No Place for Journalists

Hilary Mantel

  • The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom by Sandra Mackey
    Harrap, 433 pp, £12.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 245 54592 1
  • Behind the Wall: A Journey through China by Colin Thubron
    Heinemann, 308 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 434 77988 1

Foreign news organisations are not invited to operate in Saudi Arabia. The journalists who are permitted into the Kingdom by the Ministry of Information operate under severe constraints. It’s not that the Saudis mind you saying bad things about them: it’s that they mind you saying anything at all.

Internally, the Kingdom has no passion for freedom of information; the idea of open government is meaningless, or perhaps slightly obscene, to the Saudi mind. No newspaper in Jeddah or Riyadh would publish details of the private lives of the five thousand-strong royal family – though, curiously enough, the doings of the Princess of Wales are of great moment to young Saudi women. Even the censors, with their big black felt-tips, have been known to spare the royal decolletage; the Princess shares with the Empress Maria Theresa, whose image graced the old silver coinage, the distinction of being the only bared bosom on view. As a matter of honour, arms, legs and faces must be covered up; so must facts.

Sandra Mackey spent two periods in Saudi Arabia: 1978-80, and 1982-84. Her husband was on the staff of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh – the scene of VIP accouchements, and a discreet refuge for the odd royal alcoholic or drug addict. Riyadh in 1978 was a huge building-site. Life was noisy, comfortless, monotonous. Strangely, Ms Mackey considered herself prepared for the ordeal by a four-month stint in the jungles of Borneo: ‘I experienced outdoor privies, snakes, cockroaches, mosquitoes ... ’ Yes, and after breakfast?

The dangers and privations of Saudi Arabia are of a quite different kind. A creeping, paralysing boredom has always been the disease which threatened the expatriate wife: confined to her compound and to the society of a few equally bored colleagues, unable to get about because women are not allowed to drive. Her main aim has always been to obtain some work, however menial, that would get her out of the house. The legal status of working women is dubious at best, and these were the heroic days, when filing clerks were kept in broom cupboards and rushed through back doors into getaway cars at the approach of the police.

Mrs Mackey was lucky: she got a semilegal job with the US Corps of Engineers, as what her blurb calls ‘a humble typist’. (Having read her book, one suspects she was actually a very haughty typist indeed.) From this she moved on to an editorial post with the Ministry of Planning. Strictly segregated from her male colleagues, she was privileged to have sight of vital documents at the most interesting period of the Kingdom’s development. She put what she learned to good use, assuming two male pseudonyms and feeding back articles to the US press.

In order that the articles should not be traced to her, she thought it necessary to take stringent and highly dramatic precautions. One presumes she did not go about dressed as a war correspondent, which is how she appears in her jacket photograph: but the combat jacket and camera are obviously central to her perception of her work. A network of friends helped her to smuggle her copy out of the country, and took her drafts to the desert to burn them. It is not entirely clear why a bonfire in the backyard wouldn’t have done the job, but perhaps her precautions were justified. If the secret police had connected ‘Michael Collins’ or ‘Justin Coe’ with Ms Mackey, it would have been her husband who suffered the most severe consequences. One of the hardest facts for a Western woman to understand and absorb is that in the Kingdom your husband is held responsible, not just for your actions, but for the contents of your filing cabinet and the thoughts of your heart.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in