Interview with John-Paul Jones, Author of “If Olaya Street Could Talk”

Thank you John-Paul for agreeing to answer some questions about yourself and your book.  I’ve no doubt this posting will facilitate greater understanding and more dialogue about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.


Let’s start at the beginning, what prompted you to initially decide to go and work in the Kingdom?  Where were you located in the States and what were you doing at the time?

There was the “push and pull.”  When I found out I would have almost 60 days of vacation a year, which as you know, is common in some other cultures, but not the American one, it clinched “the deal.” I’ve never objected to meaningful work, but I believe there are too many other things to do with one’s life than lock into a work environment where even taking two weeks off in a row is considered disloyal, or bizarre. As a Vietnam War veteran, there was also the “push,” aspect – I had hoped that America would have learned what I saw as the lessons of that war; that despite “good intentions,” our interventions in foreign countries often have disastrous effects, both for that country, as well as ourselves.  I still do not believe those lessons have been learned.

I was living in Inman Park, “Atlanta’s first suburb, (circa 1890)” trying to renovate a charming Victorian home. I had been Vice-President for Operations, in charge of 13 nursing facilities, located in five south eastern states.


While your book covers so many of your experiences and observations, please share your initial impressions of coming to the Kingdom.  Do you believe you were well prepared for the differences and distinctions in customs, cultures and traditions?

I wasn’t prepared for the upside! The fall of 1978 was long before 9-11, yet like virtually all Americans I had a very negative opinion of the country.  I’ve been struck by the remark made by another expat, Dale Walker, who wrote a charming book about the Kingdom, with the injudicious title, “Fool’s Paradise,” that: “… just as it takes no Goebbels to appreciate the value of a propaganda so effective that before I ever laid eyes on an Arab, I despised them.”  “Despise” is too strong a word for me, but I was leery, and almost certainly would not have come if I had been married, with kids.

In the early days at King Faisal Specialist Hospital it was entirely possible for Westerners to live in a very sheltered cocoon, with virtually no contact with their Saudi hosts. An analogous situation is American soldiers at a military base in Germany, going through a tour of 1-2 years, and learning 10 words of German.

One theme in my book is what happened when I decided to leave the cocoon, and how my opinions, formed by that propaganda, changed, as the result of direct observation and experience.


What do you believe were the greatest changes which occurred in the Kingdom during your stay and why?

I would propose that the rate of change, in all facets of life, in Saudi Arabia was of the order of a magnitude, yes, 10 times greater than it was in the United States during the same period (1978-2003).  It is most obvious in the physical infrastructure: roads, airports, farms, electrical grid, medical facilities, etc.  But it is equally true in the social relationships, and the heart. There has been explosive growth in the native population, massive urbanization with a corresponding decline in an ancient Bedouin way of life, the rise of a class of Saudis that are comfortable in their own society, as well as in the West, and a corresponding resistance to change by those who have been “left behind,” which is reflected in a rise of religious fundamentalism.

I once told a Saudi “Mabrook” on the occasion of the birth of a child.  He thanked me, but said they do not normally give congratulations that way; he said that they usually waited until the child was a year old, because they had lost so many when they were under that age.  Now the infant mortality has dropped to Western levels.

Alvin Toffler published “Future Shock” in the early ‘70’s.  In the book he examined the impact of change on Western society.  I haven’t heard this issue addressed much in Saudi society, but surely it is there.


At what point did you decide that there was a book inside of you waiting to be written and why?

On Interstate 40, literally.  Yes, America’s “mother road,” the term John Steinbeck once used for Route 66, which I-40 parallels in its western sections.  I had never intended to write a book on the Kingdom, but I finally become so disgusted with that relentless propaganda that promotes the idea that they are the enemy that I was goaded into trying to present a realistic picture of the country for the time period I was there.  Furthermore, it is simply not in America’s interest to be engaged in endless war, and is not the first step to ending war an honest portrait of those who, in Blasé Pascal’s phrase, “live on the other side of the river”?

I had just commenced the 12 hour drive back from my mother’s place in Los Angeles, to my home in Albuquerque, NM, and sketched out the book in my head, as I drove, starting with Beale Street in Memphis (also on I-40), along with the sense of loss expressed by my daughter when we left the Kingdom in 1989, to the final unpleasant denouement at King Faisal Specialist Hospital.


How easy was it for you to write your book once you started?  Were there ever any periods of writers block?

Once I decided to write the book, it flowed easily.  Every writer needs a good editor, and once I recognized the fact that the two that I had chosen, and paid, were inadequate, I found far better ones closer to home; the book was completed in around 90 days.


What message do you want readers to come away with after reading your book?

First of all, the “target audience” for my book is educated readers in the West, and particularly in the United States, as the book is replete with American cultural references.

I have, however, been both surprised and pleased by the reception the book has received in the Saudi media world, with a three page interview in Al Majallah, and a strong review in Al Hayat, both of which can be read on my website,

One of the book’s themes is to address certain stereotypical views held in the West, and particularly in the United States, about Saudi Arabia. I compared these stereotypes to similar ones that were held about American blacks, and Indians, roughly 50 to 100 years ago, in the States; tried to show that those views have now largely been discarded, and believe the current ones about the “Arab world” should also be tossed into the rubbish bin.

