Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 5, 2019

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, by Hilary Mantel

Long before Hilary Mantel became famous for her acclaimed Booker Prize historical novels, I knew her as an author of novels like Beyond Black (2006) with its dark humour and macabre undertones.  Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988) — a serendipitous find at the library — is in the same vein, with the added frisson of having been written in the aftermath of Mantel’s own unhappy sojourn in Saudi Arabia.

I suspect that most of the women I know would chafe at life in Saudi Arabia, even now when the western media is trumpeting reforms that allow women to travel, divorce, and apply for official documents without the permission of a male guardian. I was underwhelmed last year when Saudi women were allowed to drive, and I am underwhelmed now.  I don’t subscribe to the idea that men have a right (god-given or otherwise) to give or withhold permission to women, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Mantel wrote Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988) in the wake of the Islamic Revolution that swept the Middle East after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  These novels remind us that women need to be eternally vigilant about their own human rights…

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is the story of Frances Shore, a woman with a professional career as a cartographer who joins the expat community in Jeddah when her husband’s work in the construction industry takes them to Saudi Arabia.  A veteran of expat life in Africa, she was prepared for restrictions on her lifestyle but is appalled by the reality of life in a punitive patriarchal theocracy.  Mantel’s comments in the postscript ‘Behind the Scenes’ accurately convey the tone of the book:

When I travelled at first I used to ask what I could get out of it, and what I could give back.  What could I teach, and what could I learn? I saw the world as some sort of exchange scheme for my ideals, but the world deserves better than this.  When you come across an alien culture, you must not automatically respect it.  You must sometimes pay it the compliment of hating it. (PS, p.12)

Frances does hate it.  She hates the greed which brings the expats to endure the intolerable in return for generous salaries.  (She and her husband Andrew are mustering a deposit for a house in the UK).  She hates the vacuous lifestyle of endless shopping and nostalgic British ‘cultural’ activities. She has nothing to do, and apart from (illegal) boozy parties with the other expats and the shopping, she is confined to her flat because it’s not just the official decrees that restrict her, it’s also the constant sense of feeling unsafe because of unofficial ad hoc harassments:

So she set off home.  There was a main road to negotiate, but it was mid-morning, fairly quiet, and she never had any trouble crossing at the lights. A boy in a Mercedes pulled up, waved her in front of him.  As she stepped out from the kerb, he revved his engine, the car sprang forward, and she had to leap from under its wheels. She heard the brakes applied; caught herself up, heart racing, and looked back at the driver of the car, understood that it had not been an accident. ‘You are my darling, madam, you are my baby…’ Saw on his face laughter and contempt.

When she got home she phoned Carla. ‘Look,’ Carla said, ‘it’s happened to me.  Don’t take everything so personally.’

‘But why?’ she insisted. She felt on the verge of tears.  ‘I just wanted to cross.  I would have waited.  I would have let him go by.’

Carla said tiredly, ‘They don’t want us on the streets.  It’s just a thing they do.’ (p.238)

So Frances rarely risks it.  She stays in, and learns about her new home from her husband and his colleagues, and her neighbours.  Yasmin and her wheeler-dealer husband Raji are from Pakistan, and there’s a Saudi couple: Samira and her elusive husband Abdul Nasr.

Yasmin and Samira are both Muslim, and they aim to educate Frances about the Koran and the ‘disinformation’ about Sharia Law that is spread in the West.  Frances is baffled by their acceptance of what she considers intolerable and tries to understand it. But though these Muslim women both try to justify the barbarity of Islamic punishments, for ‘crimes’ that allegedly don’t exist in this ‘pure’ society, Frances remains unconvinced.  (She keeps her doubts to herself, for example, when she is told that hand amputations are done humanely, with a doctor there to prevent infection.)

When a crime does occur, the expat advice is not to call in authorities, because often it’s the witnesses who end up in gaol and the crime is never solved anyway.  Frances struggles with this cynicism: she doesn’t want to make judgements about Saudi society and she cringes when her oblivious fellow expats cross the line into cultural superiority and racism.  But she is caught in a bind: hypocrisy and corruption is everywhere, and she is not able to ignore it because she is repeatedly warned by her husband’s employers, colleagues, and their wives, that she must be aware of it and yet act as if it doesn’t exist. It is (literally) dangerous to do otherwise.

