Eight Months on Ghazzah Street: A Novel by Hilary Mantel


Ghazzah Street is in Jeddah where Frances goes to join her husband, an engineer already working in Saudi Arabia.  The book was written in 1988 after the greatest boom time there; oil prices were down.  Frances and Andrew were expats working in Africa when they were tempted by a job for Andrew for high pay with unlimited resources for building.  As it turned out in so many areas, money for the building and Andrew's pay were not as advertised.

Life was stiffling for Frances in Jeddah.  She lived in a monochrome apartment with walls blocking windows and the door, if she walked on the street, men driving by abused her, meaningful work was not possible, and of course the heat was oppressive.  Mysterious and threatening things happened in their building involving the wives of the two couples in the building she came to know. 

From her first day there she heard noises from the vacant apartment above hers.  The initial explanation was the rumor that some high level minister used the apartment for an affair, an act punishable by death.  Eventually Frances came to see this rumor as emblematic of the disinformation that was an essential part of life in the Kingdom.  That is, something more sinister was happening and those involved were happy to let the expats believe what they were so inclined to believe, that it involved infidelity and oppression of women. 

While the message is clearly that life in Saudi Arabia is unbearable to a woman like Frances, who cannot quietly tolerate the unspeakable, it occurred to me that we would do well to look at ourselves. All cultures probably think of themselves as having certain beliefs that are belied by their actions and that an outsider is better able to see these contradictions.

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