Kenneth S. Habib, University of California, Santa Barbara
Green Sands: My Five Years in the Saudi Desert. Martha Kirk. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1994. 321 pp., photos, hardcover, $25.
The opportunity for women from outside of the country to work in Saudi Arabia is quite restricted. More often, American and other “Western” women enter Saudi Arabia with their husbands who have taken employment there. Accordingly, only a small number of female authors have published in English about first-hand experiences of life in Saudi Arabia. Among this group is Martha Kirk, a self-described “West Texas girl” who married her high school sweetheart, Terry, and in her early twenties moved with him to the eastern province of Saudi Arabia where he accepted a job managing the 7000-acre farming project called Green Sands. Green Sands: My Five Years in the Saudi Desert represents her personalized account of selected experiences of theirs during this five-year period, and provides a glimpse into the diverse, multicultural, and in some ways, stratified character of Saudi society.
Written as a journal-travelogue, it relates in an individual and insightful way the encounters of the author and her husband, whose awareness of the Middle East from their small-town upbringing was limited to the information they had received via the evening news and occasional travel books. In this respect, it provides a primary account of an American couple’s experience within Saudi Arabia, a country that significantly restricts entry by foreigners and accords a relatively high status to Americans among the overall mix of foreign workers. Generally, companies are owned or mostly owned by Saudis, and management and higher-paid positions often are occupied by Saudis, Americans, and Western Europeans. The book is spiced with humor and comprises numerous anecdotes that often make up parts of recurring themes, particularly regarding the development of various personal relationships between the author and people from countries including Egypt, Korea, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The author’s frank treatment of these relationships is perhaps the most valuable contribution of the book.
Upon moving to Saudi Arabia for the first time, the Kirks (predictably) underwent a process of sharp enculturation due to the great differences between their native culture in the United States and their newfound life in Saudi Arabia. Specifically, they became initiated into one of the multiform expatriate communities that have played an integral role in the industrialization of Saudi Arabia over the last several decades. While this development initially surrounded the Saudi oil industry with its importation of technology and human resources, the generation of great wealth enabled the country to develop similarly in other areas. The establishment of Green Sands was a result of the Saudi government subsidizing domestic production of wheat in the interest of diversifying the economy and becoming more self-sufficient in terms of food production. It was there that the Kirks lived in a mobile home, and the author’s husband managed some 50-75 male workers of various nationalities other than Saudi and American. Many of these personnel also were married, but because of their lower socio-economic status, were not granted visas allowing them to bring their wives. Terry especially developed a close camaraderie with them as they worked long hours together in the desert, missing their native countries, and overcoming economic and intercultural boundaries.
Many of the author’s relationships progressed from being naturally awkward at first to being quite cordial after time. One of the relationships particularly developed in the book was with Rashmi, a local Bedouin woman. Rashmi spoke very little English and the author spoke very little Arabic, so much of their communication was non-verbal. Their relationship developed slowly, but increasingly, Rashmi grew to trust the author so that she went from being reasonably guarded to being rather open. The description of Rashmi unveiling and unbraiding her hair before the author upon one of their last encounters is quite touching. Another important relationship was with Jewaher, an affluent Saudi and the wife of Terry’s boss. Jewaher spoke good English and introduced the author to various Saudi social functions including parties, a wedding, and shopping trips. Much of the value in the descriptions of such relationships lies in the insight they provide into the lives of specific Saudi women, and much of the focus is on behavior associated with communication, clothing, and cooking. Correspondingly, the author’s interest and previous studies in home economics resulted in her conducting research into home economics education for women in Saudi Arabia during her last year in the country.
While the author’s subjective account of her experience in Saudi Arabia is valuable for its descriptions of particular people and places, she draws general conclusions about Saudi society that are not sustainable from her limited experiences and knowledge of the culture. For example, ethnocentric conceptions of time (e.g., being late), physique (e.g., being overweight), and clothing (e.g., being overdressed) are generalized from local experiences and measured against the standards of the author’s native culture. In addition, the stereotypical observations about the relationship between crime and justice in Saudi Arabia reflect scant preparation for the trip and inability to understand the moral norms of the society. Further, the devaluing of common behavior surrounding Islamic modes of prayer, the uninitiated characterizations of the call to prayer, the oversimplified representation of sectarian differences, and the unilateral portrayal of the “Saudi dream” reflect a simplistic comprehension of the culture.
Kirk shines at times with candid reflexive observations and portrayals of herself as those around her might view her. However, the lack of coherent or rigorous methodology and the proclivity for uninformed observation render the book inadequate for ethnographic purposes. The memoir style of the book is underscored by the lack of a table of contents, the untitled chapters, and the sometimes arbitrary organization. Green Sands: My Five Years in the Saudi Desert is useful for its sincere sketches of specific personal relationships and other individual experiences. It also might be helpful as a supplemental resource for Americans considering employment in Saudi Arabia.
Kenneth S. Habib
University of California, Santa Barbara