An American Woman In Saudi Arabia


In Afghanistan, a warlord tried to get into a Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent’s bed one morning. In Saudi Arabia, reporting while young and female was a bit more complicated.

Stack writes about her experiences as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East — starting just after September 11, when she was 25 — in her new memoir, Every Man In This Village Is A Liar.

In an interview with N+1, Stack says the country felt a bit like Dallas — a series of Americanized compounds and malls, complete with oblivious wives of American oil executives. Until, of course, she actually tried to work, or remember how much bloody repression was happening. She was a woman working in a country where women can’t leave the country without a husband or male guardian’s permission — even if they’re U.S. citizens and no one is actually Saudi — where public dancing, music, and movies are prohibited, and where women aren’t allowed to socialize in public with any male non-relative:

It was very hard to work there. Just logistically. I couldn’t rent a car or drive somewhere because it’s illegal for women to drive. I couldn’t sit in a café and have an interview because it is illegal for a woman to sit with a man who is not her immediate relative. To check into hotels, I had to get letters from the Los Angeles Times vouching that I was working for them to prove that I wasn’t a prostitute.

Other basic tasks were a challenge — she couldn’t shop, because “it’s illegal for women to try on clothes in stores, it would be considered indecent.” Then there was finding a place to do interviews. She describes meeting with a well-connected government official who reacted in complete terror when he spotted religious police in the hotel lobby where he was meant to be interviewed.

What we ended up doing was, we took the elevator up to my floor. He was saying, “Let’s just go to your room, we can do it in your room.” And I was saying, “Well, I don’t really want to sit in my hotel room.” It’s just so crazy, in order to follow this incredibly rigorous public moral code you end up doing things that people don’t usually do, like sitting with a middle-aged Saudi man in a hotel room. The compromise we came up with was to sit in the hallway on my floor where there were armchairs. We did the interview. They were vacuuming the floors around us.

That he felt familiar enough, in an ostensibly professional context, to invite himself to her room is another paradox of being a Western woman in the Middle East, says Stack:

That’s the thing, Western women, in a lot of these countries, there’s just this air around you. They think that you’re easy and they think that they can do things that they wouldn’t be able to do with women from their own countries. And it makes you uncomfortable about things like sitting with someone. You feel strange about it. They might see it as a turn-on. You just don’t know how they see it. I always try to stay out of things like that.

Saudi Arabia’s coziness with the United States means that there was an interesting alternative to a hotel hallway: Starbucks, where a “family section” provided a mixed-gender opportunity as long as baristas believed the men and women were related. But Stack also got kicked out of there once, “Because I strayed into the men’s section without realizing it. That provoked a lot of concern from the baristas.”

Incidentally, Starbucks adapted its logo in Saudi Arabia so that there was no hint of boobage in that woodcut. This is what it looks like now:

Here And There [N+1]

Every Man In This Village Is A Liar

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