Saturday, March 2, 2013

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, by Hilary Mantel

This, Hilary Mantel's third novel, is not her best, but it's still vastly better than most authors can manage, and it sustains my belief that the woman is purely incapable of writing a bad book.  I reached for this as the press was bubbling with Ms. Mantel's comments about the Duchess of Cambridge, and as Prime Minister David Cameron castigated her without bothering to read her full speech to grasp the context. Well, I suppose he's a busy man. About the only thing I could think to do in a defiant gesture of moral support was read another of her books.

Jeddah Rooftops,
watercolour by Dorothy Boyer
Published in 1988, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street tells the story of British expatriate Frances Shore who comes to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, when her husband takes a job there with a construction company. The Shores have lived abroad for years, living and working in Africa in challenging conditions. They are not rookie expats, but very little, Mantel suggests, can prepare one for life as a foreigner in the Kingdom.

Unlike so many of Mantel's characters and narrators, Frances Shore does not speak in a grounded, authoritative voice. Of course one expects Thomas Cromwell to be resolute, but even the suburban, middle-class Londoners who peopled Mantel's earlier two novels spoke with more force. Gradually, especially as Frances' experiences in Africa are revealed, I realised that she is not a vague or passive person -- she just can't get her bearings in Saudi Arabia. From the opening scene in which Frances is on the plane, overhearing the conversations of other Saudi expats, the hair on my arms began to stand up in that way it does when I'm in a place that is not right.  I may not be able to verbalise precisely what's not right about it, but I know I don't want to be there. The genius of this novel is in the subtle, visceral unease.

I know first-hand that as a foreigner, one can expect various degrees of welcome in different countries, ranging from open arms to loaded and cocked ones.  From my friends who have worked in Saudi and the Emirates -- in a range of capacities -- I know that all outsiders, regardless of nationality or field of work, are classed as foreign workers. There is no question of enjoying or integrating with the local culture. There is no question of permanent residency: Whether you are pouring cement or doing neurosurgery, you are there to do the work that is required of you (and for which your employers pay you handsomely), and then, when they deem it appropriate, you will leave.  You will at no time consider yourself one of their peers.

Those of us who grew up enjoying the rule of law tend not to appreciate it until it's not there. Frances learns almost immediately that the Saudis not only require a visa for entry to the Kingdom but also that one may not leave without a specific exit visa, which must be applied for and granted by the authorities. In the interim, one must adhere to the Law as established by the Q'uran and the Al Saud family. The standard advice to foreigners? Keep your head down, and be quiet. If you attract the unfortunate attention of the authorities, do not expect your employer to help you.

When the Shores arrive in Jeddah, the great boom is waning. Budgets are contracting.  They are given an apartment in a 4-storey house on Ghazzah Street, which they share with a Pakistani couple and a Saudi couple. There is a vacant flat just above the Shores', and there is some nefarious business happening there. Gossip presents a few different theories, and Frances concocts a few more in her spare time.

Frances has nothing but spare time, since she cannot get a work permit in Jeddah. Her Muslim female neighbours invite her for tea and inquire when she plans to have children and marvel at the amorality of women in the western workplace, consorting with men as they do.  She can't go out for walks without being harrassed by Arab men and choked by dust and sand, and there is not always a driver available to take her elsewhere. This is the plight of the expat wife -- especially the educated and skilled one -- who follows a husband abroad and is then relegated to life as an accoutrement while he goes off to work. In the case of the Shores, however, he is consumed by his construction project (or more accurately, the increasing obstacles to its completion) and she has the free time and intelligence to intuit that something is very, very wrong in their building.

Trying to calm herself, Frances reflects on her years of living in other countries and cultures. She sanely recognises that our most intrinsic demons stow away in our luggage, but we also accumulate skills to adapt to new environments. Once you get over the initial shock of the new place, it's much the same routine as the old.
After all, she said, comforting herself, there's only the world. Travel ends and routine begins and old habits which you thought you had left behind in one country catch up with you in the next, and old problems resurface, but if you are lucky you carry as part of your baggage the means of solving those problems and accommodating those habits, and you take with you an open mind, and discretion, and common sense; if you have those with you, you can manage anywhere.
Her experiences as she begins to settle into Jeddah life, however, suggest something quite different. She meets the neighbours, has dinners with other expat couples and wanders off on a couple of solitary ventures. None of them turns out well.

She keeps a diary and also writes letters to family members in the UK, quickly discovering that the latter is an exercise in futility. She fails to describe the vague but unsettling atmosphere, and then she realises that the recipients don't really give a damn about life in Saudi Arabia.  If anything, they just want to hear how badly things have gone awry and to gloat.  "It never would have happened if you'd just stayed home where you belong..."
By and large people at home are not interested in hearing about your experiences. They feel bound to put you in your place, as if by going away at all you were offering some sort of criticism of their own lives.
Frances' husband and his colleagues tell her to ignore her suspicions about whatever may be happening in the vacant apartment upstairs, but dark hints keep crossing her path every time she steps out of her apartment, which is already feeling claustrophobic.  (The claustrophobia peaks when the landlord materialises and tells her that they're renovating and painting, and could she please keep her shutters closed for some weeks?) Her husband mentions over dinner that an Indian psychologist has just completed a study of his country's workers in the Kingdom, and he determined that they all followed roughly the same series of phases, not unlike Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' stages of accepting impending death, albeit in reverse:  acceptance fades to anxiety, which deteriorates into paranoia and incipient madness. This at least assures Frances that she's not alone in her feelings of acute distress.

Why do people stay?  Why not simply apply for that exit visa?  It's the economy, stupid. The Saudis pay lavishly, and once accustomed to a stream of hefty salary vouchers, it's hard for expats to imagine life without them.
They always say, we'll just do another year. It's called the golden handcuffs. No matter how much they complain about life here, they hate the thought of leaving. They see some gigantic insecurity staring them in the face, as if their lives would fall apart when they got their final exit visa, as if it would be instant ruin -- as if it had to be straight from the Heathrow baggage hall and down to the welfare department.
I happened to glance at some on-line readers' reviews of this novel, and one man remarked that he never did quite understand "what happened". By the end of the book, a man is dead (possibly the result of an accident, and possibly not), a woman has been arrested trying to leave the Kingdom without approval (of her husband, never mind the Saudi authorities), the Shores' apartment has been robbed and ransacked in a peculiar fashion, and something wicked has occurred in that darned vacant apartment involving a shipping trunk. It is not clear, any of it. It's not clear to the reader, and it's not clear to Frances. The authorities will never publicise what happened, and any sensible foreigner who happens to have information will keep his or her mouth well shut. The Saudis see no need for their foreign servants to be aware or involved. The reader will find no more sure footing than the characters.

In the end, the construction company finds the Shores an apartment in a different compound, one which is almost exclusively occupied by expat workers. Will they settle more comfortably there? Will the husband put his wrists into the "golden handcuffs"?  At least this apartment has windows which look out upon something other than a high cement wall (which had totally surrounded the house at Ghazzah Street).  As the novel ends, Frances surveys the new view.
I look out through the glass, on to the landscape, the distant prospect of traveling cars. Window one, the freeway; window two, the freeway. I turn away, cross the room to find a different view. Window three, the freeway; window four, the freeway.

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