Jean Sasson has written many books about the peoples of the Middle East, starting with The Rape of Kuait in 1991. She's been kind enough to stop by and fill in some gaps for me and hopefully some others. Please feel free to comment and ask questions!
On to the interview:
1. If you can tell us, how did you meet Princess Sultana and become close enough with her that she trusted you with the dangerous task of writing her story?
Yes, in fact I can tell you. Although I met many of the royals through my Saudi boss at the royal hospital where I worked, I didn't meet the princess through him Instead, she was so bold that she had pressed her husband Kareem into taking her to a social event at the Italian Embassy. The year was 1985. My ex-husband, Peter, was British, yet he had lived in Milan, Italy for years, and he remained close to many Italians. He and I attended the same social function attended by the princess and her husband. When we walked in the door there were many beautiful people milling about because the Italians are extremely handsome people, but one woman caught my eye because she was so dramatic and was having a big laugh about something. Of course, the Saudis do not wear tiaras at such events, so I had no idea she was a princess. Over the course of the evening we were introduced and she had such an unusual sense of humor for a Saudi, for at that time they were quite serious people with everything they did. She and I were total physical opposites, her with her beautiful olive skin and black hair. I was a blue-eyed blond with very fair skin. We were total opposites when it came to our backgrounds, as she had grown up very wealthy whereas I came from a modest Southern American background from a tiny town in Alabama. Yet, despite this, we hit it off. She asked for my contact information and a few weeks later she contacted me and invited me to a "female only" party at one of the major hotels in Riyadh. Our friendship grew slowly, as it was about a year before she invited me to her home. From that point, we started seeing each other more frequently. We were both very curious types, so we were very interested in the background of the other. Our meetings always took place on her turf, as she was not comfortable meeting my friends. Soon she was inviting me to fly with her and one of her sisters to France for the weekend, just to shop, or to have a wonderful French meal in Paris. Within two years of our first meeting, she began probing the possibility of my telling the true story of her life and the lives of other women who had suffered severe consequences at the hands of cruel fathers or brothers or husbands. I was not very interested at first, as I didn't want to leave Saudi Arabia and knew that if I wrote such a book I would have to leave. But after I wrote the bestseller, THE RAPE OF KUWAIT, she grew more determined, and since Saudi Arabia was no longer my home, I finally agreed and the rest is history.
2. What is the most rewarding thing that's come out of writing about the lives of Princess Sultana and her daughters?
The most rewarding moments come when I receive letters from young women whose lives have been changed by the inspiration they received from Princess Sultana's efforts to raise the status of women by risking her own life for her story to be told. I have received many hundreds of emails and/or letters from women all over the world who tell me that the story of Princess Sultana turned their life around, and gave them purpose. Many young women have decided to change their careers because of this story. That is so gratifying to me as a writer, to think that a book I have written has actually altered lives. Also, I am very touched when I hear from women in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia who tell me that they are so happy to see that the entire world cares about their challenges. I have met so many Muslim women who are extremely intelligent, hard working, and special in every way, yet, do not have the opportunities they should have only because the men in their families believe that women should be kept in the background and not use their God-given talents.
3. Are you, as a woman who is from a different culture than that of the Saudi Arabian's but someone who obviously has seen it from a different perspective able to see the good in their culture, unlike most Americans who can only see the bad?
