Electric Souk, by Rose McGinty, tells the story of a young, single, Irish woman’s experiences working in Arabia during the period of regional uprisings known as the Arab Spring. It is a story of expatriates, culture clashes, clandestine friendships and betrayals. In the simmering heat of a desert city, nothing is quite as it first appears.
Aisling Finn leaves the grey and damp of Ireland following the breakdown of a lengthy love affair. Drawn by the lure of sunshine and a lucrative contract she ignores her mother’s warnings of the potential dangers in a fiercely segregated, veiled land. Her Grandaddy understands Aisling’s need for adventure.
‘Woman, let her go will you.’ Grandaddy roared from his chair by the stove, ‘I remember when I was a young’ un my mother, and her mother before her, were always covered from head to toe in black. My mother was a clever woman, but she was dead behind the eyes from peeling spuds all day. We had our own Taliban, those fecking Christian Brothers.’
Aisling takes some time to acclimatise to expatriate life with its raucous parties, illicit activities and conspicuous wealth. Many of the woman look on her with disdain while the men veer between charm and sleaze. Although her work at the National Health Board is well regarded by colleagues, she discovers that powerful rivalries are ubiquitous and vicious. With everyone there to make money, trust is a rare commodity.
Aisling wishes to experience life outside the gilded city but requires male escorts and female chaperones if she is to stay within the law. Those who offer to accompany her invariably have ulterior motives and she finds herself enmeshed in schemes she does not fully understand. When she declines advances, the spurned warn of dangerous consequences.
News filters in of protests and uprisings in the region leading to a clamp down on previously overlooked activities. Foreign workers are blamed for sewing the seeds of discontent amongst the locals. With their privileged way of life under threat, governments are eager for scapegoats to punish as a warning to others. Aisling finds herself caught between her new western and eastern friends with little idea who, if any, she can rely on.
The plot is fast moving with a taut, hungry prose that evokes the precarious simulation of high-class living conjured out of a hostile desert. The Arabian family Aisling becomes involved with are discomfited when she acts like a western woman yet many of their compatriots yearn to enjoy the freedoms she takes for granted. Men from both cultures regard her as a pawn to be subjugated, by whatever means, to further their own dangerous games.
This was a fascinating look at an area known to offer luxurious conditions for visitors willing to look only at the glittering facade, possible because of a hidden army of mistreated workers. The arms and oil trades are considered too important for other nations to attempt interventions, whatever the human cost. If foreign worker contracts are truly as tightly controlled as portrayed here I wonder why anyone would choose to go, whatever the reward. Nonetheless, this provides a searing backdrop for a compelling tale.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane.