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Prim, unimaginative, and factually flawed
on 20 July 2004
It becomes clear from the first page of Ellis's book that it is only her exotic subject matter, and not her writing style, that won her a contract with a publisher. The majority of her descriptions are insipidly dotted with weak-legged adjectives such as 'nice' and 'pretty'. Erratically, she chooses to describe the palace's unremarkable kitchen table but does not once attempt to paint portraits of those she lived with. Yes, we know you are not allowed to photograph Princess Abtah, but how does she look? What is her face like?
I have lived in Saudi Arabia for the past seventeen years, and each factual flaw that I stumbled across made me wince. The author incorrectly claims that 'Islamic law forbids women to show their faces in public' and that 'women can't travel in taxis'. When in public, a Muslim woman is permitted to show her face and her hands. I cannot believe that Ellis did not know this fact, as a.) she claims to have read Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood's book 'Islam' (Maqsood devotes a whole chapter to the subject of female dress) and b.) one of the photos that illustrate the book shows her camel-riding unveiled on the Jeddah Cornice. I suspect that she deliberately slipped in these little errors to 'spice up' her book - this is nothing more than a sordid effort to squeeze money out of the unusual position in which she found herself.
Ellis also handles her material with staggering arrogance. Whilst declaring that 'Arabic is far too difficult for me to learn', she still tries to convince the reader that she has touched Saudi women's lives. How can she have done so, when she herself admits that she could not understand their conversations and could only sometimes find a translator? There is a saying: "The limits of my language are the limits of my world," and Phyllis's inability to learn even basic Arabic fetters both herself and her readers. Her English is equally abysmal - misused punctuation and poor grammar made me want to attack the text with red ballpoint. A thoroughly bad read.