated and accommodated for precisely as long as it suits the Saudis to do so, beyond which point the mask of urbane Middle Eastern sophistication slips to reveal the brutally oppressive structure on which the whole society is built, and from which Westerners are decidedly not immune unless the Saudis choose to permit them to be.

To be honest I found the chapters describing the tedium and isolation of expatriate life, the forced hanging out with people you don't necessarily like much but who just happen to share the same language, the furtive drinking and affairs in an attempt to relieve the tedium, and the casual racism towards those whose country you're inhabiting more interesting than the climactic revelations; the screeching change of pace between the two sections was a bit jarring as well. That's not really a complaint, though, as overall I enjoyed this very much. Hilary Mantel lived in Saudi Arabia for four years in the 1980s so the book is clearly at least partly inspired and informed by that.

I suppose one of the reasons this struck a particular chord with me was that a lot of the aspects of expatriate life are very recognisable to me from my childhood, the 18 months of it I spent living in Bandung in particular. Indonesia, though also nominally a Muslim country, is (and was, even in 1978) a much more easy-going and liberal place than Saudi Arabia, so for instance the strictures regarding public drinking didn't apply (well, they did for me, but I was only eight at the time), but a lot of the rest of it is very familiar: the tedium and isolation, the contrast between the cool marble-floored house and the rasping heat and dust outside, the occasional encounters with huge spiders and cockroaches, the uneasy relationship with the locals. Obviously at the age of eight you miss a lot of the nuances, but I bet there were a lot of goings-on among the substantial international community in and around Bandung. I mean, what else would there have been to do? I should go on to say that obviously I exempt my parents from any suggestion of all this; I'm sure they were sitting around eating grapes and reading Proust.

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