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Book Review: If Olaya Street Could Talk – Saudi Arabia: the Heartland of Oil and Islam by John Paul Jones

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What do we really know about Saudi Arabia? What does the North American general public know about the Kingdom aside from what we absorb through media references? And if our sources of information about the Arab and Muslim world in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, are mass media sources – tabloids, newspapers, magazines, radio and television shows, and let's not forget Hollywood – what exactly is it that we learn? Do we learn anything of substance? Anything positive? Anything but propaganda and crude caricatures of the Other, viewed through the prevailing political and ideological prisms?

After decades of negative portrayals in the news media and villainous stereotypes in Hollywood movies, a growing number of scholars, filmmakers and writers are pointing out not only the long history of anti-Arab racism in American mass media, but the fact that such portrayals have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the rise of Islamic extremism and terrorism. Books on the subject include Jack Shaheen's Reel Bad Arabs, Steve Salaita's Terrifying Patriotism: How Anti-Arab Racism Justifies Empire and Threatens Democracy, and Tran Nguyen's We Are All Suspects Now: Untold Stories of Immigrant America After 9/11. Other authors, such as Chomsky and Roy, discuss the issue within the larger framework of Nation and Empire. These are products of post-9/11 America, arising at a time, and in a climate, where they simply can no longer be ignored.

John Paul Jones, in the introduction to his book, If Olaya Street Could Talk – Saudi Arabia: the Heartland of Oil and Islam, states that, unlike the books and articles he had read about France, another country he had learned to appreciate, with Saudi Arabia "it is only the exceptional book or article that reflects my experience. The others seem a crude caricature, like wartime propaganda, and much of this was even before 9/11." It is his hope that this book will be a "step in changing American perceptions of Saudi Arabia in particular, and the Arabs in general, and further an examination of how and why those shifts in 'tribal thinking' occur" that give rise to conflicts and war. Writing about his experience in Saudi Arabia, though he'd never intended to do so, "eventually became an imperative. To contribute to ending the ideology of war without end should be a sufficient reason."

If Olaya Street Could Talk is at once personal memoir, travel narrative, and cultural and political commentary. It draws on Jones's experience as an American expatriate living and working in Saudi Arabia for nearly a quarter century. Though the book is essentially about his experiences in Saudi Arabia, his involuntary participation in the Vietnam war during his youth also comes up more than once, playing an important role not only in the plot, so to speak – in that it launched him into the career that would later lead him to work in Saudi Arabia – but also in his perspective on the changes he witnesses while in Riyadh, particularly the political/religious/ideological changes leading up to and accelerating after the events of 9/11. His Vietnam experience forms an important backdrop to the narrative, adding weight to his observations and especially his cultural/political commentary.

Starting the book, I expected it to be heavy on theory and commentary. And because of the current cultural and political climate – with the "war on terror" being waged not only on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, but increasingly also against the Other at home, the ideological "war without end" – I expected a dark and depressing read. Although there are moments, small sections here and there, that can arouse anger, outrage and sadness in the politically and culturally aware reader (and even more so in one with personal experience), that is certainly not the tenor of the book as a whole.

The opening chapters explain how Jones got to Saudi Arabia and how he came to work at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh. They also provide some background to illuminate the title of the book, which is a line adapted from W. C. Handy's "Beale Street Blues." Beale Street is, of course, the street in Memphis credited as the birthplace of the blues. Jones was there in April 1993 listening to the blues with an Arab who had hired Jones to return with him to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after studying the operation of St. Jude's, the hospital on which King Faisal Specialist Hospital was modeled.

Jones quite deftly, using no more than a couple of paragraphs, creates a link between the cultural divide in America and the cultural divides in the Middle East. His Arab companion may not have been able to experience the full effect of the blues because he did not know the history of the anguish that gave rise to it. Although this is not explored in much depth, Jones points out that the almost haphazard creation of new countries, new kingdoms, in the Arabian Peninsula created deep cultural divides with consequences difficult for us to understand.

If Olaya Street Could Talk is an easy read. The writing is simple and straightforward. The fact that so much of the book reads like the personal memoir of an American expat living abroad, interspersed with frequent travel narratives, tales of road trips, camping, exploration, and scuba diving, makes it a much lighter read than a book solely focused on the Middle East crises or the conditions leading up to and contributing to them. It is these sections that make the heavy parts, the enraging and depressing parts, easier to handle. Many of the more academic books on culture, politics and war, and specifically on the aforementioned crises, can result in emotional overload, and are consequently difficult to read straight through.

Though this is certainly not a history book, Jones manages to get some of the basics of Saudi history into the narrative, and the snippets of history he shares contribute to the larger story. Mainly to provide some historical background – not only to the particular incident of the seizure and occupation of the Grand Mosque in Makkah (Mecca), but also to the gradual rise of Wahabi extremism in Saudi Arabia – he describes how the House of Saud formed a loose alliance in the 1800s with Abdul Wahab. Abdul Aziz, in the early 1900s, once again made use of the latest incarnation of the Wahabites – the Ikhwan, the Brotherhood – to unify much of the Arabian Peninsula and establish the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The same region of the Kingdom from which the leader of the Mosque occupation hailed produced several of the people who participated in the 9/11 attacks.

The descriptions of daily life at the hospital and around town, and of trips to numerous places, combined with the maps in the appendix, provide the reader a basic sense of familiarity with the country. Unfortunately, the author didn't include a lot of pictures. (To see some photographs of the various places described in the book, both around town and in the desert, go to the Taza Press website.)

