Once upon a life: Hilary MantelFor four years, the Booker prize-winner lived in the repressive, claustrophobic kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Until one day in 1986 when she and her husband left Jeddah and rediscovered freedom
Sunday 21 FEBRUARY 2010
t five o'clock on the morning of 13 March 1986 I stood with my husband in the half dark outside our house, listening. Nothing in this place was simple, so we thought: what if the car doesn't come? Beyond the contingent sprawl of buildings, the lunar landscape was silent: stars setting, and no birdsong in this parched place. The houses of our neighbours, unlit, seemed to have edged away from us, easing back into their little plots of dust. In the distance you could see the line of the highway: just the odd moving dot of a car, some early or nefarious commuter heading down to the snarled-up city. The grey light was indefinite; you wouldn't know, unless like us you repeatedly checked your watch, if this hour was dawn or dusk. We must have missed the call to prayers, blanked it. An Arab dawn comes, I had been told, when by the first glimmer you can distinguish a black thread from a white.
Then in the distance, hardly perceptible at first, the hum of a vehicle, coming uphill towards us, hidden at first by the curve of the road. When the car came into sight, the office car, we faced each other and smiled. My husband turned back to the house and locked the door. Our four years of Jeddah were over. We dropped the keys through the letterbox. I had hoped for a satisfying clatter: instead, a soundless tumble to the vinyl tiles.
It has an opulent image, Saudi Arabia, but the city was a building site in those days and everything around us had been provisional, odd or cheap. We had lived for two and a half years in city centre flats. The first was cavernous, bare and white, with acres of oatmeal carpet across which cockroaches sauntered in broad day, as if strolling in the park. It had vast double doors with many keys. To get out of the main door needed more keys. Then came the locked metal gate in the wall. When my husband returned from his office, with the Saudi Gazette and a brown bag of shopping, I could hear him approach, rattling like a gaoler.
The apartment was on the first floor and the windows were made of frosted glass. The Saudis didn't much like windows. If you could see out, someone could see in; a giant, say, might be walking down the street, so better safe than sorry. After a few weeks the company moved us to another place, smaller, better for two. It was dark and the lights had to be kept on all day, as if it were the English winter. Each room had many doors, double doors made of dark wood, so it was like a coffin showroom. We took some of them off, but the impression of death persisted.
Our third move was to a small ramshackle "family compound", which we shared with nine other households. All the men were employed by the mining company my husband worked for; the wives were not employed, and spent their days wistfully plotting the shopping trips they were going to undertake with all the money their husbands were making, walking in their imaginations through the streets of other cities where they were rich and free. Our dwellings were prefabs long past their use-by date, and rats bounced around in the roofs, but I liked my house because behind our bed there was a wide, bright window. Each morning the yellow dawn spilled in, and light, light, that's what I craved; my eye was starved for it, my bones ached for it, my soul had become in its absence a brittle piece of grit or gravel, something you might walk over the threshold on the sole of your shoe.
It was in the coffin-maker's flat that I had finished my first novel. There, I had received a letter from London to say that a publisher had accepted it. My husband brought it home from the office and put it into my hand. When I read its first line my mouth opened but my ribs had stuck fast with astonishment, so I couldn't utter, couldn't breathe in or out; and it seemed to me that in those suspended seconds an era went by, during which every cell in my body was exchanged for a new and better type.
In the house with the window behind the bed I wrote my second book. Then we were moved on again, to a blistering landscape outside the city, an expatriate settlement where you were unwatched, and so it was possible to step out without getting on your Islamic glad rags, your concealing drapes; except, of course, there was nowhere to step out to.
Since my first day in the Kingdom I had kept diaries, and they were in my bags when we locked that fourth house behind us and stood in the dawn waiting for the car. I intended, as soon as I arrived in a safe place, to begin to write a novel about what I or a fictional representative of me had seen and learned in Jeddah. But while I was in the city I couldn't do it and, after all, the story was not over; we might not get out, we weren't out yet. At the airport, the sun rose over the runways and burst through the glass walls, great fistfuls of light. It's too late now, I thought, for the sun to show me how it can shine. Our guts were boiling with agitation as we stood in line with our documents.
One heard of people turned back at this point, their exit visas not in order, some vital stamp or signature lacking; and then, who were they, where were they, with neither leave to go nor leave to remain? It was as hard to get out of the Kingdom as to get into it. In order to be discharged from the government ministry at which he was employed, my husband needed 23 separate signatures on a document; the twist was that they had to be acquired in a certain order. He had managed it with a certain sangfroid, but others had sweated for weeks over it, chasing senior ministry persons as their white thobes whisked into shiny black cars and they purred home to their palaces, their working day merely long enough to take coffee and visit ostentatiously the on-site mosque.
It was 7am; our papers were stamped. Yet even on board, perhaps we could be hauled off for some unexplained and minor infraction of an unknown regulation. We held hands surreptitiously (we were still in Saudi airspace) as the plane lifted into the sky. At Cairo airport they took our passports away. We didn't like that. In Saudi, to be without documents was to be without personhood and without any vestige of human rights you might possess. Not that you were human, really – you were just a bit of international flotsam with a temporary use and a short expiry date.
The passports came back, with a transit stamp. But look, there's our luggage, why is it going that way? My husband vaulted a barrier and firmly, wordlessly, removed the two cases from the fists of the man conveying them to perdition on some distant moving belt. It makes me smile when I look back, to think how lax airport security was in those days. Terrorism was a mere red blink in the collective eye, though in my gaze it loomed large. I had been thoroughly frightened by life in Jeddah, and my conversations with Muslim women, my neighbours in the city, had alerted me to the cavernous gap of understanding between the west and the Islamic world as one saw it in the Kingdom.