In the company of other expats, her sarcasm is unrestrained.  The reality is that a woman’s testimony is worth nothing; and that foreigners are automatically suspect.  Crucially, her concerns about a shadowy presence and someone crying in the supposedly empty flat above, are dismissed as a kind of cabin fever on the one hand, and a dangerous interference on the other.

The novel moves slowly at first as Frances struggles to adjusts to her situation: she vacillates between acceptance as a survival strategy and refusal to submit.  Andrew is the only one she can be honest with, and he is preoccupied by looming financial trouble as the oil price falls.  For him, it’s not just about the money he can make in Saudi Arabia: he’s fallen in love with the architecture of the building he’s contracted to construct.  Opportunities like this are rare, and he wants to see it built…

There are moments of Mantel’s characteristic black humour: there’s an hilarious scene when the scale model arrives from San Francisco, and some fool has peopled it with women in mini-skirts and sundresses.  These have to be surgically removed with tweezers through a hole cut into the Perspex box  lest any Islamic sensibilities be offended.  Likewise, when Frances has to reciprocate the endless dinner parties, she uses her new bargain-priced ‘Saudiflon’ saucepans, only to find that the fake Teflon comes off in black flakes all over the food. Very symbolic!

Tension throughout the novel is sustained by the ‘memo’ that forms a prologue.  It provides advice to all expat staff of the construction company to exercise extreme caution in the wake of recent tragic events and to refrain from commenting on the deaths…

See also Kim’s review at Reading Matters. 

Author: Hilary Mantel
Title: Eight Months on Ghazzah Street
Publisher: Harper Perennial (Harper Collins), 1988, 299 pages
ISBN: 9780007172917
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Eight Months on Ghazzah Street

 

 


Responses

  1. This must be a novel-length version of a short story in her collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. I remember some of the details you summarise here. Strong stuff

    Like

    • I think you’re right. I read that a little while ago, but it didn’t ring a bell until now you mention it:)

      Like

  2. I’m really torn. I’m not sure I would write adversely about someone else’s place in this way – it just feeds into the agenda of people I don’t like. But what should I say? The Saudi Arabian regime is corrupt and appears to have a hold over ‘president’ Trump.

    Like

    • That’s exactly how Mantel felt, as she says in the PS. She was calling it out at a time when not so much was known about it… at that time The Taliban hadn’t made its way into public discourse either and people didn’t realise the full horrific potential of those fundamentalist religious regimes. So, torn between her habitual openness to new cultures and exposing a horror that people didn’t know about, Mantel wrote it. But it takes courage. I bet no one would write about it like that now, or get it published, and not because of any nonsense about cultural relativity, but because the US has been cosying up to them for such a long time, and has basically given them a leave pass to be as awful as they like.

      Like

  3. I have this one waiting to read. It sounds fascinating. I bought it because I was intruiged that Mantel had written about Saudi Arabia, I hadn’t known she had lived there.

    Like

    • I didn’t know either. Apparently she’s been a full time writer since the 1980s, so I’m assuming that in that period she would have travelled with her husband:)

      Like

  4. I read this one a few years back and I loved it. It’s such a dark suspenseful read, filled with paranoia. I don’t recall much about the story, but the mood of it has stayed with me.

    Like

    • I’ve just looked at my review: I read it 10 years ago!!! Where does the time go?

      Like

      • Ah ha! I checked Goodreads, but you only have it there as a book you’ve ‘added’ so I didn’t look for a review on your blog!

        Like

        • I only started actively reviewing books on GoodReads about 5 years ago, so there’ll be loads on my blog not covered on GR.

          Like

          • I know. But it’s a handy way to find reviews when it works. We read so many, and I think it’s a nice friendly gesture to connect to them when I can, but often I can’t remember who it was who prompted me to be interested in a book, especially if it’s from a while ago.

            Like

            • Yes, I always link to other reviews if I can remember where I saw them 🤔 Thanks as ever for linking to mine 😊

              Liked by 1 person


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Categories

%d bloggers like this: