Re-POST: Megan Stack on US/Saudi Arabia's Moral Myopia re Women
The following are excerpts from Every Man in This Village is A Liar ... an education in war by Megan K. Stack (Doubleday). This is a brilliant book -- poetic and profound. I highly recommend it.
I am still mid-book and hungry to write an overall review when I finish it, but I just came upon a chapter, Chapter 10, A Question of Cost (page 124), that cries out to me to quote it on its own ... cries out to me as a woman hearing the truth from a fellow woman reporting about the plight of women in the Middle East and, even more ominously and clearly, the plight of all women from what Stack calls a “dark, ruthless fraternity” (Stack’s coinage) worsened by those global, patriarchal players willing to "pragmatically" minimize and normalize the throwing of any woman’s rights under any bus.
“Truth was buried like oil under blank sands.”
[Stack on wives of Aramco employees in Saudi Arabia]
Until recently, these women were living what they called “the good life.” They were middle-class wives and mothers who’d caught the elusive American dream here in Saudi Arabia, and they were determined to cling to it. They’d found a corner of the planet where salaries were high, streets safe, and neighbors friendly. Within Aramco’s gates the sun shines day after day and there is no unemployment or homelessness, there are no uninsured. Ensconced in a sort of corporate resort and military base rolled into one, utterly removed from the severe desert kingdom that they called home in only the most theoretical sense, they enjoyed the romantic mystique of expatriate life without the inconvenience of foreign language, unfamiliar mores, or strange cuisine.
They had carted themselves along. Americans swaddled in Americana. Maybe this is the essence of the Saudi-American relationship, I thought. We need one another, and we are braided together. But we don’t try to become one another, and maybe we don’t even try to understand one another, because what each sees in the other provokes visceral disgust. In Saudi eyes we are a nation of whores, drugs, broken families, and guns; we swing our power like a club and the world bides its time until our ignorance strips us of our glory. To Americans, Saudis are fanatic, brutal, sexist, materialistic, modern-day slave owners. But we have been wrapped up in the Saudi oil industry since Americans struck black gold in 1936 and on down through the twentieth century, as riches welled up and transformed an illiterate, impoverished backwater into an opulent kingdom. Americans needed Saudi oil, and Saudis needed American expertise and political cover. All of that weird codpendence revolved around Aramco. America is here, absolutely, but hidden so as not to anger the locals, walled off because otherwise who can stomach Saudi Arabia? We will coexist but neither side will sacrifice its character. We will not show our faces and we will not look one another in the eye. These women do not know what I know, because they have not lived outside the gate.
One afternoon I had found a Starbucks in a fancy shopping mall in Riyadh. I filled my lungs with the rich perfume of coffee, and it smelled like home -- caffeinated, comforting, American. I asked for a latte and the barista gave me a bemused look; his eyes flickered and he shrugged. The milk steamer whined, he handed over the coffee, and I turned my back on his uneasy face. The Saudi men stopped talking and watched me pass with hard stares. I ignored them and sank into an overstuffed armchair.
“Excuse me,” hissed the voice in my ear. “You can’t sit here.” The man from the counter hung at my elbow, glowering.
“Emmmm... “ He drew his discomfort into a long syllable. “You can not stay here.”
“What? Why not?”
Then he said it, “Men only.”
He doesn’t tell me what I will learn later: Starbucks has another, unmarked door around back that leads to a smaller espresso bar, and a handful of tables smothered by curtains. That is the “family” section. As a woman, that’s where I belong. I have no right to mix with male customers or sit in view of passing shoppers, I must confine myself to the separate, inferior, and usually invisible spaces where Saudi Arabia shunts half the population.
I stand up. It’s the only thing I can do. Men in their white robes and red-checked kaffiyehs stare impassively over their mugs. I drop my eyes, and immediately wish I hadn’t. Snatching up my skirts to keep from stumbling, I walk out of the store and into the clatter of the shopping mall.
Futilely I would count down the days until I could flee westward on sterilized jets, only to remember, over and over agin, that there was no escape. Saudi Arabia stuck to me, followed me home and shadowed me through my days, tainting the way I perceived men and women everywhere.
