Sunday, January 11, 2009

If Olaya Street Could Talk by John Paul Jones

Talk About the Title
Olaya Street is the main commercial road in Riyadh, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). In 1978 it became the address of hospital administrator, John Paul Jones, the author of this book. The title is adapted from a line in James Baldwin’s song, 'Beale Street Blues'-‘If Beale Street Could Talk’-thus Jones writes the words he thinks Olaya Street might say to those who care to listen.

Talk About the Author
When John Jones went to Saudi Arabia he imagined that his stay would be brief but he explains not only how he came to go but why he stayed.

Jones had served as a Medical Corpsman in Vietnam with the US Army and after his Asian assignment he discovers how serendipity played a major factor in securing his job in the Kingdom. With honesty he admits that the two month annual holiday was one of the determining factors in his signing on the dotted line.

The author writes not only of the main street but of the entire Arabian Peninsula and how it filled him with awe. (p23) His curiosity and the rise of a “strange attachment” to this foreign land led him to stay, to marry and raise a family in that country.

Talk About Change
Jones recalls that goats were grazing on the side of the narrow, asphalt lane called ‘Olaya Street’ when he arrived in 1978. At that time there was no television, life was basic, the social interaction was intense and the camaraderie was rich.

Jones writes of the country’s increasing oil wealth, the growing openness of the country to other nations and the changing perceptions of Saudis and the watching world. Of special mention is the account of 9/11 with the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York. Jones writes poignantly of the mix of reactions to this calamity by those in his hospital and in the community generally. He tells of the way the local people responded to the growing international negativity towards Muslims and Saudis specifically, when it became known that some of the terrorists involved had connections with the Kingdom.

With acute observation Jones writes of modernization and resistance, the ebb and flow of the religious tides on the country and the impact of ‘Saudiazation’ on the workforce.

Talk About Truth
The author writes about his difficulties with Saudi customs and laws, the Islamic prohibitions, the food and alcohol regulations, the frequency of the Friday executions and the annoying dominance of the mutawaa (religious police).

Jones is quick to defend the KSA against misrepresentation and the damaging stereotypes that are propagated especially by international journalists after their fleeting visits. With even-handedness Jones reveals the bugaboos of the Saudis and he tactfully discusses the way they promote prejudice, especially towards America and other western countries.

Talk About Culture
With insight and candor the author writes of living in the expat bubble, accentuated by the invisibility of the Saudis who “were at the periphery of our existence: they were like so much cardamom sprinkled in the coffee, an exotic presence…” (p26)

Jones seeks to break out of this existence by learning the customs, the language and by seeking to engage in meaningful relationships.

If Olaya Street Could Talk is full of Arabic expressions and it provides a helpful spring board to the many other books written on the Kingdom and Arab culture, including the works of Wilfred Thesiger and Edward Said. People living in the KSA or any Arab land will learn much from the author about Arab culture.

As Jones gets to know the Saudis he comes to appreciate the diversity of peoples that make up the Kingdom: “‘Saudi’ was then, and continues to be a fairly loose concern. It is the tribal connections that define the main groups within the country.” (p72)

Talk About Adventure
This book contains the memoirs of the author but it is also a travelogue of adventures most weekends and on holidays with his family and friends. Interestingly Jones states: “Saudi Arabia is one of the very few places on earth where you can really run free and clear—paradoxically in a country that one does not immediately associate with the word ‘freedom’.” (p30)

The book talks of diving in the Red Sea and in Arabian lakes, discovering wildflowers in the desert, surveying the dazzling stars of the night, examining the pre-historic art work and carvings and exploring the petrified forests from an earlier age.

Talk About Education and Entertainment
If Olaya Street Could Talk comes with maps, a bibliography, an index and a helpful glossary of Arabic terms and place names—all items which point up the educational intention and value of this book.

The author writes with interest, humor and with a desire to entertain.

John Paul Jones, If Olaya Street Could Talk: Saudi Arabia: The Heartland of Oil and Islam (Albuquerque, New Mexico: The Taza Press, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 128.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of If Olaya Street Could Talk.