Crossing the Kingdom: Portraits of Saudi Arabia
University of California Press, 2016, 280 pp., $24.95
Writing about other cultures is inherently difficult, usually the more so the extent to which the culture written about bespeaks a different historical experience than that of the writer. It becomes even more difficult when the culture being written about had been misrepresented to the intended audience, whether due to cultural bias or from having been sucked into a political vortex that distorts the questions outsiders are likely to ask, let alone the answers. In some cases distorted Western narratives about non-Western cultures have served to legitimize acts of colonialist or imperialist violence perpetrated against them—the Congo and Algeria are obvious examples, but many more could readily be cited. Cross-cultural writing has therefore not always been innocently academic, but it has always been and remains difficult even in the absence of politically shaped motives.
Westerners trying to write about Saudi Arabia are very much a case in point. Saudi Arabia along with Oman has been traditionally the most deliberately reclusive and insular country among the Arabs, contrasting dramatically with Arab nations such as Lebanon and Tunisia. Indeed, writing about the Kingdom is difficult not only for Westerners but also for other Arabs and indeed even for Saudis who belong to the culture. How so?
To begin with, Saudi Arabia is not easily accessible to foreign scholars, and many aspects of state policy are not even accessible to local scholars. Not until 1999 could outsiders enter the Kingdom on a tourist visa, and access for scholars who wanted to stay for more than a week or two is an even more recent development. More fundamentally the country has been highly exoticized, even for Saudis. Some of this has to do with the gender segregation practiced in Saudi Arabia and with myths that over time grew up around women due to it. So a Saudi male in Dubai or London is likely to be attracted to the presence of a Saudi woman much more than he would be to a non-Saudi one.
To understand or write about such an exoticized country from the outside one needs to be highly self-aware of one’s own cultural baggage in order to avoid projecting its emanations inadvertently onto others. Sometimes we think that spending a considerable amount of time in a given culture is enough to get a sense of it and to understand it. But it is more important to spend time with oneself to get a sense of the various conceptions that will filter one’s analysis of the data or information being gathered. It may therefore be even more important for outsiders to scrutinize latent preconceptions about the East, Islam, Wahhabism, and even the desert itself.
And of course one needs to be able to discount recent headlines: If a book written by a Westerner is written or read under the shadow of highly politicized charges, say of Saudi government complicity in the attacks of September 11, 2001, great care must be taken to prevent the emotional effusions of such shallow debates from influencing the outcome.
Into this challenging zone has recently stepped Loring Danforth, a professor of anthropology at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. His Crossing the Kingdom is especially useful for presenting some aspects of Saudi society to a novice Western reader, even if its goal was not to offer theoretically informed analysis. His very first chapter nicely summarizing the history of Aramco in Saudi Arabia is a case in point. It is accurate, well told, and constitutes a myth-busting exercise as well, for Aramco, like the Kingdom itself, has been festooned over the years with tales that are, as Dean Acheson once put it, “clearer than the truth.” Other chapters focus on “Driving While Female,” art, science, anthropology, the city of Jeddah, and the Hajj—and he includes 16 black-and-white photos presumably meant to illustrate some of his points.
That said, Danforth falls prey anyway to the wiles of exoticism. Perhaps it is his way of making the book attractive to others, as for example when he frames Saudi ways consistently as the “other” of civilization with its “camels and deserts, malls and skyscrapers,” or when he quotes phrases such as “where Paris meets the desert” without qualification. But perhaps it’s more than that. Loring states in his introduction that he spent only one month inside the Kingdom, considerably less time than the typical American student who goes to Cairo or Amman for a semester (or two or three) to master Arabic. And he took a group of students with him, meaning that his time had to be split between anthropologically informed observation and cat-herding.
Despite these limitations, Danforth made decent use of his experience, and of course a few earlier Western authors, like Robert Lacey, have also shown that it is possible to write insightfully about Saudi Arabia, notably about its history, without having been a long-time resident. But the limits are telling all the same, particularly when Danforth moves away from data collection to register his personal impressions and reactions. To my eyes—the eyes of a native-born Saudi—Danforth’s observation are profound. I wish he’d done more observing and less recounting of the history of oil in Saudi Arabia and the oddities of long-departed personalities like H. St. John Philby.
So, for example, at the end of the preface Danforth shares with us part of the text of an email he had sent after their return to the students who accompanied him:
If you find yourself depressed, disoriented, or alienated from other people—if you find yourself trapped between the world in which you have lived for the past month and the world you are returning to—welcome to cultural shock.
This is a remarkable statement. Most likely Danforth felt the same way upon visiting and returning from other places, and he would also expect his students to experience culture shock upon returning from, say, Japan or Sierra Leone. But he doesn’t say so, and this leaves the impression that Saudi Arabia is indeed an exotic place that tends to shock.
