Friday 19 March 2010

Hilary Mantel in Arabia

Talking of Sons of the Prophet, I've been reading Hilary Mantel's Eight Months On Ghazzah Street, an early novel set in the desert dystopia of Jeddah. About a cartographer who joins her engineer husband working on contract in Saudi Arabia, it's a creepily effective thriller that sometimes strays a little close to genre territory, but has more than enough of that distinctive Mantel savour to lift it above the ordinary. It portrays Jeddah with memorable vividness as an oppressive suffocating city imbued with ever present menace - indeed as something not far short of hell on earth, a hell in which the only people worse than the expats are the locals. Mantel is unsparing in her depiction of the corruption, the hypocrisy, the brutality, the mendacity, the casual assumption of superiority of the Saudi top dogs. And as for their treatment of women... The novel was published in 1988, long before we were given urgent reasons to worry about Islamism, and seems presciently sensitive to currents that were then just beginning to flow. Since those days, the confidence and arrogance of the Saudis has only grown, and I suspect that, if a publisher were presented with a novel like this today, they would probably decline it, for fear of offending Saudi sensibilities. And the Saudis have a nasty habit of using the libel laws to get books withdrawn and pulped...Eight Months On Ghazzah Street is a real page turner - but most definitely not a book to cheer you up, or make you feel good about our friends in the gutrahs and thoubs. Hilary Mantel also wrote a Spectator piece about her experiences in Saudi Arabia, in which she says that 'when you come across an alien culture, you must not automatically respect it. You must sometime pay it the compliment of hating it.' Indeed.


  1. I really enjoyed this book years ago - Mantel also wrote about Saudi Arabia in an essay which won the inaugural Shiva Naipaul prize. I don't suppose you have a copy of that essay? I would love to see it again. I've searched for it on the internet without success. It is called Last Months in Al Hamra and in it she describes brilliantly how she tries to see the good in this new society she is living in and eventually has to admit defeat and accept that it is deeply flawed.

  2. Yes I remember reading that essay at the time - v impressive - part of it is printed in the back of the edition I read. In fact it's where my closing quote come from.

  3. I know a few people who have been to Saudi Arabia.

    They all hated the place.