The subtitle to the book is ’666 Rules on how the Human Body should Act in Arabia’ and indeed it does have 666 guidelines or rules on how to behave in, and understand, Saudi Arabia. Dr Abdul Al Lily, an academic at Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal University, has conducted thousands of interviews to write this remarkable, original book. Most of the guidelines have not been written down before; they make insightful reading.
The book addresses two different audiences: expatriates and Saudis. First, it explains to expatriates the unwritten rules that make society tick, and how visitors need to behave to be accepted in Saudi circles. It explains why Saudis behave in particular ways, giving foreigners hitherto unrevealed insights into this opaque and contradictory society. Its method uses parts of the body, from the face, eyes, ears and mouth through the waist and genitals to the legs and feet. This gives Dr Al Lily a somewhat vertical framework but it opens up Saudi traditions, involvement with Islam, belief in their society and also some interesting characteristics.
However, this is a book with a serious intent and addresses the numerous distortions of Saudi culture presented in the international media. After all, Saudi society is a Muslim society of a particular conservative brand of Islam based on an 18th century unitarian preacher which is perceived to cover every aspect of a person’s life. The west is usually judgmental of this brand of Islam and consequently of Saudi mores, seeing the Kingdom as a deviation from most of the world’s cultures, says Dr Al Lily.
But, I quote him again, the west does not understand that “they [Saudis] think this deviation is the right way of doing things and that others do things the wrong way. These Saudis’ pride has apparently ’teased’ foreign writers and commentators and encouraged them…to insult and mock Saudi culture.” Much of the distortion arises from too little sociological interpretation being written in a language accessible to foreigners, not Arabic.
The second audience is Saudis themselves – and the few foreigners that have lived in the Kingdom long enough and taken the trouble to try to fathom the society. For them the 666 narrative is fascinating and witty, a bit of a hoot and fun. It reminds me of the wit in Rajaa Alsanea’s 2005 novel, Girls of Riyadh. But Dr Al Lily is kind and affectionate to his compatriots, taking their side but exposing their vanities and contradictions.
The question of gender in such a seemingly closed society is one Dr Al Lily tackles with vigour. Contrary to western perceptions of a culture where the sexes do not meet informally and sex is controlled through the family, Dr Al Lily shows how young men and women meet, become items, get round the prohibitions and move to marriage. For instance, guideline 566, “When the Saudi man gets married, his life stops. When the Saudi woman gets married, her life begins. That is, before marriage, the Saudi man has so much freedom and can have a ’wild’ time. The Saudi woman has restricted freedom. She is hyper–vigilant of doing anything that might affect her marriageable status.” But Dr Al Lily discusses how people get round this; take guideline 397, “A man hooks up his male friend with the female friend of his lover. Experts in women will know if a veiled woman is interested from her eyes and from the style of her black cloak.”
Dr Al Lily highlights conservative Islam’s hold. In a number of guidelines between 200 and 240 he details the effect of wahhabi Islam. Without ever mentioning the word Islam he talks about the pervasive “reminders regarding traditions…(200) When one stops at traffic lights, there are signs next to them reminding one of traditional norms and values.” But this is mild compared with later guidelines when he focuses on the hai’a (the religious police’s agency), (227) “The ’tradition agency’ is active. It has its own cars that its members drive around… They also walk on foot in public places (e.g. shopping malls) to make sure everything is consistent with traditional values.” During 2016 the hai’a has been less active, however.
The reader can take the book on different levels. You can read it as an amusing description of the vagaries and contradictions of Saudi Arabia; you can find political messages in it. But in my view it is a remarkably candid explanation of the Saudi society, shining a light and critiquing it. But in the end the writer is a Saudi and an academic and it is cheerfully non-judgmental.
By Caroline Montagu
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