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Last Morning in Al Hamra – Shiva Naipaul Prize, 1987

14 August 2012

4:09 PM

14 August 2012

4:09 PM

The Spectator/ Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing was first awarded in 1987, and its first-ever winner was Hilary Mantel, who has since won the 2009 Booker Prize for Wolf Hall. Below is Hilary’s prize-winning piece on Saudi Arabia; the judges ‘particularly admired her ability to convey not only the discovery of a culture new to her but also the distaste which the discovery aroused’, said then-editor of The Spectator Charles Moore.

To learn more about the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize, and how you can enter, click here. To read Hilary Mantel’s recent blog on what winning the prize meant to her, click here.

Last Morning in Al Hamra
Hilary Mantel

There are children, frail and moribund, who live inside plastic bubbles; their immune systems have not developed, and so they have to be protected from the outside world, their air specially filtered, and their nourishment — you cannot call it food – passed to them through special ducts, by gloved and sterile hands.

Professional expatriates live like that. Real travellers are vulnerable creatures, at once attracted and repelled by the cultures they move amongst, but expatriates are hard to reach, hard to impress; they carry about with them the plastic bubble of their own culture, and nothing touches them until it has been filtered through the protective membrane of prejudice, the life-support system that forms their invisible excess baggage when they move on, from one contract to the next, to another country another set of complaints.

Still, expats do travel sometimes. Their journeys can be very small; a chance word, a look. It needs only a pinprick of event, a chance germ, and the outside world has breached the defences. You know what you have avoided knowing; it is not the country that is foreign, it is not the climate or the people, it is you.

When I went to Saudi Arabia, three years ago, I was driven from King Abdul Aziz International Airport to an apartment block off Jeddah’s Medina Road; it was night, and I could not make sense of the city, and the next day produced no enlightenment. When you arrive in Saudi Arabia you cease to travel, in the ordinary sense. To move between cities you need letters from a higher authority, a sort of internal passport, and these are not granted without good reason; women, also, need written permission from their husbands if they want to make a journey. Within the city the situation is not much easier. Women may not drive, and they don’t walk in the streets either, if they know what’s good for them. Nor do men, except under the pressure of extreme poverty; these streets are not made for walking. They are made for the car, and the cars eat up the people. Someone told me that every year more people are killed on the roads of the Kingdom than are born there; it seems a dubious statistic, but it may have poetic truth.

The city is cut up into its ghettos; palaces for the rich Hejazi merchant families, and for the princelings of the House of Saud; compounds behind walls for the khawajahs, the light-haired ones, the managers and experts; pre-fab work camps for the Asiatics, the labour force, the people the Saudi newspapers call Third Country Nationals. It is not easy to move between these ghettos. Still, there are the small, telling, journeys that no regime can prohibit; I went upstairs to meet my neighbour.

Our first flat was uptown, spacious, none too salubrious. It was what people called ‘very Saudi’; there was frosted glass in all the windows, to preserve the privacy of the inhabitants and the modesty of their women. Downstairs was a noisy Sudanese family, whose visitors rang our gatebell at all hours. Their dinner, a goat, was often tethered below my window, and I could see it if I went out onto the balcony; different dinners, some perhaps more succulent than others, but with the same way of twisting about at the end of the ropes, like people already hanged. Sometimes I thought of sneaking downstairs and cutting the dinner free, but where would it run? Only to death on the adjacent six-lane highway.

The cities of Arabia are all alike today; skyscrapers, fast roads, municipal greenery nourished at vast expense; a seafront called the Corniche, Al Kournaich, the Cornish Road. The joyless, oily sea is lined by vast amusement parks, where grave sheikhs and their male offspring test their nerve on the rollercoasters; the women, in chaperoned parties, shop for furs and diamonds in vast glittering malls, in the Schonbrunns and Winter Palaces of the consumer’s art. There is a pervading smell of sewage, a burning, used-up wind. Petrol is paid for out of small change. At the sliproad by the Marriot Hotel, negro children dash into the traffic and trail rags across your windscreen, tapping on the glass and holding out their hands for money. Sometimes you might see an old man sitting on the sidewalk, his thobe dirty, his knees pulled up to his ears, staring out at the stream of traffic. The pace of life is murderous. Each intersection has its little massacre.