He does elaborate later in the book the elements of the “shocking” experience he presumes his students have had:
Our confrontation with creationism and homophobia in Saudi Arabia challenged values that I hold dear, as did our confrontation with other disturbing aspects of Saudi culture—religious intolerance, restrictions on the freedom of women, the violation of basic human rights, and the absence of democracy.
My hunch is that Danforth sought out for himself and his students—in his own words—a “direct” and forced series of personal “confrontations.” Perhaps due to his limited time in country he only saw what accentuated the “disturbing aspects of Saudi culture.” One of his Saudi guides told him that, “You just focused on a few things.” Given the brevity of his trip, he seems to have been mainly in a difference-identification mode. Stay in a place for a longer time, and one’s attitudes mature. But he did not stay a longer time, and the result is that Saudi Arabia often comes across as a kind of theme park rather than a real place.
Danforth is of course very clear in the book about his rejection of ethnocentrism and refusal to judge other cultures. Like all good contemporary American anthropologists, he rejects essentialism and has been made sensitive to the sometimes apt and sometimes exaggerated charges of orientalism. And he demonstrates a keen understanding that the Western media had reduced Saudi Arabia to images of deserts, camels, oil, and women in black among other things; he repeatedly criticizes such simplistic representations throughout Crossing the Kingdom. He wants “to avoid the problems of ethnocentrism, oversimplification, and overgeneralization that characterize much popular writing on Saudi Arabia,” and he succeeds in many ways. But alas, the subtleties mostly failed him.
Part of the problem he no doubt encountered turned on a lack of familiarity with language and culture. Danforth’s area of academic specialization has been mainly Greece, rural Greece in particular. He seems not to have focused his academic work on any Arab or Middle Eastern society. As nearly always happens in such circumstances, Danforth’s learning curve was steep but erratic, and his lack of familiarity with the basic social scene left him at the mercy of others to set up his engagements.
So, for example, it seems that most of the Saudis he met were either “soft” dissidents or outliers of one kind or another—perhaps because Saudis who speak decent English naturally have better access to visitors, and that reality alone works as a filter on whom an outsider is likely to encounter. Meeting such people to learn about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia can be helpful in collecting “facts” about specific infringements or violations, but speaking to such individuals is a great deal less useful when it comes to understanding the “experience” of living in Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, the first few hours of a set encounter with such people, from any other culture, can be exhausting if it is charged with a sense of victimization or polarization. If a foreign visitor to Saudi Arabia comes away from a meeting feeling that the person before him sees him- or herself as a victim, or that he or she absolutely rejects the visitor’s values and culture, no serious anthropological observation will be possible.
It is also worth pointing out that first meetings between Americans and Arabs, very much including Saudis—and set meetings especially—can be the occasion for a fair bit of misunderstanding. Perhaps I am now guilty of making assumptions based on my own biases, but it seems to me that Westerners tend to expect more candid and open discussions with Arabs at first encounter than most Arabs are prepared to deliver. Westerners, Americans in particular, are used to friendly informality, and to seeking and sharing “authenticity” on the quick. Saudis tend to want to get to know someone a little better before they unburden their souls to them, and that goes for other Saudis as well as for visitors. A sense of personal trust has to be built before much candor is possible, and many encounters are required for that, not just one.
Moreover, educated Saudis know that whatever they say is bound to be filtered through a thick layer of stereotypes about Saudi Arabia that prevail in Western media, and they frame their responses accordingly. There is often a built-in agenda from the Saudi side, that of dispelling distortive images. So the act of self-presentation has to be to some extent premeditated. Certainly, when a Saudi interacts with a Western researcher he is not only engaging with that specific individual, but with what the individual may represent. In a 2014 book entitled Joyriding in Riyadh, Pascal Menoret discusses his experiences in Saudi Arabia and tells us: “For most of my interlocutors, I was first and foremost a male Western Orientalist whose research could add some day to the information gathered by Western governments, security agencies, and private and public armies.” One of Menoret’s interlocutors told him: “You must carry to the West an exact idea of us, so that people no longer fear us but know who we are.”
In a way a foreign researcher is stuck being an accidental orientalist (even when he is not), an intelligence agent, or a would-be messenger of goodwill. Danforth was surely aware of how his Saudi interlocutors saw him, but it still had to have been no small task to conduct a conversation that could transcend all these paralytic limitations. It’s not like striking up a conversation with someone at a market, or across a park bench while one’s children are playing, or anything halfway normal where no one’s guard is up. In other words, there is something about the staged nature of almost all encounters between foreign researchers and Saudis inside the country that reduce all native interlocutors to individuals whose voices are mediated through their highly conscious self-presentation, and that are mediated a second time through the preconceptions of the Western listener/author. Moreover, as already suggested, the voice of the Saudi heard without proper context and analysis is open to more misunderstanding by the reader, who supplies a third layer of mediation after those of the Saudi “voice” and the author.