In Saudi Arabia, it was rich boys and men, nestled in material comfort in a sovereign country, railing about how their brutally Islamic government wasn’t Islamic enough. In Jalalabad or Gaza, people stood in the street and told you how they felt. In Saudi Arabia, radicalism was tamped down behind obfuscations. It was packaged in fancy cars and expensive sunglasses; hidden behind the high walls of mansions. They didn’t spread it out and say, this is what it is, and this is why it is. The heart of jihad looked as smooth and American as any place I could ever imagine, full of Saudis who had studied in Kentucky and Wisconsin and Americans enthusing about the wonderful Saudi hospitality. And they didn’t trust each other at all. There was a place where the East and West joined, and that place was the dark, slick rush of oil money. It was in the greed of Americans and the cold calculations of Saudis.
The rules are different in Saudi Arabia. The same U.S government that drummed up public outrage against the Taliban by decrying the mistreatment of Afghan women goes to Saudi Arabia and keeps its mouth shut. McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Starbucks make women stand in separate lines. Hotels like the InterContinental and the Sheraton won’t rent a woman a room without a letter from a company vouching for her ability to pay; women checking into rooms alone are regarded as prostitutes. Saudi Arabia is still the place where America colludes, where we have quietly decided that women’s rights are negotiable.
“Police do not have the authority to enter homes and bring abused children under public protection ... according to law, wives cannot report domestic abuse by husbands to the police ...
According to Islamic law, a father who kills his child is not eligible for the death penalty ...
The father is likely to serve a jail sentence of a number of years if he’s found guilty. The mother may receive monetary compensation for the death of her daughter.
Fatima and her children have been languishing in prison for the past three and half months. Her crime: She wanted to live with Mansour, her husband and father of her two children. ... Fatima refused to leave the prison or go to a shelter home for fear of retaliation from her brothers, who are her legal guardians since their father’s death.
... There are no laws in place that automatically revoke a father’s custody of children -- even if the father turns out to be an incestuous rapist.
I looked up from the page. All around me sat men -- men from America and men from Great Britain and men from France, men eating their breakfasts and preparing for business meetings. Men who’d already begun their meetings, hunched with jovial, berobed Saudi men over platters of scrambled eggs. Men meeting for oil in this land of invisible women.
Pundits like to talk about Saudi reform. About how maybe women will be allowed to vote, or drive. But after years in the Middle East, the word reform signified, to me, the tangled, unholy alliance between America and Arab dictators who grant and revoke press laws, women’s rights, and political party laws on a whim. The flaw in the notion of Arab reform is the idea that people who lord over their land in autocratic splendor will voluntarily relinquish power. In truth, progress is doled out and taken back at the king’s pleasure. Rulers take one step forward and holler about it, wait until the world is busy elsewhere, and slide back to to where they started. Generations of diplomats and journalists talk about reform, and in the meantime the stories pile up:
The word woman is not popular in Saudi Arabia. The going term is lady. I heard a lot about ladies from Saudi officials. They talked themselves into knots, trying to depict a moderate, misunderstood kingdom, bemoaning stereotypes in the Western press: Women banned from driving? Well, they don’t want to drive anyway. They all have drivers, and why would a lady want to mess with parking? The religious police who stalk the streets and shopping centers, beating “Islamic values” into the populace? Oh, Saudi officials scoff, they aren’t strict or powerful. You hear stories to the contrary? Sensationalistic exaggerations, perpetuated by outsiders who don’t understand Saudi Arabia.
And then, too, the truth is not really easy to admit or articulate. You can’t admit how dirty it made you feel, the thousand ways you were slighted and how flimsy your self-assurance turned out to be, how those little battles bit at you like acid. Men who refused to shake your hand; squatting on floors with men who refused to look at your face because you brimmed with sin, not one glance in an hour-long interview; the sneering underfed soldiers who hissed and talked about your ass when you walked past. You can’t admit it made you so bitter that, for a time, you looked at any woman who hadn’t been where you have been as if she were an ingenue who didn’t understand the world she occupied. She was blind to the dark, ruthless, fraternity of men -- all men around the globe, all around the globe -- how luridly dangerous they were, how we had to keep pushing them or we’d wind up where we began hundreds of years ago. You are not supposed to say any of that. It proves you were never really up to the game, that you might as well have stayed home. So you pretend it’s nothing, you tell everyone that you were lucky because you could talk to the women.
[cross-posted on open salon]