Well, I don't think I am unique in my discovery that some of the nicest people in the world are Muslim. It's just that I have a platform and so many people don't. Although I knew a few Americans and other people who lived in Saudi Arabia who were unhappy there and very closed minded, most expatriates quickly came to see that as human beings, most of us are very much alike, whether Muslim, Christian, Hindu, etc. Most human beings want the same things: peace, prosperity and good health and happiness within the family unit. It's a fact that some of the nicest people I have known come from the Arab/Muslim world. It's also a fact that some of the nicest people I have known are Americans and/or other nationalities. So, there is no license in any country ensuring that all the people are nice or not so nice. It's a mix everywhere. We simply have different cultures and people generally defend what they know. I will admit that I am a devoted "people person" and find that when I meet someone I automatically assume that they are lovely in every way until it is proven otherwise. I was once reading a book about an American traveler to the Middle East, which I believe defines who people will think of others. This man, who was a bit of a grump and only saw the negative in people wherever he was, had left Saudi Arabia and traveled to Cairo, Egypt. When he arrived in Cairo, he was grumbling about the Saudis he had known -- obviously nothing had been right with anyone! There was a wise Egyptian man sitting and listening to the American's complaints about the Saudis. Finally, after exhausting himself by complaining, the American looked at the wise old Egyptian and asked, "Tell me, what kind of people are the Egyptians?" The wise old man was quiet for a moment, then asked, "So during all the time in you lived in Saudi Arabia, you did not find one good Saudi?" The American answered, "Not one! Everyone was ignorant and difficult, trying my patience at every turn." The wise old Egyptian looked at him sadly, then replied, "Then, my man, that is exactly the kind of Egyptian you will find." (Meaning of course, that if one is the sort of person who can live in a country offering him hospitality and kindness, yet cannot find one good person, then, that person will never find anyone good, anywhere.) I agree with the wonderfully wise Egyptian man: If one is looking for fault, it will be found. If one is open-minded and happy to learn new things about the people of the world, one will be pleasantly surprised. I know when I lived in Saudi Arabia that I was in a nice position that I could ask my boss to bring people over and give them jobs, etc. (IF they were qualified, of course.) I arranged for someone I had been very close to at one time to have a very good job with an excellent salary. I was stunned when that person and his wife arrived, and all they did was complain. Nothing was right. The man that used to be my friend even became incensed when he saw Saudi men walking down the street holding hands! He was ready to fight about a cultural behavior that had nothing to do with him -- he simply would not accept that Saudi male friends often hold hands, and that it means nothing other than that they are friends. I was embarrassed that I had brought him over, having no idea that he was so close-minded about something cultural that did him no harm. Frankly, I was always worried that he would pick a fight over it! I was relieved when he and his wife went home after a two-year stint, as both has caused me a lot of grief. That old friend of mine was like the person in the story above -- finding the negatives, rather than the positives. I felt fortunate to have the opportunity to live in a very exotic country and to learn new things about a culture that had previously been unknown to me. You might be interested in knowing that in 12 years of living in Saudi Arabia, never once was I mistreated in anyway. Saudis were open and welcoming. The same goes for my travels in the Middle East. I was always treated like a very welcomed guest. Of course, Muslims/Arabs are known for their extreme kindness to visitors to their countries. Lucky me!
4. How did you come to be so interested in the lives of these woman who are so sheltered and abused?
I keenly feel it when any living creature is being mistreated. But for the grace of God, there I would be, as no human has control over the place/culture in which they are born. I believe that every human being, whether male, female, adult, or child, has the right to live in dignity. I have lots of ideas of how women's status can be elevated in some regions where it is not. I believe that wedding dowry's should be outlawed in every country, in order to stop the dread of many families that their child not be female--for so many families are financially destroyed trying to raise the money for a wedding dowry, then the husband's family of the new bride have been known to set fire and burn the new bride to death, in hope of raising another dowry from another family. I believe that in countries where males are so favored over females, that there should be financial rewards from the governments when a baby daughter is born. I could go on all day with my ideas, and the reasons behind my ideas, but I know this would be too long for your blog.
5. Are you working on any new books right now?
Yes, indeedy... I'm always working on a new book! (smile)... I can't provide information yet about one that will be released late 2009, but should be able to, soon. And, I'm also writing a book about a very special Afghani woman who lost her child, only to find him nearly 20 years later after the Taliban was defeated in Afghanistan. I don't know the title of the book, yet... But for readers who have never heard of my books, here is a quick listing: The Rape of Kuwait; Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia; Princess Sultana's Daughters; Princess Sultana's Circle (different titles in UK editions). There there is: Ester's Child; Mayada, Daughter of Iraq; Love in a Torn Land, Joanna of Kurdistan. In all, I have seven (7) books published, with another to come out in 2009 and my 9th book to come out in 2010. I'm so pleased that people interested in other cultures have embraced the books I write Most of my books tell the story of some very inspiring women, and to me, their stories deserve to be known.
Thanks for stopping by Jean! Can't wait to find out what your latest book is!