But there is something even subtler going on, of which Danforth is likely aware, though he does not point it out: how Saudis tend to see themselves in the presence of a researcher, and why. Saudis have come to believe that they compose a different society from all others—not to exclude neighboring Arab societies—and that their social dynamics are exceptional. This is not always a self-congratulatory sentiment. Saudis describing Saudi Arabia have a sense of being exceptionally different in the back of their mind, and this sense of difference becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in that it filters what Saudis say to Western researchers, and sometimes even to themselves. A Saudi would perhaps focus on the points that emphasize that difference between Saudi Arabia and everywhere else. If he or she is a critic of the status quo the emphasis will likely be on the wide gap existing between normalcy and Saudi life; if he or she on balance supports the status quo then the emphasis will be on its uniqueness or on the corruptness of the alternative—the West. But polarization will be present in one form or another; it is a natural outcome of the Saudi sense of exceptionalism.
I linger on this problem—how the Saudi views the “researcher” and how the Saudi views himself in the presence of an outside observer—because Danforth is particularly keen to present the reader with the “Saudi voice” by quoting it a great deal. But is there such a thing as a “Saudi voice”?
In the first place, the composite Saudi “voice” would need to pass the test of representing the extensive diversity that exists today in the Kingdom. There is not just one kind of dissident but several, some more social and cultural and some more overtly political than others. There is not just one kind of Wahhabi thinking, for that matter, but several streams within the ambit of religious ideas. There is not just one Saudi place either, for regional differences within the country persist.
Perhaps an example or two can show just how fraught this entire business really is. At the beginning of chapter one, Danforth explains the high security at Aramco by reference to an Aramco public relations officer, himself a Saudi, who says: “There are ultraconservative people here who grate at the presence of foreigners and who are hostile to oil. They might do harm.” Now, anyone with a brain would expect high security in such a facility just about anywhere in the world, so what kind of Saudi voice is speaking here? One who works for a foreign concern in the heart of the Kingdom, and may see himself as more pragmatic and modern than others for so doing. How representative is a voice like that?
A little later Danforth depicts a Saudi laughing at other Saudis and commenting: “Because they’re Bedouin.” Another interlocutor tells Danforth: “Most Bedouin want to live in poverty. . . . The Bedouin don’t want to modernize.” If that is also a Saudi voice, it is not likely self-evident to Danforth who is speaking about whom and why.
This comment on Bedouins, it turns out, was made by someone from the Western region of Saudi Arabia who happens to be living in Riyadh and who belongs to a family that Bedouins and others in Riyadh look down upon. So it amounts to a fairly subtle comment based on a regional set of attitudes. And even in the region of Nejd, where Riyadh is located, the term “Bedouin” is colored by the history of Bedouin urbanization, which has been extremely disruptive over time. Different strata of Saudi society today look up or down on other strata based on an intermingled series of factors (place or origin and dialect of Arabic, wealth, education, and more), and the term Bedouin has become a multi-use word the meaning of which depends entirely upon who is using it in reference to whom. So the statements about the Bedouin Danforth quotes are not elements a “Saudi voice” so much as expressions of class and intra-ethnic regional tensions.
Another example that may highlight how some Saudis view themselves in the presence of an observer comes in a discussion of the tension between modernity and authenticity, a key motif in contemporary Saudi Arabia. This tension has different faces. One of the more fundamental and perhaps more familiar tensions with modernity has to do with oil: “From [Saudi contemporary artist Ahmed] Mater’s perspective,” Danforth writes, “the oil industry and the petrodollars it has generated have had a destructive effect on Saudi society.” And indeed, this is a serious concern for many Saudis that explains some of the reasons they reject modernity. It is the same sentiment that one sees in various youth movements in many other countries, and with philosophers who ache at the effects that a largely imported modernity has had on our lives. It does not have to be a correct sentiment, but it is a familiar one and it points to some of the universal issues Saudis grapple with.
But there is a different face, too, to the tension with modernity. Some Saudis—especially in front of a Westerner—are keen to insist that they are like everyone else; that they, too, want to be modern. “But we love fashion . . . . We love to be up to date,” one of Danforth’s interlocutors says. This statement is actually quite interesting and it would have been useful if Danforth had explained it a little more. Why do some Saudis insist on the obvious? Don’t they realize that any foreigner can walk around Riyadh and see for themselves the modern buildings and shops and clothing? Of course they do. But they are deeply concerned with how outsiders see them because they know, and fret that others suspect, that the Saudi version of modernity isn’t really like modernity in Europe or the United States. It is still even for the current generation somewhat stylized and affected, and because it is not organic to the society’s own history modern Saudi “fashion” doesn’t fit quite the same way. It often amounts to a subtle way to say to a foreigner, “Look, we’re trying, and most of us want to succeed, and we are succeeding given the context—so in your own assessment give us a break, OK?” Now, what kind of “Saudi voice” is that? It’s real, but it’s tacit.
