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Present at the Creation...,
This review is from: Anywhere But Saudi Arabia! Experiences of a Once Reluctant Expat (Kindle Edition)
...to use the title to Dean Acheson's memoir on his participation at the State Department in the creation of post-Second World War II world. Kathy Cuddihy, and her husband, Sean, drew a couple cards to fill an inside straight in life, and were not only present, but like Acheson, participated in the creation of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Like so many of us, when they made their initial decision to go to Saudi Arabia, in 1976, they did not consider themselves lucky. Rather, it was viewed as the ultimate hardship post... as is reflected in the title... "Anywhere but..." Those with the right personalities, and outlook on life, and both of them had those essential ingredients, came to the conclusion, usually towards the end of their second year, with the thought of repatriation in mind, that not only were things not so bad... there was a lot that was positively enjoyable, and would be missed, from having taken that "path less traveled." So, like others, they made the decision of "...just one more year...", which, when compounded, spanned almost three decades.
It is a woman's perspective on life in the Kingdom, and there is no question that the "d" restrictions, that is, dress, demeanor, and driving, weigh more heavily on the Western woman than the Western man. And it is compounded by that wonderfully fuzzy and gray era on quasi-legal work. Cuddihy was in that sub-set, with the right personality, to rise to the challenge. She decided to explore, and come to terms with the world around her. At some level, it would seem self-evident, but success lay in breaking out of the endless griping and gossiping of the company coffee klatches. She (and her husband) made non-company friends, explored Riyadh, took up tennis, learned Arabic, and even more seemingly bizarre, certainly from the point of view of other members of the compound, sought out Saudi friends. At least since she is a Canadian woman, she was saved from the charge of being in the CIA! Perhaps it is like first love, when the senses are most aware, since Cuddihy seems to have a fondness, and depicts the very earliest days of their stay in Riyadh in the greatest details. Hardships? Well, there were a few, like no fresh milk, electrical outages, and seemingly random supply disruptions that made "hoarders" of so many. But there seems to be a surfeit of remembrances.
The chief virtue of this book is that it is AUTHENTIC. It rings true in every degree. There is a small cottage industry that pumps out books about the Kingdom that are completely phony, to the same sort of gullible public that would STILL be willing to buy Bernie Madoff paper. A particular bÍte noir of mine is Finding Nouf, which so many Amazon reviewers find plausible.
Her husband, Sean, worked, as an engineer, on two of the major infrastructure projects in the country. For nine years, he worked on the new Riyadh airport, at the time the largest (physical) airport in the world. After a brief period of "exile" working on the new airport project for Hong Kong, they returned to Riyadh, where he was the project manager for the Faisaliyah building, THE signature high-rise, and a defining building of the Riyadh skyline. But his most amazing quality, per Kathy, at least in terms of their relationship, is that he is always right! (Certainly far removed from: "If a husband is alone in the forest, and he speaks, and no one hears it, is he still wrong?") And in terms of her own work, she was rather famous in the Kingdom for running "Design Arabia," a "signature" shop in that signature building.
Quibbles? And they are only that. I think she overstated the danger of making and consuming your own alcohol (p. 70). And I don't think there was any relationship between events in Iran in 1979, and the taking of the mosque in Mecca (Makkah) in the same year. Two completely separate groups of folks, with entirely different reference frames and motivations. (p. 124)
And there was the quip that DID resonate: (in referring to the Afghanis who came to Riyadh to sell their carpets) "`Each year I come, sell carpets, get money, go home, buy guns. War is difficult for my people but Afghanis will not surrender. Foreign invaders will not win.'" He referred to the Russian occupation. I wonder if he still comes to Saudi to earn enough to buy guns to rout the latest assailants."
An authentic account of life in Riyadh, from the perspective of one energetic expat woman. 5-stars.