Danforth’s book, entitled Crossing the Kingdom: Portraits of Saudi Arabia, is both interesting and illuminating. There are at least two tendencies of existing academic work that deals with Saudi Arabia. The first tends to glorify Saudi, a home to the Holy Lands of Mecca and Medina (known Haramain), as the world’s most sacred sites for Muslims. The second tends to underrate and oversimplify Saudi Kingdom and society as a backward country whose inhabitants live in the desert, along with camels or donkeys, or a homegrown of religious radicalism and a breeding ground for terrorism.
Danforth’s work neither deifies nor simplifies Saudi. The book is quite balanced and unbiased with one of its key goals to challenge the negative pictures and stereotypes of Saudi Arabia by “offering alternative images of its people, their society, and their culture” (1).
The book is based on the author’s direct experiences, engagements, formal interviews, and informal conversations with Saudis (both lay people and elite member of society), as well as his short fieldtrip in the Kingdom in 2011, particularly in the major cities of Dhahran, Riyadh, and Jeddah. However, it should be noted, this book is neither a traditional academic monograph on Saudi Arabia nor a travel account or the book about the author’s journey in the Kingdom, albeit it emerged from his trip in Saudi.
The book is divided into seven chapters. Chapter 1 depicts an ethnographic and historical portrait of Saudi Aramco (Saudi Arabian Oil Company), Dhahran-based national petroleum and natural gas company that has arguably been the world’s largest producer of oil and one of the major forces in the Saudi economy. Chapter 2 deals with the examination of a small group of Saudi women who protested against women driving ban.
The author also discusses other major issues concerning Saudi women, including guardianship system, the dominance of patriarchal culture, gendered bias or minimum rights of women, repressive policies toward women, unequal opportunity between men and women on the marketplace, among others. While Chapter 3 explores modern Saudi art, Chapter 4 examines the relations between science and religion in the kingdom. Chapter 5, moreover, focuses on the discussion of the birth of archeology as an academic discipline.
Chapter 6 presents a portrait of Saudi’s old city of Jeddah, the country’s main port and the point of entry for millions of foreign hajj pilgrims. The last Chapter 7 discusses the experiences of two famous nineteenth-century British travelers Sir Richard Burton and Arthur Wavell, who travelled in Mecca in disguise and performed the hajj under false pretenses (unfortunately he did not discuss Christian Snouck Hurgronje, Dutch colonial advisor and scholar of Oriental cultures who travelled and conducted research in Jeddah and Mecca in 1884-85 under the fake name: Abdul Ghaffar).
Of all these chapters, Chapter 2 is the most interesting and explores intriguing topics that need further examination. Some of the major women-related issues discussed in this chapter are obsolete in part because since last years, Saudi has improved significantly on matters concerning women, including moving from standard black, ankle-length abaya, hijab (a head covering), or niqab or burqa to wearing colorful, fancy abaya and hijab, and many do not wear niqab/burqa (coverings over the face except for the eyes).
The Kingdom also lifted women driving ban on June, 2018. Saudi women now, if they want, can enjoy driving on public roads. They also can have their own driver licenses. Non-Saudi / Arab societies, particularly Western societies, are mostly unaware that in the past, the prohibition of women driving was actually only in highways or cities’ public roads and women could drive in housing compounds or university complexes. Bedouin Arab women, for example, drive in the countryside to transport and sell farming products or sheep to traditional markets or to take care of their livestock.
Other significant developments include the partial lifting of male guardianship system so that Saudi women now can freely travel across the kingdom without the mahram (guardian), have their own passport, attend a university, apply for any job, except in security (military or police), or take part in sports and other public events, among others. My male-only university has begun accepting applications from female candidates to be professors or graduate students. Some Saudi women even lead major business, including in media (e.g. Saudi Gazette) and banks, in the country. Moreover, some leading women (about 29) have been appointed as members of the Shuro Council (the Kingdom’s consultative body) and played a major rule in women’s reforms.
Besides women’s matters, some issues in the book also need for further clarification such as those of “Sharia police” (hai’ah) since their roles are no longer dominant and have been gradually limited and weakened by the Kingdom. As well, gender segregation in public spaces is no longer as strict as before.
Notwithstanding these lacuna and shortcomings, readers could learn many things from the book and find it useful. It, for instance, teaches us how to comprehend plurality and complexity of Saudi culture and society that are far from being monolithic as many have assumed; thereby helps us circumvent biased perspectives on Saudi Arabia. The book also helps us understand Saudi past before significant changes and major reforms began to greet the kingdom since last years, including those concerning modern art (Chapter 3), science (Chapter 4), and the acceptance of archeology (Chapter 5) and other social sciences as an academic discipline.
Source: American Anthropologist