The book was making some noise last month, even though it was published more than a year ago. I confess to not reading it but the attention this book gets reminds me of the cultural differences that exist in a place like Saudi. For all its Western ways, and veneer, there are some things that happen under the surface that should not surprise anyone – but they do when they are revealed.
Some of those differences are intriguing. If you think of our own culture and then remove women from every facet of life, other than seeing them in the shopping malls, you start to get an idea of the main and obvious difference. No women in any of the businesses you deal with. Absolutely no women behind counters. Not even the perfumery or lingerie sections. That was something I never really got used to seeing. In some malls specialising in fabrics I saw material that was so luxurious and lush I was amazed that it was completely outside my ken – even outside any of my New York 5th Avenue experiences. Colours and sensations that I have never seen anywhere else. In bolts of cloth but especially turned into gorgeous garments. And not a single woman around to measure, fit or entice. Weird really. Almost as weird as having to stand in a “men only” line to pick up my burgers and fries in a food court. Women and children in another line, although some outlets are now allowing families to line up together – radical stuff. And if you want some idea about the challenges young men have in shopping malls this article from Arab News captures the weirdness nicely.
After a few visits to the Kingdom a Saudi colleague, who I had gotten to know well, confided the more well to do women in this place, though apparently repressed (can’t drive, work, move about on their own, have to take care when out shopping that their intentions are not misunderstood, even under all that black cloth) can live a very colourful, even hedonistic lifestyle. There are all sorts of undercurrents if you know where to look, which I guess is part of the point of the book by Rajaa Alsanea.
To help make his point he took me down to one of the shopping malls and suggested we wait at the parcel pick up drive-through. In a short period of time he pointed out to me a well tinted car drive past with a cell number in the window. He reappeared about five minutes later and helped a woman with her shopping and they drove off. No big deal except this was one way young men and women can meet each other (euphemism for “can have sex”) without the religious police, or their families knowing about it. If, when he drove past, she liked the look of him (or his car) she simply called his cell phone and he drove around the block to pick her and her shopping up. Then its off out into the desert for some dessert.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this will happen in a society that so assiduously represses sections of its community. You can’t be appalled by it. Indeed, there was a part of me that applauded their inventiveness and nerve – it was happening under the noses of the religious police, who all behave as if anything pleasurable is a sin. Even a cup of coffee. My bet is that as teenagers they never got a call on their cell phones when they drove past in their hot yellow, black tinted Supras.