The frosted glass seemed to be cutting me off from real life; one day drifted into the next. If I went out onto the balcony, men congregated in the street to stare at me and make easy-to-understand gestures, multi-cultural invitations, monoglot expressions of contempt. We moved downtown then, to another flat in Al Hamra; this is the city’s best district, where the embassies congregate. It was a newish block of four flats; some Sri Lankan Christians, a well-connected Pakistani couple, and a Saudi accountant, his wife, his baby. The last occupant of our flat had been moved out forcibly; a lonely and garrulous American bachelor, an innocent sort of man, not young, he had got himself into trouble because he had spoken to the Saudi lady; he had met her on the stairs, she in her veil, going out to a waiting car, and he hanging around, hoping for company; he had harassed her by passing the time of day. His company had moved him into a hotel now, waiting to see if he would be deported; it seemed likely.

So we had to go very carefully, approach our neighbours with caution. We had our expatriate bubble-world to live in. We would eat hamburgers with friends, sit around talking, and watch illicit videos. We would buy the Times at £1.50 the copy, and read the bits that the censors had left for us. At weekend you could drive along the coast looking for beaches; the Saudis have most of their sand in less than useful places, but they have come to like the seaside life, and have imported some from Bahrain. What else is there to do? There is a choral society. Home brewing occupies many hours. The Brits play cricket against the Pakistanis, though matches may be regarded as unlawful assemblies, and broken up by the police. Ladies hold coffee mornings, where they sell craftwork to each other; and dinner parties, too, are a competitive sport.

All this time I was conscious that there was another sort of life going on, just above my head. I hardly ever saw my neighbour. We shared a communal hallway with a marble floor; it was no one’s particular territory, no one hung around there. Sometimes — suitably garbed, long- sleeved, perhaps ankles showing — I would be taking out the trash, or sweeping out the grey dust that banked up incessantly on the hall floor; my neighbour’s husband would come striding down the stairs. A hesitant half-smile would be met with an opaque look, nothing that could be construed as acknowledgment from one human being to another. He might have been looking straight through me, to the paintwork and the brick wall.

The woman herself was just a shape, glimpsed sometimes in the early evenings, bundled into her concealing black abaya and the Saudi version of the veil — which covers the face completely, even the eyes. Clutching her small baby, she swayed from the front door to the car, and into the back seat. Family cars in the Kingdom are furnished not only with fringed mats, and boxes of Kleenex, and dangle-dollies, but with curtains; so that once she is safely in the back seat, the woman can lift her veil. She cannot be seen then, she cannot see; but what does she want with the view?

The girl upstairs was 19, my Pakistani neighbour told me. And she wanted to meet me. My Pakistani neighbour was a good Muslim, who concealed her limbs, and always covered her head, but she had a wardrobe of Western clothes for trips abroad, and she had, she said, lived for 18 months in Hampstead. She explained to me that our neighbours were a more than averagely traditional family, more than averagely religious, and she hinted, but she did not say, that the accountant might frown on his wife making the acquaintance of a Westerner. It might be true. None of the women I knew had any Saudi friends. The newspapers, especially the Friday religious columns, would spell the situation out. They would quote the Holy Koran, and especially the favourite Surah, ‘Al: Nisa’, verse 34: ‘Men are in charge of women, for Allah hath made one of them to excel the other . . .’. Such notions are not to be corrupted. ‘Why can’t they accept the fact,’ the letter-writers grumble, ‘that the male has been created superior to the, female? God meant it to be this way. There was a day when my Pakistani neighbour called unexpectedly, and found my husband ironing a shirt. The meeting was set back a little, I felt. Meanwhile she went between us, like a good marriage-broker, whetting our appetites, and talking about one to the other.

