Trapped in a gilded cage

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 August, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 August, 1994, 12:00am

Daughters of Arabia by Jean Sasson Doubleday $255 THERE'S more to Saudi Arabia's royal family than jet-set shopping tours, 10-carat diamond earrings and mistresses for the men in the family.

How a handful of blue-blood women react to a culture where men own them, produces all sorts of fodder for Jean Sasson in Daughters of Arabia. But the author appears so enamoured by her subject and the lifestyle that traps, entwines and dazzles, it makes it hard to take the book seriously.

Daughters and Sasson's earlier book, Princess, were commissioned by a Saudi princess, known only as Sultana. The women became acquaintances then friends when the American lived in the Middle East for 10 years. You don't need to have read Princess to understand this.

Envision a lifestyle where the women, dressed in Chanel, dripping with diamonds, spend their days napping, gossiping and planning their next shopping jaunt to Paris. Though curious about Western women, most are quiet as third-class citizens in gilded towers.

Princess ended with Sultana's resolve to stay in her marriage (despite her husband's infidelities) for the sake of her three youngsters. Daughters begins with the raising of teenage daughters, Maha and Amania, and son, Abdullah.

The family lives in the compound of the Al Sa'ud family, where the men are mesmerised by their own political clout and money. Opulence is the operative word and Sasson doesn't skimp on details or name-dropping.

But Sultana wanted to voice the concerns of Saudi women in the hope that her own daughters would be able to live in a different society. Sasson paints a hostile picture, where infant daughters are buried in the sand, killed by having scalding water poured down their throats. In one case, the death of a daughter was preferable to the family's shame when she was caught in an illicit tryst with a Palestinian.

Sultana hopes her eldest daughter will become a revolutionary. But setting fire to her brother's robe doesn't count. It was a child's attempt to act out the overall indifference of men to women.

That impressionable mind was also witness to the Gulf War, when foreign female journalists, intrigued by the plight of women, incited Arab sisters to burn their veils. The then-teenager eventually found comfort in the arms of another girl.

Lesbianism and homosexual conduct are rampant within the kingdom. And her daughter found a relationship with another female to be more secure than one with a man.

A major part of the book deals with the family's pilgrimage to Mecca. It was a first for husband Kareem, whose lifelong fear of being asphyxiated by the frenzied worshippers was never realised.

While one daughter opted for the homosexual lifestyle, the other reacted by becoming a religious fanatic. Hounding her parents to give up their luxurious lifestyle and give more money to the poor fell on deaf ears.

Throughout strong role models for young women are missing. All appear to be victims. One of Sultana's nine sisters was attacked by her husband, after she discovered evidence of his sexual junkets to Manila and Bangkok, and found him in bed with their Sri Lankan maid. Another sister, forced into an arranged marriage, became a battered wife.

Like Princess, the book moans. Sultana sulks and naps and stays in her room, lest her children find her in less than a good humour. While she verbalises her disgust for the men of her culture, she never refuses a peace offering - usually gold or diamonds.

While Sultana criticises the men of the royal family and her society for their position on women's issues, she voices immense respect for their clever and insightful leadership when it comes to making money from oil. Then she chastises the younger generation of the Al Sa'ud family for being suckers to wealth.

Listening to one voice who has nothing new or constructive to say becomes boring. If there were other viewpoints and more substance, Daughters would succeed better.