'Scenes from Saudi Arabia' reveals a rigid and unpleasant society


December 19, 1990|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"A Thousand and One Coffee Mornings: Scenes from Saudi Arabia," by Miranda Miller, 207 pages, Peter Owen Publishers, London, England, distributed by Dufour Editions, Chester Springs, Pa.

THE SAUDI Arabia depicted in Miranda Miller's "One Thousand and One Coffee Mornings" is a mean, narrow place, tediously unpleasant for women, Western, non-Western or Saudi, and not much better for their men.

Expatriate men in Miller's vignettes at least have the greedy pleasure of their enormously bloated salaries to compensate for the isolation, the loneliness and the often excruciating boredom of their jobs. But the women live in a kind of not particularly benign house arrest.

The women in these stories tend to go bonkers from sheer inactivity. They don't even have to do housework. There are plenty of servants from benighted Third World countries, supporting their starving relatives.

The expatriate women live in compounds or apartments that are transplanted American suburban developments or English council houses. They live in a kind of hierarchy of snobbery determined by the importance of their husband's job and the quality of their homes. The size of the swimming pool is very important.

They play bridge or go to macrame classes or buy gold in the souk, the Saudi marketplace, heavy chunks of 23 carat gold, "purest in the world," says one avaricious woman in the story "Memsahib, Inshallah" -- "and dirt cheap compared to Europe."

But they find it "impossible to go out to the shops without making elaborate arrangements for transport and chaperones." They're constantly repeating rumors of Western women raped and mutilated, especially blondes.

Yet the country is patrolled by the religious police, the mettahwah, who enforce a rigid, puritanical, fundamentalist, Islamic morality.

Woman can't appear in public unless they are completely covered. Elbow-length sleeves and knee-length dresses offend Moslem morals.

"Most of the foreign women in Riyadh . . . wore aging hippie clothes; sad ankle-length dress with long sleeves and high necks . . . perpetually dressed for a party that had ended in the early seventies . . ."

Holding hands in public is a moral offense for men and women, although Saudi men hold hands and perhaps so do the women. You can be arrested for riding in a car with a woman who is not your wife. Adultery and homosexuality are capital offenses.

For the husband who teaches English at the school in "Villa Despair," secrecy and repression turn "the act of love into something rather nasty."

Christmas trees are confiscated. Christmas puddings become holiday puddings. You worry about which carols to sing. Foreign Christians find illegal services conducted by underground priests have a special bootleg charm.

Mamie, the loving proprietor of the day-care center in "Kiddieworld," repressed her Yiddish vocabulary when she came to Saudi Arabia. She no longer calls her husband's squashed cauliflower of a nose "a schnozzle."

Even the Muppets are forbidden: Miss Piggy, is immoral, un-Moslem and therefore illegal.

Foreigners are totally alienated from their Saudi hosts. The one thing that unites English, American, Indians, Japanese, German, Filipino, Egyptian and Korean parents at a party in "Kiddieworld" is their hostility toward the token Saudi guest.

The Arkansas oil men in "Memsahib, Inshallah" beat up another American, trash his apartment and drive him from their compound when he becomes a convert to Islam.

"Any man that's born an American, that man is born with one helluva privilege," says one of the Arkansans. "Ah jist can't understand why any man would give up that privilege."

Miranda Miller was born in London, and if the Americans are "Ah Cansaw" boors, most of the people in these stories are British and a generally unpleasant bunch, too. She makes all this extremely plausible and convincing. She's a novelist who has lived in Libya and Saudi Arabia, where she taught English, and so presumably knows the ground.

The five stories in this collection are all about people more or less driven to despair by life in Saudi Arabia, except for the story "In the Desert," which celebrates the beauty of the landscape. But much of the desert has also been corrupted by the enormous wealth of the Saudis, not least by the city or Riyadh itself.

And these vignettes can be taken as cautionary tales during this time when the United States has sent so many troops to Saudi Arabia. Miller's insights could make you very, very uneasy about the people to whom we have committed ourselves.

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