Unlike many of the other expats working at the hospital, Jones and his family did not take advantage of the many buffers it provided or remain isolated and insulated from the larger society: "the hospital was a mini-city, and like the US Army before, assumed the function of caring for many of the social needs of its employees and their families," providing completely furnished and equipped housing, its own power plant, water treatment plant, security and fire departments, subsidized food and recreation facilities, post office and telephone exchange, as well as transportation and travel departments. He and his family and a few other expats got out and explored the country, especially the desert, meeting numerous Saudis in the city and on the road.

Getting out and involved in various activities around the country, including forming warm and not-so-warm relationships with various Saudis, gave Jones more insight into the social and cultural mechanisms of change, including the impact of Western (particularly American) attitudes towards the Saudi people, culture and religion. Jones observes how the hospital, during its early years when it was entirely administered by Americans, rendered the Saudis in whose country it operated largely invisible to the staff. In the very heart of one of the most socially conservative countries, the Saudis "were at the very periphery of our existence. The very poor Saudis drove the hospital buses and the local taxis. More affluent Saudis were shopkeepers… A small group of Saudis worked at the hospital in administration posts but were kept at the extreme edges of power… like so much cardamom sprinkled in the coffee, an exotic presence sufficient to suggest that one was not actually in a hospital in Peoria."

Jones uses quotes by famous Western writers to introduce his chapters, people such as T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Wilfrid Thesiger, and Gertrude Bell. The quotes function as points of reference and distinction, historical markers of sorts, laying bare past prejudices. He notes, after a Lawrence quote, what "a profound unease" the modern reader should experience from some of their writing, especially their "casual assessment of the racial characteristics of another people." He is looking through very different eyes, of course, but in examining how others before him viewed and treated this particular Other, he gives us a bit more perspective on the inevitable rise of opposition and hatred. "All these observers," he writes, "with their impressions of Arabia, sliced and diced."

Over the course of almost 25 years Jones observes remarkable changes in Saudi Arabia. He witnesses the profound and rapid transformation of Riyadh, initially a small frontier town with only a couple of traffic lights, into a bustling, modern city. He witnesses the hybridization and modernization, in many cases for the worse, of the Bedouin. Most of the Bedouin people, over the course of about 20 years, abandoned their nomadic lifestyles in favor of a sedentary one, and, as with indigenous populations in other parts of the world, ended up with various problems, including an epidemic of diabetes.

A much more subtle transformation Jones witnesses and describes, one that is both timely and vital for us understand in these troubled times, is on the cultural/religious front. Over time, not only are the changes in the hospital administration great, but the presence of the mutawaa, the religious police, becomes ever more pronounced and intrusive. Jones describes the subtle but noticeable changes from "the gentler days of the mid-80s" when men and women freely cohabited in the housing units surrounding the hospital, and when professional chamber music concerts held at the International Hotel "were open to the public where men and women, Saudi and non-Saudi, would sit together and enjoy." Later, approaching and entering the new millennium, the mutawaa roamed the streets policing public morality, and open hostility and violence towards Westerners emerged.

Describing the changes, Jones provides a number of examples of underlying aspects of Western (but particularly American) attitudes and behavior that have fomented the hatred of America and the West among those now labeled terrorists. There's the negative portrayal of the Arab in a children's book (Children of the World) in an Atlanta school library, leading Jones to think to himself, "this is what the Arabs are complaining about." There's the fact that, in 21 months of living in Atlanta and reading the Wall Street Journal daily to find and "save any article that was not totally negative, that had just one sentence which hinted at something positive in the country," he found not even one. And there was that subset of Americans in Saudi Arabia – perhaps no more than ten percent – who carried with them "that insufferable, smug attitude that measures another person, or another country, by the degree to which they conform to American norms."

Perhaps more potent and pernicious than the above examples are those to be found in the media. Jones describes one particularly disturbing encounter with a well-known New York Times journalist, Thomas Friedman, the author of From Beirut to Jerusalem. Though Friedman did not technically misquote Jones, the journalist, after an interview during his first visit to Saudi Arabia, chose to quote "only the part of our conversation which reconfirms preconceived notions," thereby completely distorting Jones's statement. Specifically, Friedman quoted only the part about the author seeing "Saudi doctors and nurses around him celebrating on 9/11," but not his "overall statement about the number who had offered their condolences, the positive reaction of the Saudi hospital administration, and the number of Saudis who were far more concerned about Osama bin Laden changing their lives than the Americans' lives."

Another New York Times columnist sent to Riyadh, Maureen Dowd, instead of focusing on "understanding how Saudi professional women work, what their personal aspirations are, not to mention the aspirations and workings of the vast number of Saudi stay-at-home middle class mothers," and how these "contrast with the aspirations of American women," chose to contrast the negligees sold in prominent Riyadh lingerie stores with the completely covered women who shopped there.

Though Jones does not spend much time discussing politics or war in If Olaya Street Could Talk, nor the events of 9/11, he does hint at an interesting parallel between the Saudi and American populations. After a close personal encounter with the mutawaa, he has a brief discussion with its boss. "He voiced that he knew all Westerners hated the mutawaa," leaving Jones to think to himself, "also, about eighty percent of the Saudi population." What comes to mind immediately is how much the current American administration, with Bush at its head, claims to represent the will of the American people and to be doing what's best for the them. Perhaps the percentage of Americans who, by the government's standards and rhetoric, could be labeled anti-American because they do not necessarily approve of the actions taken by the administration ostensibly on their behalf, is similarly high.

If Olaya Street Could Talk is not only an interesting personal narrative of the author's life as an expat in Saudi Arabia, punctuated by fascinating travel tales, it is also an important book for our times, with many positive things to say about the Kingdom. At times saddening and enraging, but much of the time fascinating and engaging, this book is highly recommended.

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  • Fahad M A AlTamimi

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