THE WEALTH OF Saudi Arabia is a relatively recent phenomenon--oil having been discovered there in 1938 and brought into production only after World War II. Because prosperity has come within the last three or four decades, there are still not nearly enough trained Saudi nationals to carry out the massive structural and social changes that the government has planned and that oil revenues can finance. It is therefore necessary for the Saudis to purchase in the world market the modern technology and personnel needed to achieve their goals.
The provision of health care is no different from the construction of modern cities or agricultural development in this respect. And so, in 1975, Dr. Seymour Gray, a Boston internist and biomedical researcher with considerable experience in international health, began a three-year assignment on the medical staff at the modern King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh. Beyond the Veil, a well- written and interesting book, introduces the reader to this fascinating and often mysterious culture. It is not a scholarly political or sociological analysis, but rather a series of experiences and reflections of a doctor as his patients crossed the barriers of language and custom to reveal something of their lives and country.
Gray is most entertaining when he describes events or introduces us to people we would not normally encounter. For example, he recalls attending the marriage ceremony of a princess, who had been his patient, and a wealthy businessman. While the sexes are segregated even at wedding ceremonies, as they are in most aspects of Saudi life, the bride offered him the rare opportunity of secretly observing the women's celebration. After an early evening of the traditional all-male feasting and dancing, Gray was driven 50 miles to a hotel. There, from behind a balcony curtain, he observed dancing, the ritual warding off of evil spirits, and the lifting of the princess' veil to her husband by her father. Gray relates dozens of other experiences, which are certainly unusual for Westerners and must be due mainly to his status as physician to royalty.
A number of Gray's experiences cause him to reflect on Saudi life and culture. The most intense is a beheading he witnessed in the designated public square. Gray states his personal support for capital punishment and speculates on its relationship to the low crime rate in Saudi Arabia. But he also describes his revulsion and sense of sacrilege as he "stared at the pool of blood soaking the street. What a few precious minutes before had been part of a living, breathing human being was now soaking into the ground, already turning dark and sticky in the hot sun. The terrifying mortality of man weighed heavily on my mind." We ourselves are left to wonder about this form of justice, and its recent examples in our own country. With honesty, Gray acknowledges that as an advocate of capital punishment, he at least "had a duty" to witness once in his life that which he was advocating.
A major theme of Gray's observations is the Saudi attitude toward women, male-female relationships and sexualtity. His strongest impressions came from several hospitalized patients whom he came to know quite well through many long conversations. He observed that these women, although scrupulous about being veiled in public or in the presence of a Saudi male, were quite willing to remove their veils in the presence of an American doctor; indeed he felt that "the hospital served as a haven where Saudi women were temporarily freed from the customs and restrictions of their society." Gray is sensitive to the boredom and restrictions these women experience, and he speculates about how increasing Western influence will affect the more traditional religious and social values. He quotes the daughter of a Saudi merchant who had studied for three years in California: "The veil protects our bodies, it does not imprison our minds. The issue of sexual equality is not the veil, but what's behind it. There is a growing interest among Saudi women of my generation for equal rights. We are in the middle of a cultural revolution and we're caught between the heritage of our past and the modern world outside."
In several chapters dealing with Saudi sexuality, Gray relates the theory he developed through clinical observations and informal conversations, that both male and female Saudis have a "voracious appetite" for, and national obsession with, sexual activity. In one conversation, a Saudi general makes the point that such "uncontrollable sexuality" underlies the country's sexual segregation. Gray does not mention the opposite and equally plausible interpretation, that rigid separation of the sexes heightens sexual preoccupation. By default he leaves the impression that the general's view is correct. This example illustrates the danger of an anecdotal approach to complex cultural issues. Since Gray's most intense discussions occurred with Saudis of substantial Western contact, his generalization about Saudi sexuality may not necessarily be true for the population as a whole.
It is unfortunate that he devotes only a paragraph or two to the public health and the availability of health care services for the general populace. From Gray's description of his practice in the modern hospital with the best of Western technology, the reader might have the impression that such quality exists throughout Saudi Arabia. We know this is not the case. Much remains to be done in both urban and rural areas; it would have been useful to have Gray's professional assessment of how best to proceed.
As a description of hiss"adventures" Beyond the Veil is an interesting and often exciting introduction to many aspects of life in Saudi Arabia. More formal scholarly analysis will be required fully to understand a number of important issues he raises; more time will be necessary to see how the rapid economic and technological changes can be integrated into the traditional moral and cultural framework.