Monday, June 24, 2013

Book Review: Driving the Saudis

By Jami Deise

Someone once told me – maybe it was my mom, maybe it was a girlfriend – that a good way to test the character of a guy you’re dating was to see how he treats the waiter. A person who is kind and considerate to those in a position of subservience, the theory goes, is a genuinely good person.

Driving the Saudis will have you thinking about how you treat people who are in service to you, be they Dunkin’ Donuts counterpeople, the dry cleaner, the newspaper guy, the bus driver, or the Cheesecake Factory waiter. But if you work in the service industry, it will have you feeling very grateful that you’re not a chauffeur – especially one who’s on call 24/7 for nearly two months to some of the richest, most entitled people in the world. It will also have you contemplating questions of geopolitics and energy supply.

Author Jayne Amelia Larson is what they call in Hollywood a “hyphenate” – she’s an actress hyphen writer hyphen producer. Unfortunately for Larson, despite the fact that she holds degrees from Ivy League universities, all these hyphens just means that there are many more job opportunities that fail to materialize. When a friend suggests that, rather than waitressing or working as a barista, she take employment as a chauffeur (lots of opportunities to meet A-list celebrities and movie executives), Larson jumps at the chance.

Unfortunately, the job is long hours at low pay, and all the driving saps Larson’s creative energy. But then she learns of an amazing opportunity: Members of the Saudi Arabian royal family are coming for an extended visit to Los Angeles, and they need drivers. The hours will be long, the passengers demanding, but the Saudis are huge tippers. Larson hears stories of $20,000 bonuses and more. She signs up, and after a grueling interview process that includes harassment over whether or not she’s Jewish, she’s hired. She’s the only female driver out of 40 other chauffeurs.

The Saudis don’t travel lightly, arriving with furniture, rugs, and millions in cash to fund their shopping and plastic surgery. The Saudi princesses, while Muslim, are freed from their obligation to wear burquas while in the U.S., while their devout female servants continue to cover up completely. The huge family is split up into several luxurious hotels across Beverly Hills, with the men always staying in separate locales away from the women.

Larson’s first assignment is the petulant, effeminate royal hairdresser, who is insulted at having been given a female driver in a Crown Vic rather than a limo. After he nearly gives Larson lung cancer by chain-smoking on two hour trips to casinos in the wee hours, Larson invents a husband who is upset that his wife is driving a man. Not surprisingly, the Saudis reassign her.

Like many women, Larson is loathe to say no to any request. As a result, she finds herself tasked with errands such as acquiring 27 bottles of Hair Off. As the other chauffeurs drop like flies, fired for offenses such as looking at someone the wrong way, Larson becomes more and more overworked. She is supposed to be driving 13-year-old Princess Rajiya and her nanny, Malikah, but if she’s not driving those women, she’s at the beck and call of everyone else. She ends up assisting one woman after butt implant surgery and driving all over town to buy as many of a certain bra as possible for another after breast implants.

Larson is treated contemptuously by many of the women and all the male chauffeurs, but even so, she wonders whether the lack of status, as compared to royal Saudi men, causes the dismissive behavior. She also feels sorry for a smart princess who wants to stay and learn in the U.S. but is forced to return to Saudi Arabia to become some man’s third wife. While she’s genuinely fond of Princess Rajiya and the princess’ mother seems to appreciate her, Larson develops a real bond with Malikah and the North African teenagers who serve the young princesses. She is horrified to realize the North African girls sleep seven to a room, on cots, while the Saudis have reserved rooms just for security and for tea service. When she stumbles across the girls’ passports being held in a lock box by the security team, she realizes the girls are, in effect, slaves – and that Americans are complicit.

Still, despite the long hours, the weight loss, and the abuse she takes, Larson sticks it out for the carrot at the end of the stick – that huge bonus. As a people pleaser and believer of meritocracy, she believes that her efforts and accomplishments will be rewarded at the end.

Driving the Saudis isn’t written in a strict linear fashion but more like a series of anecdotes, which allows Larson to emphasize the more outrageous aspects of her employment. She also gave a mini-lecture on U.S.-Saudi relations. For instance, the U.S. State Department was highly involved in the planning of the trip, working closely with the Saudis’ own security team. And the LAPD was involved as well – despite speeding and running red lights, Larson was never pulled over. The Saudis own many of the luxurious hotels in Beverly Hills; I suppose this ownership and the millions of dollars they dropped into the California economy led the police to allow the Saudis to ignore American laws at their convenience. As upsetting as those facts are, I was most disturbed by the tale of the North African teenager who confessed to Larson how she lied at the U.S. embassy, saying that she only works eight hours a day and is free to come and go as she pleases, when neither is true. The embassy staff may have been ignorant, but the U.S. security staff – and perhaps even the State Department -- had to know that these girls were being held against their will. Could someone please let John Kerry know?

Larson is a strong writer who describes people and scenarios in detail while letting the reader decide how to feel about the situation. This ability is probably why my prediction about the end of her employment was more accurate than hers. Still, Larson is victorious in the end. Not only has she written this critically acclaimed book, but according to the book flap, she has also developed a one-woman show around the experience that she has performed all over the country. I hope this success means Larson is now the one being driven around in a limo – I’m sure she’s very kind to everyone who opens her door or serves her coffee.

Thanks to Simon and Schuster for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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dancing feet said...

Wonderful review...really want to read it!

Susie Orman Schnall said...

What a great review! Sounds like a fascinating account of her experience. I look forward to reading it!