Jean Sasson had finally decided to write about her personal experience in Saudi Arabia, where she lived and worked for 12 years. As a result, a very good book with an amusing and attractive title — American Chick in Saudi Arabia — is out digitally: The first three chapters of the book are being sold online, making it an instant bestseller.
The digital world has indeed entered our lives in an amazing way. What made you decide to publish this first instalment of ‘American Chick in Saudi Arabia’ online?
It is not easy to admit this, but I was not too enthused about publishing the first instalment, or first three chapters, of Chick as an e-book. I would probably have never done this, in fact, but I was pulled kicking and screaming into the new world of publishing by my literary agent, Liza Dawson of Liza Dawson Associates, New York. She realised the importance of e-books in the publishing world and knew that many readers are increasingly turning to e-book reading. Perhaps my reaction was because I am a traditionalist, wanting a book in my hands. Although I have not yet started e-book reading, I understand how grand it would be to download 20 or so books prior to a travel or vacation, rather than hauling a suitcase filled with books around the world, which I have done on so many occasions. This reminds me of how I always returned to Saudi Arabia after holidays with suitcases filled with books and had to endure many long hours in customs as all the books were checked to make sure nothing was forbidden!
Therefore, I followed my literary agent’s advice, and now I am pleased that I did.
Are you planning to publish it in paper?
Yes, of course. I have received a number of e-mails from my readers complaining that this first instalment was not out in traditional book form, so they are waiting for the actual book in paper. The publishing world is so varied now, with many readers favouring e-books, and others preferring the traditional way. So this e-book release was only a sample, bearing the flavour of the book to come later in traditional format, both in print and online.
This is the first time you write about your personal experience in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. In what way is this different from writing about others? Which is more rewarding for the writer?
Well, this first instalment is set in Saudi Arabia and tells something of my arrival there, my first impressions, my feelings. I also reveal several stories about three very unusual women I met during those early years. Like most people, when I see a problem, I want to bring change. My time with those three Saudi women slowly awoke me to the fact that I could do little to bring change to the lives of the women I met. As time passed, I understood that Saudi women must take charge of their own lives and create the changes that were right for their culture and lives. That was a hard lesson for me.
There are so many other stories to be told, as I really have not touched on the real dramas of my time there. Therefore I will write more about Saudi Arabia in the chapters to come, for I had many, many unusual experiences in my 12 years in the kingdom, and during such a period of change there. Yes, I will also write about Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq and other experiences, but that will take time.
As far as how this experience is different from telling another’s story, I would say that there are more positives than negatives in telling others’ stories. I did find that the intensive interviews were extremely time-consuming, and the care one has to take not to make errors in another’s life story is daunting. But I had strong feelings for the dramatic lives lived by my heroines and hero, all of whom were very inspiring people. So I don’t regret one moment of time it took to write those important stories.
Due to the very interesting stories that came my way, I did put my story aside four or five times over the past ten years. But now that I am back to my story, I find that it is more difficult in a way, for I know every moment of my own life and it is not easy to look at a full life and capture the essence of that life in a book that cannot be no more than 500-600 pages long. Truthfully, I felt overwhelmed remembering the numerous experiences in Saudi Arabia, and then moving on to other Arab lands where life was sparking with dramatic events. You know, you live in region where much has been happening for the past 30 years, and I just happened to be lucky enough to live through many of those exciting times.
How well was the book received in the ‘e-form’ it was published in?
We were delighted as American Chick in Saudi Arabia reached #1 in the biography bestsellers list within a few days of being released on the Barnes & Noble Nook selling site. I was blown away by the reader interest. Now it will be released on all e-book sales sites, so we hope it does as well worldwide. We do tell readers that this is an instalment and not a completed book so they won’t be disappointed.
In the part of the book that has been published, you say that “for me, living in Saudi Arabia turned into a life-changing adventure”. How did that come about?
I went to Saudi Arabia as a naive, young woman, but learnt so much about the world from that place. I was born and raised in a small town in America’s deep south. Although the lifestyle was conservative, as is Saudi Arabia, I couldn’t have found a more exotic culture to explore. I arrived from a lush green landscape to live in one of the world’s famous desert cities, Riyadh. Although I grew up in the “Bible Belt”, which is the most conservative part of the United States, there were many differences between Alabama and Saudi Arabia. Although I found myself living in a land where women were mainly kept in purdah, at least in the early years, I had grown up thinking that there is nothing I couldn’t do or accomplish if I so chose. Being female was never a negative when it came to choices. For example, I had travelled across the world to live in a country where I did not know one person. Every day, there was a new discovery. I can still close my eyes and hear the haunting sound of the call to prayer as the women cloaked in black walked through the old souqs where beautiful copper pots were sold, and gold jewellery was all around me.