Then one day when I was hanging out some washing in the high-walled enclosure by my back door, I heard voices above my head. Jamila, my Saudi neighbour, had opened a balcony door; hidden, she was gossiping with a woman in the next block. Wrapped in their curtains, they called to each other. Her voice surprised me, up there in the air; harsh, guttural, uninhibited. For a moment she stepped out onto the balcony, holding a wisp of cloth over her nose and mouth; her neighbour, then, must have drawn her attention to my presence, and she glanced down. Both of them laughed. I did a servant’s jobs about the place; this, I thought, was what caused the merriment. In the end I went upstairs because Jamila wanted help in reading poetry. She was taking an English literature course at the Women’s University, attending evening lectures, and she couldn’t understand her set books. I was afraid that I wouldn’t understand them either, but I sent a message that perhaps I could help. So on that first visit she ordered Pepsi-Cola for us; the accountant had just gone out to work. A huge black and white photograph of him, ten times life size and framed in gilt, dominated the living-room; the individual features were a blur of dots, the definition gone. On the empty bookshelves was a model clipper ship, which lit up and cast a soft reddish glow into the room. Daylight came uncertainly, greenish-grey, filtered through the broad dusty leaves of the tree outside the window. I had been watching this tree; it never budded, never lost a leaf. It might have been made of plastic. Jamila’s living room, higher than mine, looked out over the same vacant lot; commanded a wider view of desolation, where mosquitoes bred in standing pools.

Jamila set out her textbooks. She was a vigorous, square-jawed woman, who looked strong; her long hair had a rippling wave, and a coarse black sheen. Her face, unveiled, was very white, unnaturally so, slightly pitted from recently cleared acne; I thought of women in Europe not too long ago, whitening and poisoning their skins with lead. Later she told me that one’s marital fortunes could depend on the colour of the skin, although the man must take it on trust, because it is still not the custom in good families for the veil to be lifted before the ceremony. She had been lucky; her small daughter, however, had an unforgivably flat nose, and hair like wire. It doesn’t, she told the accountant, come from my side of the family.

At the Women’s University they do have male lecturers, but only on closed-circuit televisions. Absalom and Achitophel was what she had to read. ‘I don’t know anything about Dryden,’ I said. I read the notes at the back of the book. It said the poem was all about political manoeuvres in the reign of James II. I thought we might get on with it, on that basis. Jamila was charmingly inattentive. She played with the gold bracelets which ran up her arm. ‘Where did you meet your husband?’ she said. ‘Was it arranged by your family? Did you meet him in a discotheque?’

It’s good for a girl to be educated, but not to be educated too much. After marriage, she may do courses as a hobby. If her family are very liberal, she may work, perhaps in a primary school, just for a year or two; or in a women’s hospital. She may work anywhere, really, where she knows that she will not, on her daily journey, or in the course of events, come across a man. There’s a whole sealed-off floor at the Ministry of Planning, where women economists sit at their desks, and communicate with their male colleagues by tele- phone. They send each other, not billets doux, but computer disks.

It is apartheid: stringent, absolute. The cafés are segregated, the buses. Allah has laid a duty on both men and women to seek knowledge, but, says one of the letterwriters crossly, ‘They can read books and do researches at home.’ Education is an ornament. It makes one a better mother. The girls have a chilling saying: ‘We will hang our certificates in the kitchen.’

