Review of Unveiling Arabia by Bob McDonald

UNVEILING ARABIA – SAHERA PATEL

Sahera’s second work of autobiography finds our local heroine swapping the rain and home comforts of Yorkshire for a year’s adventure and no rain in Saudi Arabia.  Equipped with her natural spirit of adventure and motivated by the religious significance of the region, she lands a teaching job at a new primary school in Jeddah, living in freshly-built residential accommodation, and working alongside a pool of newly-recruited fellow teachers from the UK and South Africa.

Fair enough, we say to ourselves: this should be good – the story of quite a daring but basically pleasant 12 months under the sun, collecting heart-warming anecdotes of educating the young, punctuated by regular, uplifting visits to the holiest sites in Islam.  Sounds fine and roughly what the author probably had in mind too as she headed off.

The Saudi sabbatical certainly had these elements but a lot more besides which our author didn’t quite  bargain for when she set off.  Top of the list comes Saudi bureaucracy whose guiding purpose seemed to be its resolution to stop anything actually being done out there. Or if it is done, then very slowly.  And only eventually – if you’re lucky.  Next – customer service: this was obviously a puzzling concept to shop staff there who in its absence had been groomed to emulate the retail charm of the former Eastern European communist bloc, which means to ignore all customers with a non-negotiable position that “the system isn’t working today” and that it’s simply not possible to make an actual purchase and buy anything. Ever.  And banks: just tell a local that you’re nipping out to open a new account and will return shortly and just watch him fall about laughing.

With understatement fit for a British ambassador (say what you’ve got to say short of causing an international incident), Sahera sardonically warns us of the:

“… general reluctance of the Arab people to commit themselves wholly to the demands of their profession.”

Thank you, Sir Humphrey.

The book’s title is neat.  But you could be forgiven for thinking it a bit too subtle for what is actually being unveiled.  Leaving us wide-eyed and open-mouthed at some of the Saudi lifestyles and habits, Sahera might well have gone for “Surprise, Surprise!” (thank you, Cilla).

Bureaucratic sclerosis is one thing.  Yet Saudi-world is full of the incongruous.  Look one way and you may appreciate the spiritual pull of the region; the beauty of the Kaaba; the opportunity to experience Ramadan in a majority Muslim country with some of the holiest places on earth on the doorstep.  Look the other way and its’s a plutocrat’s theme park of crass materialism and obscene displays of wealth with attitudes to match.  Paradoxes scream out from Sahera’s school placement too: founded on her employer’s noble aim of “changing the face of Saudi education”, the reality was a system which placed money before learning, untroubled by a regular daily routine for the kids and guided by a make-it-up-as-you-go-along curriculum.  Which was not the face the school authorities really had in mind, I think, unless we are significantly underestimating the Saudi sense of humour.

The book sees our author engaged in an uphill battle for the year, coping with life in an authoritarian and restrictive environment without recourse to the democratic safeguards and rights which she could call on at home.  But don’t worry, folks!  Our Sahera is up to the challenge.  Remaining positive, she dismisses frustrations as a way of appreciating the freedom taken for granted back home.

The account is episodic, chronicling the year through a series of snapshots, some enjoyable and others where the emphasis was on the author grimacing and putting up with them.   Even so, a state infrastructure you could depend on for its inefficiency…

“inaction was habitual in our Saudi environment”

… didn’t stop an enriching experience.  This account is full of surprising, thought-provoking and enjoyable incidents and escapades.  From mosquito tennis and hopefully amorous taxi drivers to dodgy sanitation systems, cowboy-building and mini-skirts – the place reveals itself in unpredictable ways which confound the stereotypical assumptions many of us are likely to have.

The personal diary technique gives her account of the Saudi-scene a genuine sense of authenticity.  The fact that Sahera was earning a living while out there adds to its being a grounded narrative, having to deal with everyday tasks, the tedium and frustrations – as well as enjoying the fun of it all.  Though a bit fragmented, the anecdotes and descriptions of events and activities come with personal reflections from the author about their wider context or personal meaning.  This removes the book from being a simple “top ten things to visit” travelogue into something more substantial and interpretive.

With the camaraderie of her fellow teachers a blessed constant during the year, Sahera shares with us trips to Mecca, glimpses of female Arab glamour, the tale of a local romance and marriage (the longest chapter in the book, by the way) and arrangements for the author’s own family to join her for a while in Jeddah.   Our understanding of Saudi society becomes more fine-grained as different cultural nuances are revealed.  Like the variable dress code for women which is relaxed according to the region – “black crows”, describing the effect of being covered from head-to-toe in black – and is not kingdom-wide in practice; private wealth (in private resorts) buying exemptions from Sharia law which normally demands the wearing of the abaya; and the support some ordinary Arabs would privately give to freedom of worship and equality which is contrary to the official Saudi line of religious suppression.  The author’s reflections on the month of fasting and the different social behaviours in Saudi compared with the UK were insightful – in one location, Ramadan being a rather subdued and private time; the other, marked by more communal celebrations and even commerciality.  But which one is which, do you think?

In keeping with the British obsession, the various interludes about the weather and its impact are pleasing and I think some of the best passages.  The sandstorm experience is memorable and evocative and Hey!  Never mind the relentless the sun, we get rain and winter skies too here, my friends!  Yes, Arabs actually crave rain, folks, and celebrate …

dull skies…a thing of beauty [relishing] the absence of the sun, enjoying the coolness that came with it.”

While our UK rail system jams up with the wrong sort of leaves, it’s somehow very comforting to learn of a country that would close its schools after one day of rain.

Ostensibly, Sahera’s book differs quite significantly from her previous autobiographical account [I’m not a Celebrity…] which consciously had a formative but fairly shallow depth of field, focusing on her childhood development to adulthood, largely within the family context; the external, “outside world” barely intruded on the story and nor did it need to.  By contrast, for her second book, the wider social and geographical context of Saudi Arabia is prominent all the way in both foreground and background – the locale is everything: holy cities, opulent shopping malls, private beaches, school compounds, cultural behaviours and attitudes – their features and idiosyncrasies being  revealed sequentially for us by our, albeit temporary, British émigrée.

And yet such differences at the end of the day between the two autobiographical accounts are perhaps superficial.  In this second narrative, our author shares with us characteristics of this Middle Eastern society alongside her principled reactions to them.  Without the book becoming a polemic,  she makes clear her commitment to democracy and equality throughout, in the face of what she describes as the:

“invisible but real form of control and oppression which hangs over Saudi”

Discussion, for example, of whether the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s reforms lately are indicators of genuine change in the conservative kingdom, or are just cosmetic, is left for another day.

Consistently facing obstacles and barriers, compounded by systemic idleness and inefficiency, she by rights should have been running around in mad frustration like her hair is on fire most of the time.  But as she learned, “Saboor” or patience is an important key to survival there.   Her sense of humour, and courage too, come in handy, along with the value she clearly cherishes in her British mentality and humanity.

In the end, it’s Sahera’s own principles of life, determination and her strong faith which are really being Unveiled, rather than Arabia.  Which, after all, is exactly as it should be in an autobiography.

 

Bob McDonald

July 2018

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