Hilary Mantel: Eight Months on Ghazzah Street
Hilary Mantel went with her husband, a geologist, to Botswana and then to Saudi Arabia. Frances Shore is a cartographer who, while working in Botswana, meets Andrew, a civil engineer. After a relatively brief affair, they get married. At the beginning of the book, Andrew’s contract is coming to an end and he has not found other employment. He is then offered a post in Saudi Arabia with a firm building, amongst other things, a new government ministry building. He heads off to Saudi Arabia but Frances has to go back to England for a while, in order for her visa to be arranged. We soon learn that, to get things done in Saudi Arabia, you need an arranger, someone familiar with the local customs who can get things arranged, and you need to bribe. Officially, like a lot of other things (alcohol and extramarital sex being two other obvious examples) bribery does not exist but it clearly does. On arrival, Frances, who has asked not to be in a compound next to Andrew’s colleagues and their families, is taken to a flat in a small building, which is well furnished (though without much taste) but seems rather remote. To her surprise, Andrew locks Frances in and goes back to work. She soon discovers the reality of the role of women in Saudi Arabia. While she had, of course, been well aware that sexual discrimination existed, only when she is faced with it, does she realise how strong it is, from the fact that she is not allowed to speak to her Saudi male neighbour to seeing the women in their burkas in the supermarket (they are the lucky ones as they are allowed to go shopping, Andrew comments).
Those familiar with Mantel’s works will know that there is likely to be something nasty in the woodshed. In this case, the woodshed is the top floor. Two other families live in the building. Firstly, there are Raji and Yasmin, a Pakistani couple with a young couple. It is not clear what Raji does but he seems to be some sort of fixer for a government minister. He is often travelling and often out late a night at parties. Frances and Yasmin become friends, more because there is little alternative, though they later become friends with Samira, the wife of the Arab man Frances is not allowed to speak to. Both women try to persuade Frances of the benefits of Islam and the advantages of Saudi Arabia, though not with much success. Frances is understandably concerned with the treatment of women and does not accept the justifications offered by Yasmin and Samira. There is a fourth flat in the building, allegedly empty. However, Frances hears footsteps overhead and also hears a woman sobbing. Andrew says that she is imagining it, though others suggest that the Deputy Minister, who allegedly owns the building, may be using it for a love nest. Frances’ investigations indicate that there is more going on than casual sex.
Much of the book is about the difficulty of coping with Saudi customs or, in the case of the old hands, how they have managed to find their way around the system. These problems include alcohol (brew your own), getting things done (be patient), the current Saudi financial crisis, which means that the company and its employees are not getting paid (be patient) and a variety of practical issues that Frances and Andrew find it difficult in adapting to. There is also the issue of the expatriate community and how they behave (book clubs, casual affairs, dinner parties), which Frances also finds difficulty in adapting to. Mantel famously replied, when asked What has been your happiest moment?, Leaving Jeddah. It will be Frances’ too. While there is not a great deal of plot – apart from the something nasty in the attic plot – Mantel’s story is well worth reading for seeing the cultural differences and how Westerners cope (or, often, don’t cope) with them.
First published 1988 by Viking