Now her voice, rasping, confident, would be on the phone in the mornings. `We are going to Mecca. Do you want anything?’ When the coast was clear she would come downstairs, veiled for the minute’s journey, and drink coffee with me. She would throw off her abaya inside the front door, and reveal her Levis and tight T-shirt underneath. ‘You ought to get one of these,’ she would say, dropping the black cloak on the sofa. ‘Lots of English women wear them. You can just throw them on over any old things that you’re wearing.’ But she wanted to know, very much she wanted to know: what is it like to sit and talk to your husband’s friends? What is it like to drink alcohol? What is it like to sit and drink alcohol and talk to your husband’s friends?

We did not seem to progress with the Dryden. Her teachers wanted her to know about metre, they didn’t care about the meaning. We sat at the dining table, polished by her maid with some lavender wax spray, the smell of which seemed to scour the inside of my nose; I would turn my head away, sniffing, counting for her the stresses on my fingers. Jamila reeked delicately of ‘Joy’. She would push across the table to me one delicate counter, of envy; then on top of it place, with her shaped polished nails, another counter, of pity. Saudi women believe that their sisters in the West have been the victims of a confidence trick. They believe that men have lured them, with promises of freedom, from the security of their homes, and made them slaves in offices and factories. Their proper domain has been taken away from them, and with it the respect and protection to which their sex entitles them. Their honour has been sold; their bodies and common property. Liberation, say the Saudi women, is a creed for fools.

Her friend S’na came. It seemed that I might as well teach two people, and S’na was taking the course, but she was not married. This made a difference. She was 20 perhaps, but she seemed younger than Jamila. Marriage had given status to my neighbour, maternity had given her command. Within her limits she was free. S’na dressed more soberly, ankle-length dresses even beneath her abaya. She had a pretty lemon-coloured face, and because she was so pliant, by training and disposition, her tall thin body seemed to bend and sway in all sorts of unexpected places, as if she had no proper joints. When she took off her veil, unwinding the cloth, it seemed that her arms became water. It was some days before her voice rose above a whisper.

When we sat side by side over our texts her eyes would slide away, and her little mouse hands would flurry and contract with fear, and if I asked her a question she would tremble. She had other burdens, beside the Dryden. She had to read Huckleberry Finn. ‘Last year,’ she mouthed, ‘we did The Nigger of the Nurses, by Joseph Conrad. I didn’t understand it.’

There was a second living-room in Jamila’s flat, a stuffy chaotic room, with big comfortable cushions on the floor, and the baby’s toys strewn around. Jamila spent her mornings there, entertaining any acquaintances who might be conveyed there by their drivers; but if I was the one who turned up I would see her scrambling up hastily as the maid let me in, ready to show me into the grand salon with the proper chairs. I wanted to say, I would rather sit in there with you; I hinted it, but she only smiled. She didn’t get dressed till 11 o’clock, perhaps noon; she had a repertoire of flimsy nightdresses, of silky house- coats that swirled out behind her as she brought in our coffee. A good deal of the morning she spent on the phone, laughing with her friends; the rest, watching television.

Television in the Kingdom is mostly `Prayer Call from Mecca’, ‘Islam in Perspective’ and `A Reading from the Holy Koran’; then in the late afternoon there are cartoons for the children and for the men returning from their offices. But during the morning there are Egyptian soap operas. Large-bosomed women fill the screen, rolling their eyes, wringing their hands: each Mater Dolorosa in a dozen domestic dilemmas familiar to the viewer. Sometimes Jamila pretended to study. I saw her anthology of English poetry tossed aside on one of the cushions, the thin pages fanning over in the draught from the air-conditioner: ‘The Burial of Sir John Moore’, `Sea Fever’, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. Jamila said, ‘What do you and your husband talk about, when you are alone?’