A final example: A female director of an art gallery says to Danforth: “Some people in Saudi still don’t understand art.” She said that while commenting on the recent confiscation by authorities of a book from her gallery shop that contained photographs of ancient Greek statues of nude men. Censorship based on religious tenets in Saudi Arabia is a problem and serious one, and confiscating her book—and intimidating her for exhibiting any form of art—is certainly hidebound. But it’s hardly unique. It would have been interesting had Danforth pursued the matter a bit by asking her what she meant when she judged the censor to be someone who does not understand art. What does understanding art mean, and how can someone be unable in that regard? That would have allowed Danforth to put Saudi attitudes toward physical representations in some sort of context with how cultural conservatives elsewhere react to similar issues. Did the Westerners who thought Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” obscene also not understand art?
One of the issues that needs to be deconstructed when observing a culture is the dichotomy between religion and culture, a dichotomy that persists whenever Saudi Arabia is spoken of and which Danforth is keen to point to. Yes, it’s true that religion is a part of culture, but does not entirely subsume it, not even in Saudi Arabia. But there’s more to be said here if a reader is to understand anything important about how Saudi Arabia functions, and Danforth does not say it.
Yes, religion and culture are not identical, but it is also important to understand how the distinction is understood and presented by the locals of a given society. Saudis usually insist on a difference between religion and culture in a way that Clifford Geertz and other anthropologists would not have recognized. When Saudis make that separation it is important to focus on the motives associated with it.
Religion and culture in the daily usage of many Saudis are two distinct sources of behavioral prescriptions. Moreover, when making the distinction they do it to say a number of different things. For example, when liberal-minded Saudis criticize the prohibition of female driving they might say “this is culture, not religion,” meaning “this is prescribed by culture not religion.” But that statement says much more: 1) It defends religion from the charge of being a source of social ills and diverts the blame to “culture”; 2) it excludes the authority of religion from the debate, thus permitting the speakers to question and reject the prescription; 3) it accuses Muslim societies of having confused prescriptions of religion with prescriptions of culture; 4) it suggests that reforming religion is really about making that distinction clear; and 5) it implies that though the speakers are “liberal” they still abide by the prescriptions of religion, but not of culture.
The same statement “this is culture, not religion” is also used by conservative-minded Saudis, but in their case its connotations are somewhat different. In addition, if one took the conversation further the meanings of religion and culture in that simple statement would be even more complex, and shaped by the process of the discussion rather than pre-understood conceptualizations of religion and/or culture. So when Saudis make that separation it is important to focus on the motives associated with it, rather than on conceptual aspects of such a statement.
A related and more fundamental issue is the necessity of avoiding monolithic statements about so-called Saudi culture. There is no such thing as a monolithic Saudi culture, or any other culture for that matter. They cannot usefully be essentialized for most purposes, and anyway borders between cultures are not determined by sovereign borders. Saudi Arabia is a political entity but the cultures within it are not always “Saudi,” in the sense that most of them were not born out of that entity. There are many cultures in Saudi, even if some are more voluble than others.
As to religion, Danforth’s discussion of issues related to Islam is often off the mark. Take science, for example. Danforth claims—mistakenly—that much of the Muslim world is hostile toward modern science, a hostility he attributes in various parts to the experience of colonialism and to the theories of evolution. While the memory of colonialism can explain much of the antagonism that Muslims feel against some aspects of modernity, it doesn’t explain everything—and Saudi Arabia, after all, was never directly colonized by a European empire in the heyday of imperialism.
Many if not most Muslims reject Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection, but it is not accurate to say that “much of the Muslim world” is hostile to modern science as a whole. It would be more accurate, though contentious, to say that much of the Muslim world rejects philosophical interpretations about the metaphysics of the universe that are sometimes based, soundly or not, on the discoveries of modern science. Within Saudi society, attitudes toward modern science vary widely, and are in rapid flux today.
If it is hard for outsiders to understand Saudi society and politics, it is partly the Saudi elite’s own fault, for contrived insularity has its downsides as well as its benefits. But even so, a month’s trekking across the desert, by someone whose professional background in studying the Arab world is thin, is just not sufficient—to put it generously—to stake a claim to expertise about such a sui generis kind of place. The book has its merits, and as a primer of sorts for the standard politically correct college student it works well enough. But when it tries to do more than that, it comes across as drive-by anthropological voyeurism that more often than not loses its focus in a sea of shifting dunes.
[This article has been updated to reflect the print version.]