My Desert Kingdom is an enjoyable and insightful book detailing an Australian couples ex-pat experience in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Written prior to 9/11, it focuses on the trials and tribulations of ex-pat life, not shying away from the unglamorous aspects that are part and parcel of living in this insular country.
Blending two trips together, over a period of close to two years, Koolmees describes life in the Ferdews ("Paradise") compound in Dhahran, which is a melting pot of nationalities from the Middle East, Sub-continent, North Africa, Philippines all mixed with a sprinkling of Saudi's thrown in for good measure. With 5-7 million ex-pats living in the country, at the time, comprising close to 70% of the workforce, My Desert Kingdom paints a good picture of what life is like for the Western contingent, and what goes on behind the walls of the compounds, including activities such as drinking and partying to which authorities turn a blind eye.
Spending time in both Dhahran and Riyadh (meaning "gardens" in Arabic) where she relocates due to her husband's teaching job, provides ample opportunity to get a good feel for the country and outline the accompanying frustrations, boredom and inconveniences that occur as a result of being a woman without a job. Depicted is a society segregated along many lines: male/female, Saudi/non-Saudi, Muslim/non-Muslim and domestic/professional workers.
Alongside her own experiences, Koolmees touches on the history of Saudia, including how the modern-day Kingdom was founded, and how religion became so entwined with state affairs. Also covered is the impact of Ramadan and the overarching importance of Saudi Arabia's most important sites, the Kaabah and Prophet's Holy Mosque and Saudi Arabia's role in administering the holy pilgrimage, the Haj.
My Desert Kingdom also sheds light on a wide range of other topics such as the role of the woman in society, arranged marriages, the birthrate and importance of children, different religions within the country, the interactions of the religious police (mattaween) and how the abaya (black cloak worn by woman) is viewed by Saudi woman.
A lot of Koolmees opinions appear to have been formed from regular columns of her daily paper of choice, the English-speaking Arab News from which she quotes reasonably extensively. Regardless, she does a good job of getting across a lot of information in an even-handed fashion with humour, even if at times it may across as a bit light. But that also is part of the appeal of the book. My Desert Kingdom, does not pretend to be some scholarly volume preaching the virtues or lack thereof of the country but rather one women's experience of some time spent in a fascinating and complex country.
3 and a half stars out of 5
Banner Credit: Maher Najm