I received a thrill a minute. Don’t forget, too, that I was working in the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre, one of the most modern and best-equipped hospitals in the world, the hospital that attended to the royal family. I was also fortunate to work for the Saudi head of the hospital and from that connection, to hear and see many things other expatriates were unaware of. In those early days in the kingdom, when not many Western or foreign women lived there, the Saudi people, including the royals, were extremely gracious and welcoming. I was invited into Saudi homes where I met many lovely people. If I were to travel to Saudi Arabia today for the first time, none of that would be possible, for the welcome mat has been pulled out.
After leaving the hospital I met a Saudi princess and struck up a friendship — albeit a slow friendship. It took several years to reach a feeling of closeness. That princess later became the subject of the book, Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia, which has been published worldwide and has gained hundreds of thousands of devotees of Princess Sultana, one of the bravest women I have ever known.
So I went to Saudi Arabia at the perfect time and yes, it was a life-changing experience.
Tell us one very happy story you encountered in Saudi Arabia, which you cherish to this very day.
That is a tough question, for I have many happy stories, some that deal with human beings and others with animals — I was constantly saving animals while living there. I believe that is why my own experiences that I reveal in the completed book will surprise readers. I had a totally different experience in Saudi Arabia from the native women. My time there was filled with many good things ...
But one of my happiest memories have to do with a specific party held at the palace of a princess in Jeddah. This story will be in the book. This was a party with only ten women and on that very day, one of the young women had just learnt that her parents had arranged her engagement to a royal cousin. She knew nothing of this cousin and was so worried. She was in tears the entire night — afraid that she would be unhappy, that her husband would be ugly or mean. Her fear and sadness had everyone depressed, and the flavour of a party was disappearing fast. All of us were saying that young women should be allowed a meeting with the man prior to the wedding and that if she was turned off by her husband-to-be she could say no.
One of the princesses, who was listening to this sad saga but had been quiet most of the evening, suddenly brightened up, saying that she knew the family better than most because the groom-to-be was one of her half-brothers! Everyone was surprised that she didn’t know about the engagement but then found out that she had been away in Paris for six months and had not concerned herself much with family matters in Saudi Arabia. Plus, her mother and the mother of her half-brother were involved in a family squabble at that moment and were not talking. She told us that when in Paris, there had been no time for worry, so she had stayed out of the family news! This princess proved that she was quite daring when she left the room and then came back in with a big smile on her face saying that we were in for a surprise. We were all very curious, of course. Within the hour, she left the room once more, then returned, telling all the Saudi women present to put on their veils. I and another Western woman did not have to do so, although we put on our abayas since we wore sleeveless dresses and our arms were exposed. I knew that something was up, but couldn’t figure out what that might be!
Well, we were all in a twitter waiting for the princess, who left the room once more, only to return in five minutes with one of the most handsome young men by her side. She introduced her half-brother to the crowd of women, who were stunned but excited by all of this. She asked him to guess which of the women was to be his bride. He was so embarrassed that he was red-faced, for he had not been warned what was going to happen. He stood there and looked at each veiled woman intently as if he could see through those veils! Finally he pointed at one woman, who happened to be an older lady, old enough to be his mother in fact, so peals of laughter escaped her veil. Finally the princess asked the wife-to-be to unveil herself if she so chose.
There were long moments of quiet before the engaged princess finally stood up and slowly removed her veil from her face. She was very pretty and he was very handsome, and both of them laughed out aloud. They were both very shy but did retire to a corner and chatted for about 15 minutes. The prince left, his face all aglow, as was hers when she told us that she had discovered in that brief time that he was very educated, very sweet and shy, and she was excited about their wedding.
They even liked the same music! About that time, the hostess put on some music and all the women started dancing around the huge room and the young bride-to-be was laughing and weeping all at the same time. Never have I felt such joy in a room! I later heard that no one at the party ever revealed the forbidden meeting, so there was no scandal, and that the couple had one of the happiest marriages in the kingdom. That was a happy night, with totally unexpected events that brought about a lot of joy to two young people. I am sure they will share that story with their children and grandchildren until the day they die.
If you were to know that the job advertisement in the newspaper which took you from the US to Saudi Arabia would open up this world of adventure for you, would you do it again?
Yes, in a heartbeat. It was the best decision of my life to take that job and get to know so many lovely people in the Arab world. I have never regretted it.
You also say that “my ‘Chick’ series will focus on my life and adventures while in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, Thailand and the Philippines”. Will those be books covering each part separately?
Well, I never know what the publishers will decide to do with a book. But ideally, I see it as a series of five books of about 300 pages each. The publisher may see it as one book of 600 pages. So I cannot say for certain what the end result will be.
