T. L. McCown was a ten-year resident of Saudi Arabia and has written this thought-provoking chronicle in part to exorcise personal ghosts and in part to inform those of us ignorant of life inside the Kingdom about the rigors and pleasures of life there for a foreign guest worker.
Americans working in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia live in guarded compounds, rather like small cities with every conceivable luxury included – swimming pools, posh restaurants where meals can be had for a few dollars, shops and of course, apartments, capacious and thoroughly, almost perfectly, appointed. Outside these cloistered cells is the desert. Cities, rarely visited by tourists but accessible to guest workers by bus, are noted for their fabulous markets of gold and carpets, making the Kingdom a fairy tale land. For some.
Saudis themselves are all wealthy, comprising several large clans including the current royal family. As a tutor, T. L. was privileged to go behind the marble walls of the royals and become close to Princess Madawi, who shared much of her life with her American visitor. One could say that they became friends. Certainly T. L. was treated like a friend and even a confidante. Madawi gave her herbs to provoke fertility when T. L. was trying to get pregnant (they seemed to work) and invited T.L. and her husband to massive weddings and other royal occasions, giving them a view that few expatriates ever enjoy.
The book is highly informative, on one level. One learns a great deal about the daily lives of ex-pats and finds it for the most part unenviable. One would like to have found out more about the other levels of guest workers – the omnipresent Filipinos, Pakistanis and others whose skills are all rated and codified by the Royal family and whose compounds, one suspects, reflect the status in which they are held by the Saudis. As Americans enjoy first class non-citizenship in the Kingdom, one imagines that others are less spoiled. However, other guest workers are Islamic and that may tip the scales. Americans are not even allowed to have Christmas decorations or celebrate publicly any Christian holidays. The prejudice against Christians is brought out starkly in a story of a Saudi doctor who advised T. L. that she needed to abort her baby at seven months because “things were not progressing properly” a diagnosis that had no basis in fact.
This book makes a promise and fails to deliver on it. In the beginning, and reiterated in various ways throughout the book, is the warning that T.L. received from a fellow American after arriving in Saudi: “Watch your step with the Princess as things can end as quickly as they start when it comes to the Royal family. One minute you can be in their favor, their golden child, and the next, you can be out of the country bearing an exit-only visa.” T. L. indicates that this happened, but never gives details. As a faithful reader pressing on to the end to see exactly how this prophecy was to be fulfilled, I felt cheated.
Cheated, too, by the photos of buildings, empty rooms and barren desert. It’s as if the writer was afraid – indeed she speaks of “individual safety” in her introduction. If this is so, it’s worth pondering.
Worth pondering, too, is the reaction, often apparently inhumane, of the sending organization for which the couple worked. There’s no doubt that most decisions were made by the organization – and its employees – purely on the basis of economic gain or loss, not as an unmixed response to present danger. And of the American government which, after the attack on the Khobar towers, advised its immured citizens in the construction of Molotov cocktails.
Yet life at that point couldn’t have turned too rough for the embattled Americans in their walled compound, because T. L. and her family stayed on a further five years.