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A street scene, circa 1955, in the small oasis town of Qatif, situated between Ras Tanura and Dharan in Saudi Arabia.
A street scene, circa 1955, in the small oasis town of Qatif, situated between Ras Tanura and Dharan in Saudi Arabia.

In the Kingdom of Men shows some things haven't changed

Saudi Arabia in the late Sixties provides fertile ground in the arid landscape for Kim Barnes's new novel about Aramco and a pool of inflexible expatriates, writes Fran Hawthorne.

In the Kingdom of Men
Kim Barnes
Knopf

As soon as Ginny McPhee, the American heroine of the new novel In the Kingdom of Men, steps off the airplane in Dhahran, she is hit by the heat - "heat you had to lean into or be knocked down". And "the sudden emptiness that crowded in once we left the airport. No trees, no mountains, just the horizon ribboned with clouds that seemed to smoke right off the desert floor and into the sapphire sky".

Ginny and her husband, Mason, an oil-drilling foreman, soon realise that they have become part of a multinational workforce: "Roughnecks from Halliburton, Standard, and Shell. Farmers from the Philippines, Danish journeymen labourers to build the camps and compounds where the labourers and supervisors would live. Gardeners and houseboys, drivers and cooks Palestinians, Syrians, Jordanians."

Later, in the women's section of their tent, a Bedouin mother and her teenage daughter share dates and cigarettes with Ginny and a second American wife, fingering their foreign clothing, oohing and aahing at the daughter's baby, while the men drink coffee on the other side of a hanging blanket.

All this might sound rather unexceptional for Saudi Arabia today. But in fact, this novel, by award-winning author Kim Barnes - whose memoir In the Wilderness was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize - takes place mainly in early 1967. And what strikes a reader is both how much, and how little, has changed in the intervening years.

Ginny and Mason are newly married teenagers from dirt-poor Oklahoma farm families, when Mason is offered the foreman's job with Aramco in February 1967. They grab it as an escape from their poverty, and from the ghost of Ginny's recent miscarriage. "Just like living in a country club," Mason promises Ginny in describing the housing compound for Aramco expats. Obviously, these nafs are being set up for a sharp culture shock.

On the other hand, Ginny discerns intriguing similarities between the Saudi religious mores and the rules of the strict evangelical Christian sect in which she was raised by her grandfather, a preacher. For instance, the bus driver stopping for his midday prayers by the side of the road reminds her of her grandfather "on his knees beside his bed, in the door of the kitchen, in the field in the middle of pitching hay - wherever the spirit moved him, that was where he fell".

Gradually, both Ginny and Mason undergo changes. He orders his wife not to ride horses except in the Aramco compound's official stable, while she chafes at the restrictions applied to her.

About halfway through the book, the author abruptly inserts a plot twist involving a conspiracy among Aramco executives and local dignitaries to embezzle money that was intended for oil-rig repairs, even at the risk of endangering the workers' lives. As Mason tries to investigate, the novel switches from culture study to thriller.

There's a bittersweet amazement in reading about those long-ago days before the 1973 oil embargo and before Aramco was nationalised, back when the western oilmen complacently assumed they would always control the pipelines, that they could import their lifestyles and plop them onto the desert unchanged, that this cosy arrangement would never be affected by regional tensions.

"We're carving out our own little kingdom," one American oil worker brags, even as the wives knit pink bootees for Bedouin babies who will never wear them.

The author of a book titled In the Kingdom of Menis clearly troubled by the status of women - foreign as well as local - in Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Barnes also seems to feel a strong empathy with the Saudi people and resentment of the oil-company outsiders' smugness and clumsiness. This warmth shows through not just in the intense, lyrical descriptions of the heat and sand, but also in her admiration for Mason's efforts to unionise the workers and for his tacit support of the future possibility of nationalising Aramco.

Viewed as literature rather than history or multicultural analysis, the novel earns a mixed grade, although Barnes is a good enough writer that each half of the book works well on its own.

The narrative is fascinating and fun in the first portion, and a page-turner in the second. However, the shift in plot lines is jarring. Barnes would have done better to start weaving in hints of the conspiracy earlier.

On second thoughts, maybe not. The author, speaking through Ginny's first-person narration, has an annoying habit of dropping heavy, portentous hints, starting on the first page, where she warns: "There is so much, now, that you will want to know, that you believe I will be able to tell you. If not, why even begin? I don't know who I am anymore and have forgotten who it was I meant to be."

With the characters, Barnes's touch is sometimes richly textured and sometimes weak.

Ginny and her best friend, Ruthie Doucet, another Aramco wife, are probably the most fully drawn as complex and real human beings. When they first meet, at the company orientation, Ruthie seems like just another over-friendly, over-made-up, pushy western woman. She was, according to Ginny: "Brunette bouffant, blue eyeshadow, pearly lipstick, a tartan skirt and cap-sleeved pullover - she was nearing 40, I guessed, but she had the electric air of a teenager."

Like the other wives, Ruthie spends most of her time smoking, shopping, getting tanned and getting drunk. Yet she also turns out to be loyal, caring, impulsive, supportive, fun-loving and street-savvy. But wait - the kaleidoscope turns.

Most of the other characters, though, are merely cardboard cutouts. Mason is simply too perfect. Not only does he constantly quote Martin Luther King Jr while standing up for the workers' rights, but he is also handsome, brave and a star at basketball.

He single-handedly charges into the flames of an oil-pipe explosion to turn off a faulty valve, thus saving countless lives. Nor does he ever express any regret over abandoning a full sports scholarship at Oklahoma State University to marry Ginny.

Meanwhile, other expats are so irredeemably evil that they might as well be twirling their moustaches and cackling wickedly.

The most grotesque, Candy Fullerton, the ringleader and wife of the Aramco district manager, is nosy, bossy, racist, dishonest, patronising, ambitious and jealous, as she blatantly flirts with Mason, spies on Ginny, and dismisses Ginny's houseboy as "uppity". Even her hand is so evil that it is "sharp as a hatchet".

Still, the virtues of this book outweigh its flaws. It's an easy read, with some lovely language, a strong plot and fascinating comparisons.

Westerners today are often more knowledgeable about cultural sensitivities and certainly less in charge than in 1967 and it's doubtful that any multi- national would send over expat families as unprepared as Ginny and Mason were. Even westerners who have never set foot in the Arabian Gulf are aware, from news headlines and movies, of basic Saudi rules.

Training and education can go only so far in bridging those differences. We all need a wake-up call like In the Kingdom of Men now and then, to remind us of how ignorant we may still be, even when we think we've become so wise.

Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning US-based author and journalist.

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