Feminism? A confidence trick, a trick that the men of the west had perpetrated on their womenfolk, to make them work both at home and outside. Freedom? A delusion. Democracy? An evil system, a defiance of the natural order. Obedience, deference to authority, reverence for tradition: these were the civic virtues paraded in the Kingdom. It was like travelling back in time. The Enlightenment? When was that?
At the same time, this society was fiercely modernising; technology was harnessed in the service of antique values. Self-appointed vigilantes patrolled the shopping malls, striking out with their sticks at human flesh or even inanimate objects if they saw some breach of the rules; it might be the flashing denim legs of a Filipina girl revealed for a second beneath an abaya gone adrift, or it might be the plate-glass shop front of a business that, as the evening prayer call spiralled through the damp air-conditioned halls, had failed to slam down its metal shutters fast enough.
What were the rules? No one knew. What infringed them? A look or a smile could do it. Sometimes I would step out and know I'd got things wrong. Not even my Muslim women friends could explain how I could get it right. It's legs, one said, that are the objection; you should be covered to your ankle. No, no, said another, it's arms that are the problem; you should be covered to your wrists. I did both. I had no desire to show an unwonted inch of flesh. If you left your husband's side in the supermarket, some sad man followed you and tried to touch you up in the frozen fish. You were western, and they knew you wouldn't scream: just a silent bug-eyed flinch, a squirm out of their reach. You were probably a prostitute anyway. Most European women were. Male desperation, loneliness and need, the misunderstandings they bred: these hung in the refrigerated air, permeating public spaces like dry ice.
I suspect that what I had wrong was the expression on my face. After my good news came from London, after I got changed in every cell, I met the days with a willing smile.
Cairo, then, was an intermediate space, a populous waiting room between phases, as if one were born, or half-born, into the clamour of a crowded maternity ward. "Don't get trampled," a colleague had warned us, "when you get off the plane. All the Saudis stampede to the bar." We sat on stacking chairs placed in a short row of five, above which some wit had taped a sign that said: VIP Lounge.
In time we were conveyed onwards into the padded blandness of a transit area. Now, we said, we have almost done it, almost. But our spines did not unstiffen until the plane rose into the air, out of Cairo, bound for Larnaca. It was now mid-morning. The stewardess gave me a glass of sherry and a newspaper. I folded it to the racecard for the course at Nicosia. "On Sunday," I said, "we can go and bet on a horse." I laughed. What strange shapes liberty takes: some bow-legged parti-coloured jockey, some stumpy pony lumbering towards the winning post, some dusty track measured in furlongs, some holiday crowd in a free state.
CYPRUS WAS A BREATHING space for us, a short holiday. When we got back to England we knew my husband had to find a job and I – well, I had a job; I was a writer now; what I had to find was an income. The advance for my first novel had been £2,000, and even in 1986 it didn't go far. The first book had been a hit with the critics and the reading public had snapped up – oh, all of 500 copies, I supposed; nobody volunteered the exact figure, and I thought it would be tactful not to ask.
That first night, in a hotel in Limassol, I studied myself to assess my fitness for a future. I was ill and had been taking steroids. My face was puffy and, most ludicrously, since there were no hairdressers in Jeddah (or none I found), my hair, which was thin and frizzed by the drugs, had been uncut for nine months and hung in a tangle over my eyes. A telex to an efficient relative had secured me an appointment, one week on, at a salon in Windsor, where in those days we had a small flat; it was the place we were coming home to, with the castle looming in at our window.
I had decided when I was 12 that I would like to live in Windsor, and bought the flat when I was 27, though the size of the deposit cheque unnerved me, and I scrambled the figures and had to write it twice. I had not always been lucky, had not always been blessed; but, illness aside, I had a savage and hidden faculty for managing my desires: for slapping and pounding fate, a rickety raw-faced amateur who should never have stepped into the ring with the hard-fisted likes of me.
In the interim, I rolled through the world like an unkempt pedigree dog. If you were a dog, someone had said to me recently, you'd be a golden retriever. That was me: lolloping towards April, waving my daft tail. My second book would be published a week or two after I arrived home. And that afternoon in Cyprus I had walked along the road by the beach, in the splashy sunshine, on my husband's arm, unmolested, no men shouting at me out of cars or trying to run me over – which procedures were quite usual in the Kingdom. I had walked along the rubbly seafront towards the town, heavy lorries grinding past, exhaust fumes wafting on the warm wind.
In Limassol there is, or there was then, a herb market in a hall like a vast glasshouse. The glass shimmered verdant and we inhaled green, the miasma of plant life, the world of chlorophyll as it shivered and dripped: scent of stem, of shoot, of sap, the air itself sighing with misty fragrance. On the way back we stopped at a tourist bar. We sat at a pavement table in the traffic fumes and drank cold beer.
It was such an easy, ordinary thing to do. In a moment, the constraint of four years eased, the extent of my inner impoverishment became plain and it almost shocked me how fiercely I had slapped my bet on the counter, staked my claim to the future. Now, now, I said – despite the steroids, the sickness, the embarrassing hairdo, despite the job search, the uncertainty, the displacement, now despite everything, despite the fact that I am 34 and just beginning, this is the happiest day of my life.
And it was. It is. Not many people have the good fortune to pinpoint it, to log it, to feel it while it's happening and skewer it down. We drained our glasses, brushed the crisp crumbs from our persons and strolled back to the hotel. 13 March, Limassol, 1986.