Another dominant theme is that many of the same mistakes the United States made in South East Asia during the Vietnam War are being replicated today in South West Asia. I succinctly expressed it in the book, at one stage when tanks (in reality, armored cars) were stationed outside our compound, and I said:  “So, it has finally come to this, my son is being offered the same opportunity his father had.” Fortunately for him, there is no draft today in America, so we continue to fill our Armed Forces via “economic conscription.”

I strongly oppose the current neocon ideology of embracing a doctrine of “endless war,” and the most radical challenge to that ideology is to present a realistic portrait of those who are viewed as “the enemy.”


What are some of the lessons you learned after arriving in the Kingdom that can be helpful to other expats who have either accepted jobs in Saudi or for those who are already here?  What advise can you give to expats in Saudi on how they can maximize and enjoy their time here?

Look for the upside! There are unique experiences still waiting to occur. New Mexico truly is a wonderful place to live, a desert, but at elevation, with trees.  But virtually everyplace I go in NM; there is a fence, which proclaims: “this is mine, keep out.” The fences are also going up in Saudi, but there is still so much of the country where you can run “free and clear.” Few places else on earth have this distinction.


Should expats try to seek out and have relationships (outside of work) with Saudis?

It certainly depends on the personality of the expat.  How many individuals travel, but really want to re-create their home environment in an exotic setting, including friends who think like they do.  How many Americans go to France, and only eat at McDonalds (and complain about the higher prices)?

Fortunately there is a sub-set of expats who really are interested in a different culture (and not just a Disneyland version of same), who are receptive to different ways of thinking and acting, who want to ponder the real similarities and differences among people; well, for them, the invitation will probably come.  Almost certainly, these expats will have the sensitivity to handle the real rules of a new social situation, and I have always found the Saudis, as well as the French, Japanese, and others more than willing to accommodate us if we are willing to meet them, not necessarily half way, just 30% of the way.


What did you experience as some of the greatest distinctions with Saudi friends as compared to other expat friends in the Kingdom?

A difficult question.  I always felt a certain reserve among my Saudi friends, that nagging doubt that I might really have been in the CIA.  Of course, during my final days in Riyadh, one of the expats asked what I intended to do “in retirement.”  He said:  “Well, of course, we realize you have your CIA pension….   It helps to have a sense of humor about such things, and remember the wonderful, in St. Exupery’s expression, “wind, sand, and stars.”


In what area(s) do you believe Saudi Arabia needs to change and why?

I would much rather this question has been about the areas that AMERICA needs to change. When I visit countries, say, France and Japan, I do not normally consider how the country should change – rather, I look at positive aspects of the country, and wonder why America does not emulate those. Certainly one of the most obvious points is that America is the only major industrialized country without universal health care for its citizens.  Why? But there are numerous others, including why we cannot structure our economy to grant its workers 6-8 weeks vacation a year, to high-speed trains, etc.

I believe that overall, the Saudis have been willing to look at America, and try to emulate positive aspects of our society; I have seen very little willingness on the part of Americans to do the same, indeed, the prevailing attitude is that the Saudis have nothing that we could or should emulate.

With all the above as a preamble, I have had numerous free-wheeling discussions with Saudis about the problems and deficiencies of their society.  I was invited to participate, and did so, but recognized that they understood these problems, and the most effective and lasting solutions would be obtained when they themselves formulated them, not when an outsider, in the style of Thomas Friedman, would tell them what needed to be “reformed.”


Since leaving the Kingdom and writing your book, what are you doing now?

As an adult, I have lived more of my life outside the United States than within it. So, one of my projects is to become reacquainted with the country of my birth, in particular, one of its more scenic regions, the Southwest.  My wife and I travel extensively, sometimes with our children, camping, and enjoying our country.

I’ve also recently established my own publishing company, The Taza Press. I believe the forces that are advocating an ideology of endless war are a very small minority of the American population, yet they are economically strong. The vast majority of Americans would benefit if the United States was at peace with the world.  In order to achieve that object, realistic depictions of the Arab World are essential, and I am looking to partner with other individuals who share that objective.


Do you have upcoming plans to return to the Kingdom?

No, but if anyone offered an all expense trip to Abu Kaab (in the winter months), I’d be on the next plane.  J   Ditto that for when Lake Layla is refilled.


Do you have any additional comments you wish to add?

I’m quite pleased to see that you are supporting Barack Obama for President of the United States, as am I.  He can’t do “change” all by himself though, and I strongly believe that America requires much change from its direction over the last eight years. He needs help, certainly in Congress, and that is why I am supporting Tom Udall in the Senate race in New Mexico, and Martin Heinrich in his bid for the seat in the First Congressional District on NM. Elections in NM are decided by razor thin margin, the state went for Al Gore in 2000 by 343 votes, and sadly, for Bush by less than 6,000 votes in 2004.  Of all states, every vote counts here. (Note:  I have attached two pictures of next president of the USA, from his visit to Albuquerque, in January of this year.  I do hope you can post them.)

I strongly believe each of us must participate in change, if we are to end endless war. Each of your readers could participate in this process.  I believe that challenging false depictions of the Kingdom to be one way, and for interested parties, would suggest constructive ways to do same if they would like to e-mail me at: [email protected]


Again, thanks so much for participating and answering these questions.  I wish you all the best and success in your future endeavors.

To purchase John’s book from Amazon, please press on this text.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,277 other followers

%d bloggers like this: