Book Review: Die Frau aus 1001 Nacht. Mein Leben in einem Harem (My life in a harem)
The Run Down:
A European woman’s midlife crisis takes her to Saudi Arabia- Western Ethnocentrism and Perceptions of a Harem.
In the middle of her episodic life, a 40 something year old Swiss woman accepts an offer to come work for a Saudi Princess to educate her 6 year-old son in the French language. Follows an account of 2 years spent in voluntary captivity in one of the most gilded of cages, a harem (a women-only living area) in a Saudi Prince’s residence in Riyad. Through our narrator’s eyes we see and experience a bit of the life behind these closed and barred doors.
For Denise, our narrator, life in the princely household is one of great luxury and leisure. She has to work for about 45 minutes per weekday and she has been given 3 personal servants to cater for her every need. She loses track of time, at first in a pleasant way – but as the months stretch into her second year she is losing more than just time, she is losing touch with who she is and what makes her happy.
In her first year, Denise, befriends 27 year-old Carolyn, an American beautician also working for the the Princess, also living by herself in a free-standing house in the walled garden of the Harem. Carolyn at that time is in her second or third year and is going nuts because of the restrictions that hem her in. She responds to these pressures by exercising vigorously and keeping her figure trim and fit. Chapter after chapter we see how Carolyn first chafes, then buckles under the pressures of the regime of forced leisure, and finally slowly but surely loses it. She has to leave, for her sanity’s sake.
Our narrator follows the same trajectory, albeit with some differences. Where Carolyn is restless and exercises vigorously to keep herself fit and in shape, Denise allows herself to slip and slide into an increasingly lethargic lifestyle, consisting first of meditative silences of several hours, slowly degenerating into 12-hour binge watching sessions of American soap series on her sofa. She eats sweet confections constantly and gains well over 20 kilos in her first year, bursting out of several clothing sizes. Her ballooning weight causes her to have health problems and by her second year she needs someone to support her on longer walks. Something has to give, and when a natural break in the education process arises, she musters the will to leave her employment.
It can be said that this book is about offering an inside look into the customs of this secluded world, this life inside a women’s enclosure in a Saudi princely household. To me though, this book is more a study of how people respond to (and in this case twice lose the fight against) life in an unaccustomed gilded cage.
– Very friendly employers.
– Ample remuneration and fantastic fringe benefits (free-standing villa with three servants, free food and healthcare);
– Work is easy and takes little time. Very little time pressure.
– Have to be at the disposal of the Princess at all times.
– Cannot dress as you please, except in your own house.
– Cannot speak to privately to men, let alone have sexual relationships with them.
– Very limited freedom of movement outside the Harem.
– Very few other Western ladies around to interact with; the Eastern ladies are very friendly but are and remain very alien with very different mind sets and life expectations.
– 22 empty hours every day.
Anyone can deal with “the bad” for a while, certainly for a handsome reward. But “the bad” gets to you, corrodes you. When luxury and comfort become the norm, they become invisible. What remains is your personal human condition, the workings of your own internal “happiness factory” that distills enjoyment, delight, exhilaration, optimism, and peace of mind out of the everyday materials that surround you. If your “happiness factory” cannot convert the materials it finds, you dry out, your wellbeing diminishes, your mental state corrodes. We do not get to choose how well our “happiness factory” works, how efficiently it cranks out that glee, or what everyday materials it needs to work with – but we can try to understand ourselves better and try to change what needs changing to get that glee. Perhaps it needs a different perspective on the normal day-to-day, perhaps it needs some new ingredients, or a change of scenery. It certainly needs meaningful connects with other human beings, because we are all intensely social animals.
The book has some wonderful scenes, I will translate one here. Denise has been invited to a female-only party in honor of a Princely wedding. In this scene she describes the arrival of the Princesses of the various houses:
“One by one, the Princesses slowly walk up the broad white marble stairs, dressed in their black abayas. Seen like this, they are just vaguely outlined ciphers. When they arrive at the top of the stairs and enter the reception hall, however, they let slip the edges of their abaya and the black silken cloak slides down from their shoulders and reveals in a flash their beautiful faces and figures, their gorgeous designer dresses, and their flaming sets of jewels. The Princesses move into the hall without the slightest pause while their personal servant girls who have waited for this moment for hours, catch the abaya before it floats to the white marble floor. It is a magnificent moment and does not lose its magic as it repeats a hundred, two hundred, a thousand times.”
This book is very charming in places, just as life in the gilded cage is. Happiness is a precious and precarious balance to maintain while in a gilded cage, or indeed, in our everyday life. Self-knowledge and self-management appear to be the keys. Thank you Denise for sharing your story.
*Read more reviews by Sjors here