During the fall 2006 semester, I took a Major Non-Western Authors literature course to complete my degree in English. We read a lot of books I would never have been exposed to on my own, like the Epic of Gilgamesh. We also read some “trendy” books as well, and one of them was Reading Lolita in Tehran. So many reaped great praise on Reading, but it did not jive with me. There were a lot of issues I had, but one of them was that the book seemed to lack a real authenticity. The author was, by all accounts, Americanized, and it seemed to me that her book was something she wanted to use to tie her to her roots without ever having truly experienced the culture about which she was writing. It was forced and pompous and I hated reading it.
I don’t want to put all memoirs that take place in the Middle East into a box, so when one of my colleagues, Chris Cryer, told me she wrote a book about her experience living in Saudi Arabia teaching English, I offered to read and review it. That book is Tolstoy in Riyadh. Cryer’s book tells the story of her move with her teenaged son to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. Cryer had a position teaching English at King Saud University and experienced Saudi Arabian culture in a way that can only be experienced by living in Saudia Arabia.
What I found in Tolstoy in Riyadh is everything I didn’t find in Reading Lolita in Tehran. There is a real, visceral authenticity in Cryer’s pages that sucked me in from the beginning. The people, the places, and the food — oh my goodness, the food! There is no better way to be in a country than through its traditions, and Cryer gives us access to so many Saudi Arabian traditions, from food to dress to relationships to worship. Multiple times she describes the richness of the country and its food and culture:
“‘You have an escort. Single women live here in families. With a maharam you’re a family. Families have the choice to live here or in town.'”
The abaya is light and flowing, sleek, and a one-minute wardrobe solution… No one ever cares or knows what’s under it… The Western raincoat cannot compare in ease, comfort, or style.”
“Once they are let out, another slow-developing day begins. Ramadan seems to set the model for the regular Saudian day. All Saudi days build quietly toward an active and exhausting night. Evening, in the dessert, is always the true people time… Saudis stay up late, allow quiet in the morning, giving early work an air of non-importance.
“That night we eat an extended walimi (feast) of barbeque, stuffed grape leaves, salads, cheeses, and warmed bread, preceeded by hours of tea and followed by slow, small qahwa or coffees with pastries. We eat in the sand under the stars, cushioned by heavy, thick Oriental rugs.”
I think most people have the idea in their minds that Saudi Arabia is a rich country full of cruel men. During Cryer’s time, it was a country full of great wealth, and it was a time full of great regulation. But from her account, it was a peaceful time. The country’s inhabitants were caring and kind, offering assistance to Cryer in moments of need. Cryer writes of her first days in the country, where she and her son, not fully knowledgeable of the holy holidays, were left with no food and very little money, saved by the kindness of an uncle-like man loaning her a significant amount of money, no questions asked.. This love and generosity is lost in translation when we hear stories of the Middle East, something Cryer points on early on as she describes the impasse reached during the building of King Saud University: “It seems that when translators moved in to certify planning, they were unable to approve the project. The problem was simply translation.” This leaves me wondering, naturally, what else we lose in translation when we try to experience other cultures. Thankfully, in this moment we have Chris Cryer to provide us with a beautiful translation that gives us the ability to move past the impasse we often feel when looking at the Middle East.
In the talk of culture and place, I mustn’t forget our friend Tolstoy, seeing as he got special billing in the title. Despite the fact that I studied English as an undergraduate, I never read Tolstoy. That is, I can say now, the part of readingTolstoy in Riyadh that worried me the most. Would this beautiful story of journey and self-discovery be made dry and full by the works of an author most of us have never read, an author whose experience is of a man during the 1800s?
Thankfully, it’s easy to answer that question. Tolstoy is present in these pages, his words echoes of Cryer’s experience and life as she makes her way through her year in Saudi Arabia. He is there as Anna Kareninia, and from the pages of Cossacks, and the well loved pages of Hadji Murad. His presence isn’t one that overwhelms or suffocates; instead, he is a friend to those who don’t know him yet and a wise man to those who do. Cryer could have easily overdone Tolstoy’s presence, but instead of taking over her story, he compliments and guides it with a simple ease. I’ll even admit that one of the next books I read will be something by Tolstoy as I, too, want to experience the companionship Cryer has with him.
Tolstoy in Riyadh is a slow, leisurely. It’s not a face book you race through in an attempt to be done. It’s a quiet walk on a Sunday afternoon, the kind of book where you read paragraphs and pages again to get their full worth. This is a book which respects the boundaries of tradition and accepts Saudi Arabia for what it is, not for what a Westerner presupposes it ought to be. And I must say, it has altered my thoughts on novels about the Middle East. After all, this one feels real — with a close of my eyes, I’m in the fragrant, wealthy land with Cryer and her son, and walking near Tolstoy as well.