While we were chatting and construing our verse, Jamila’s Malaysian servant crept about the house. The export of female servants is a big industry for the world’s poorer Muslim populations. Sometimes Jamila would break off the Dryden for a tirade on the girl’s shortcomings. She didn’t come when she was called, didn’t seem to understand any Arabic or the simplest word of English. Her name was hard to pronounce, and she had resisted Jamila’s efforts to rename her something simpler. ‘She’s just an internal servant,’ Jamila said, ‘I want her just for the house. Just for the washing and ironing, for the cleaning and looking after the baby and helping me with the cooking. I don’t want her going out gossiping and bringing gangs of thieves to the house.’ Housemaids are regarded as fair game by Saudi husbands. Sometimes they run away, or commit suicide. The authorities in Sri Lanka (or so the Saudi Gazette reports) have made it compulsory for maids to undertake martial arts courses before taking posts in the Middle East.

‘I hope you are not studying Shelley,’ my Pakistani neighbour said. ‘Shelley was an immoralist.’

‘You can come to my house,’ S’na said, in her usual whisper. `Not to teach me. Just to talk.’ Her eyes travelled to my legs, dubiously. ‘Do you ever wear long skirts? That would be better.’

But I never went. I was resisting them. `You should put on more make-up,’ Jamila advised me. ‘It makes you nice.’ She gave me a blue opal on a thin gold chain. They could make me feel callow, unloved, a drudge. I saw Jamila dress for an evening party, in a modest gown of grey chiffon, pearls in her hair. When the oil price fell, my husband’s job was under threat; there were cut-backs. Jamila telephoned. ‘I’m sure,’ she added, ‘that we can do something about this. Tell us. My husband will fix it.’ I was constrained and polite. Tears — of humiliation? — stood in my eyes. I felt I was becoming a worse human being; a recipient of favours.

There is no crime in Saudi Arabia, the newspapers say. There is no corruption. All women are chaste. All families are happy. The Indian clerks at the office tell a different story. In a shabby block of flats by the waterfront, a Third Country National is found raped and strangled on her bed; her infants, decapitated, are in the kitchen. The system is cracking up from the inside. Jamila tells me how it cracks, her voice low and thrilled. `Some bad types of women go to the Jeddah International Market to buy jewellery. They let these men touch them. They put out their hands from their abaya, with their nails painted red, and the men try bracelets on them.’

Patrols walk the shopping malls, vigilantes armed with canes; they are the delegates of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Elimination of Vice. ‘Some girls,’ says Jamila, ‘go to the shops with their telephone numbers on a paper, and give it to any man they meet. Then they ring up and have a relationship, they plan to deceive their parents and to marry.’

There are no crimes, but there are punishments. A woman is stoned to death. Amputations are carried out, after Friday prayers. We could never talk about these things. I felt, by the end of that interesting year, an increasing sense of oppression. I no longer wanted to spend the mornings with my two Muslim friends. We took a villa on an expatriate compound, and then a few months later we moved out of the city altogether, to one of the company `villages’ which resembled an English housing estate. It was only in the narrowest sense that you were abroad; only the heat told you, and your own tetchy bouts of homesickness. I knew that the journey upstairs to my neighbour’s flat had been, for me, a significant one. I had been offered a friendship I could not accept. It was a chance to build a bridge; but I thought, no, you swim to my side. My values were changing. When I travelled at first I used to ask what I could get out of it, and what I could give back. What could I teach, and what could I learn? I saw the world as some sort of exchange scheme for my ideals, but the world deserves better than this. When you come across an alien culture you must not automatically respect it. You must sometimes pay it the complement of hating it.

During my last months in Al Hamra used to feel stifled, desperate for the open air. Sometimes I would continue my journey upstairs, past Jamila’s apartment, and up to the flat roof. Hot winds, as if from convection ducts, pulled at my clothes, and plastic bags from Al Safeway Supermarket would blow past my head and tangle in the television aerials. The city lay below its dust-haze, its grid plan scarred by construction sites, derricks and cranes spiking the sky. To the left was a strip of grey, the coast road, where miles of street lamps arched, like the bare ribs of some giant animal whose time has come. Beyond that was another grey strip, without lights, and I used to watch it hopefully, thinking of the months crossed off on the calendar, and knowing that it was the open sea.

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