I only noticed A Hologram for the King when I saw the movie adaptation come out, starring Tom Hanks. The trailer of the movie showed Hanks traveling to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and that piqued my interest. I immediately went out to buy the novel that’s been written by Dave Eggers. Interestingly, the book was also one of the finalists for National Book Award.
The first line in the book starts off with “Alan Clay woke up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was May 30, 2010. He had spent two days on planes to get there.” As someone who’s lived in Jeddah for more than 25 years, I was definitely sucked into the novel.
A Hologram for the King is the story of Alan Clay, an American businessman, who’s been divorced and is forced to sell off his house to pay for his daughter Kit’s college education. He travels to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia representing his IT company Reliant to pitch a new teleconferencing technology to the Saudi King. His primary reason to take up this job is to earn enough money to fund for Kit’s education, to prevent his house from being sold and to do something great with his life. Oh, and also, he has a weird shaped lump on his neck. This book is about his journey and how far he is willing to go to look after his daughter.
Checking into Jeddah Hilton, Alan’s (mis)adventures begin the next day when he misses the shuttle to take him to King Abdullah Economic City (jokingly referred to as KAEC- Cake). He arranges for a taxi to take him, and enters Yousef, a Saudi driver who studied for a year in Alabama. Yousef and Alan strike up an unlikely friendship as they drive out to the desert.
Witnessing the huge complex, Alan is in awe of the scale of the development of mix used properties, with residential apartments, hotels, and office complexes being made, all out in the middle of the desert. However, Alan finds out that his staff is working inside this giant tent, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the king, to witness their new technology: a hologram conferencing.
Much to their dismay, they find out the king is not coming. Alan meets Hanne, a European woman working on the same complex. She provides him with a bottle of olive oil (read that as alcohol) in which Alan finds much relief back in his hotel room (since alcohol is forbidden in Saudi Arabia). Hanne also reaches out to him and invites him to a “party” taking place at the Danish Embassy, which turns out to be a full-blown pool party with drugs and booze. Alan’s eyes are opened up to the stark contradictions in the Jeddah society.
While Alan is struggling to get the work done and waiting endlessly for the king to show, he also is suffering from the pain emanating from the lump on his neck. This leads him to pay a visit to the hospital where he’s treated by Dr. Zahra Hakem, a Saudi female doctor. The two develop some level of attraction, since both are divorced, and this friendship eventually goes into unchartered territories.
Does the King eventually show up for the meeting? Do Alan Clay and his team manage to convince the King to invest in Reliant? Do Alan and Yousef clear out their misunderstanding after the incident at Taif, where Yousef takes Alan to meet his family? Does Alan Clay manage to get the money to fund for Kit’s education? Do Alan and Dr. Zahra stick together or go separate ways?
All these questions and more form the crux of the book, which left me with a very warm and fuzzy feeling at the end of it all.
The novel deals a lot with the clash of cultures and some parts are so well depicted, I wasn’t put off like I am usually with Western writers stereotyping Saudi life.
We have Alan Clay, who doesn’t necessarily represent the American Dream, but rather the opposite: a corporate slave, divorced and short of money to pay for his daughter’s education. His life is a failed and struggling life. Then we have Dr. Zahra, an accomplished doctor working in Jeddah, who represents the Saudi women who are powerful, working and have a mind of their own. Alan’s interaction with his driver Yousef depicts a friendship that develops organically, as they bond over the American life, the Saudi life, music, drinks (Yousef tells Alan he knows when someone has a hangover!) and women.
However, there will be a few elements in the book that may seem stereotyped to someone who’s lived in Jeddah and this pushed to delve deeper into what prompted Eggers to write this novel, but as someone who’s lived there, I would say Eggers got it right for most parts.
In the acknowledgments section, Eggers mentions how the book grew out of a conversation he had with his brother in law who went to work at King Abdullah Economic City. It was his experiences there that pushed Eggers to work on this book. For the most part, Eggers gets everything right and accurately portrays life in Jeddah. A few minor parts seemed a little far-fetched, such as the moment when Dr. Zahra tells Alan that she has to wear shorts only while swimming so others would think it’s a man swimming.
There are hardly any novels set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and for me, this was the definitely a highlight as I took myself back to the time when I lived in Jeddah. I would highly recommend this novel to those who are interested in Saudi Arabia, understanding cultures and how foreigners can overcome prejudices to connect on a more human level (don’t watch the movie before reading!)
It was the ending of the book that left me with a huge smile on my face. I literally had goosebumps as I read the last line. I am very fond of Jeddah, and the Saudi people and have amazing memories of my time there. Dave Eggers, through his book, took me back to my hometown of Jeddah and made me fall in love with the city all over again.