What do we know-what can we know-about the women of Arabia? One may meet them abroad in Saks or Harrods dressed in Versace or Chanel, or exulting in the freedom of Marbella's discos and the cafes around Trocadero. Yet mostly their lives are as hidden from Western eyes as the inner sanctum of an 18th-century seraglio. News reports can hint at the frustrations of relatively "liberated" women in Kuwait clamoring for the right to vote-or, in Saudi Arabia, to drive. But only fiction could capture the arid surrealism of their daily routine.
Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh, one of very few women writing serious novels in Arabic, has set a small masterpiece in the psychological confines of the modern harem. With its frank sexuality and explicit accounts of feminine alienation, _B_Women of Sand and Myrrh_b_ (280 pages. Anchor Books. Paper, $9) was banned in gulf countries when it appeared in 1988. But since Catherine Cobham's elegant translation was published in England three years ago, it has had a growing audience outside the Arab world and is now available in the United States.
Al-Shaykh builds her novel around the stories of four women. Suha, a Lebanese whose husband has brought her to an unnamed desert state, longs to escape a world of veiled faces and censored magazines, where "time was wasted in searching for and constructing what existed and was recognized as normal or obvious anywhere else in the world." Tamr, married for the first time before puberty, eventually musters the courage to open a dress shop and hair salon after Suha broadens her horizons, "starting with colors and furnishings and ending up with civilization." Nur is the bored child of an old and very rich family who immerses herself in Western fashions-"my body was on display to both sexes like a shirt on the washing line"-but always behind the high walls of her homes.
The fourth woman, Suzanne, is an American who comes to adore Arabia. Nowhere else could she find herself the object of so much lust, which she mistakes for love. She is blond and blue-eyed but dumpy and middle-aged; the thought of returning to her white-bread life in Texas terrifies her. In the desert she comes to think of herself as "an oasis, green and sparkling in this great drought." Her Scotch-drinking Bedouin lover eventually contracts syphilis.
It's not surprising that many Arab men resent al-Shaykh's depiction. But Western women, one suspects, will see more than Arab society in this novel. The details of purdah, mutilation and polygamy are literal truths so alien to Western experience that they may be read as metaphor. But the frustration of living in a society where men do not acknowledge a woman's sense, understand her sensibilities or credit her intelligence is surely nothing rare in the West. Al-Shaykh's book succeeds, not least, as a collection of parables about any woman's experience.