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.