Welcome to my blog. I am Miriam Downey, the Cyberlibrarian. I am a retired librarian and a lifelong reader. I read and review books in four major genres: fiction, non-fiction, memoir and spiritual. My goal is to relate what I read to my life experience. I read books culled from reviews in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Bookmarks, and The New Yorker. I also accept books from authors and publicists. I am having a great time.
Hope you will join me on the journey.
Saturday, February 23, 2013
On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines--And Future
by Karen Elliott House
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012
308 pages Nonfiction
Over the past thirty years, Karen Elliott House has reported
about Saudi Arabia through her work with the Wall Street Journal. Her book, On
Saudi Arabia, was published last fall, and my husband and I read it aloud as
part of our breakfast reading.
The story of Saudi Arabia for the last half century has
really been the story of one family, the Al Saud. The first Al Saud king, Abdul
Aziz unified a bunch of disparate tribes to form the present country of Saudi
Arabia. The family currently is huge--there are more than 2000 princes. One of
the main problem is that the crown has been passed from son to son of Abdul
Aziz; the current king is in his late 80s and the youngest son is in his 60s.
At some point, if tradition is to be updated for the Al Saud family, the crown
is going to have to be passed to the next generation. Who? And which line of
succession will continue the rule? The princes are everywhere in the country, and
they have their hands in every pie.
The country is so conservative and so traditional because
the Al Saud family has control of everything. In the 1980s they chose to impose
Wahabi Islam on the people, and religion controls everything. House compares
Saudi Arabia to the last days of the Soviet Union only with more money. And the
money is spread everywhere. But she also emphasizes that the money is finite.
The oil revenue from Saudi wells may be at their peak and on the way down.
Sixty percent of Saudis are under the age of 20, and there is great fear that
the money will run out and the government largess will have to be controlled.
The high walls that have contained Saudis in their homes with
their restrictive religion are crumbling fast primarily because the Internet
has opened up so much to young people. There is no cinema in Saudi Arabia;
women cannot drive or leave their homes without male escort; there are no
nightclubs, but there are thousands of restless youth. In one chapter, House
talks about how some young men turn to jihad as a way to find meaning in their
lives, and how the government is trying to rehabilitate them with jobs, wives,
and money. Yet, there are many, many young men without jobs, and most young
Saudi men will not take the kinds of jobs that may be available--those are
outsourced to willing workers from Egypt, India, and the Philippines.
The aspect of Saudi society that I have pondered again
and again is the government policy of exporting students throughout the world
to study. Does the king want to totally reform the country and thinks that this
is the way? We have had three Saudi students in the small apartment in our home
over the past two years. They have been part of the English language program at
Western Michigan University where currently there are 500 Saudi students. I
have also tutored about 15 of them, men and women, because word has spread that
I tutor and edit papers. Each has their own story to tell about why they came
to Kalamazoo, about what they are studying, and what they plan to do with their
lives. As we have read On Saudi Arabia, I have probed a bit more about their
lives, their wives, their children, and their futures.
The first thing I have noticed is that few of them are
creative thinkers. Their education system is so force-fed that they have never
had to do any intuitive work nor have they had to do any teamwork. So, when
asked to form an opinion about something they have read, they have no
resources. I have tutored several students who are getting Master's Degrees in
education. One young woman is getting a PhD in Special Education, and I asked
her about Special Education in Saudi Arabia. She said that she will be one of
the first trained PhDs, and that is why she is hurrying so fast to get her PhD.
Another man is so taken with the concepts of educational leadership, he can't
wait to get home to reform the science education--for which he is a national
consultant. What will they find when they return? Will the government let them
put into effect the reforms that they are now trained to do?
My favorite story about creative thinking is about Dhafer,
who is getting his Masters in Computer Engineering. He had to take a creative
writing course in this first semester of his degree. He has found that he has a
knack for poetry and fiction writing. He had to write a short story--never
having read one in his life. So, we chose an incident that happened when he
first arrived in the US and he turned it into a short story about a fictional
him. Now, the teacher wants to publish it in a national journal for ESL
teachers. He never knew he had it in him.
I have met few wives. I invited one family for
Thanksgiving so their two-year-old could play with my granddaughter, but they
declined to come; Anood, the wife, would be too uncomfortable because she would
have to be covered. Several of the wives, however, just wear hijab, and some
even drive the family car and take the children back and forth to school. Most
of them want to have a baby while they are in the US so that they will have a
US citizen in their family.
On Saudi Arabia gave my husband and me more ways to identify
with our Saudi friends. When we have asked them something about what we learned
from the book, they questioned where we got the information, but then mostly
they begrudgingly agreed. One young man who is studying human resources said
that his father is trying to buy a trucking company. (There are not many
independent businesses in the country, according to House.) When I asked him
about how that was going, he told me that the Prince who has control of the
region is willing to help finance the purchase, but then he wants such a big
cut of the business that the family doesn't think they will make enough money
to support themselves after they pay the Prince.
Well--the stories I could tell. I am grateful that On Saudi
Arabia came out while we were in the midst of this experience so that we can
understand the country better. We have found our Saudis to be charming,
responsible, caring, delightful young men. We are honored to have them in our
home. We worry about them when they get home. Will they get jobs? What will
happen to their country when the King dies? One man told me that he thinks they
are only two years away from revolution. Another told me that he hopes a parliamentary
system with a figurehead king (like Great Britain) will be the result. He is
afraid for his country.
On Saudi Arabia has been very well received and very well
reviewed. Karen House knows what she is talking about. There are extensive
notes and references as well as her own observations. Journalism at its best. Here
are two excellent reviews.