I know you are a master at multitasking. I know you are writing two books at a time. Can you give us a sneak peek into your new animal book? When do you think it will be out? Will you publish it online, too?
Yes, I am about half way through my animal book, Squirrel on my Head and Puppy in my Pocket. I laugh and cry as I write this book, as there are many happy endings and many sad situations. I tell the stories of how I became known as “The Bird Woman of Riyadh” and of how I have had guns pulled out on me while taking chained animals away from cruel owners. My animal adventures will never end, for I cannot ignore an abused animal and will probably one day be featured in a newspaper article as to how an “elderly patient, Jean Sasson, escaped the nursing home to go out and save an abused animal”.
I don’t know when Squirrel on my Head will be out. Publishers have schedules and it is up to them, but I am hopeful that it will be published in 2013, in print and as an e-book at the same time.
I just heard that ‘Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia’ will be celebrating a special anniversary this year. What is that about?
Yes, 2012 is the 20th anniversary of Princess, the book about Princess Sultana, a story that has inspired millions of women all over the world. Few know that this is a book that almost didn’t happen!
How is that?
Getting the book written and then published was a big saga in itself. I had just moved from Saudi Arabia to Atlanta, Georgia. Although Peter and I had divorced and he had remarried a lovely Australian woman, the three of us were close friends. In fact, I had returned to Saudi Arabia after being in Kuwait for three weeks at the end of the first Gulf War to visit Peter and Julie and meet up with some Kuwaiti friends who were still in the kingdom. Also, I was there on a mission to collect Champagne and Caviar, cats that belonged to Peter, Julie and me. It was decided that it was best that the cats lived with me, since Peter and Julie were travelling through Europe before settling down. I brought the cats to Atlanta, where they were very unhappy, as I lived in a condo at the time and they were accustomed to having a yard.
Therefore, after my book, The Rape of Kuwait, was a huge success, and after an incident in Saudi Arabia when I was refused food by an expat employee because I was a woman, the princess and I agreed that the time had come for her story to be told. We had been talking about her life story since 1983 or 1984, and after the war in Kuwait, we felt that the time was ripe for the world to want to know about a princess from Saudi Arabia.
Because I needed help taking care of Champagne and Caviar as I was going to be totally involved in the writing process, I went to live with my parents in Alabama that spring and summer of 1992. The summer quickly turned dramatic when Mum had to have surgery and remain in the hospital. Dad and I had to do everything and it was tough, as my Mum was always the pillar of the home, doing so much and keeping my dad and me organised and happy. While Mum was in the hospital, my sweet cat Champagne almost died. My darling cat Caviar did die. During all of this drama, I was writing the life story of my friend, Princess Sultana. I remember weeping a lot that summer, and I am not a woman who cries easily.
Finally I finished the book. Then I had to find a new agent because my literary agent was in California and I had been told by everyone that it was extremely important to have a literary agent out of New York, a city the largest publishing companies call home. That turned into a bit of a saga, too. But I finally got an agent who sent the manuscript out to editors. Strangely enough, while most of the editors were drawn to the book, read it and even called to chat with me about it, most said things such as, “It’s a great book but nobody cares about a princess in Saudi Arabia!” Wow, were they ever wrong! But an editor at William Morrow, Liza Dawson, loved the book and was smart enough to know that Princess Sultana’s story would appeal to many women. Also, an editor at St Martin’s Press liked the book enough to make an offer. So out of all the publishers in the US, only two wanted the book. There was an auction and William Morrow was the winner. As everyone knows, Princess went on to sell millions of copies and travel around the world with many foreign editions. The book was so loved that two sequels were written and well received. I often wondered what those editors thought who passed up a bestselling book!
To what do you attribute the huge success of ‘Princess’?
There are many reasons but the first that comes to mind is that Sultana is a princess. Most young women are drawn to stories about royalty. Then add to her royal status the fact that she had a very tough childhood, yet she was bold, determined and always stood up for herself. This is not an empty princess who simply enjoys the palaces and the life of luxury. This is a real woman who has a very strong personality. At the same time, she was extremely close to her mothers, sisters and other women. She is the wonderful mother of a son and two daughters. The stories of her relationship with her two girls is a hoot, filled with drama and mischief. Yes, there is a lot of sadness and tears in the books, but an equal amount of joy and laughter. Her life story is entertaining, never a dull moment. So she is a “woman’s woman” who supports other women and who inspires great love from other women. Who wouldn’t love a story about such a woman?
The book is still going strong after all these years. The books about Princess Sultana are timeless. If I were writing the books today, 20 years later, the books would be nearly the same. The reason is that so little has changed in Saudi Arabia. Who would have dreamt that after 20 years women in Saudi Arabia would still be struggling with the same problems we told about in the books! Who can believe that women cannot drive in the year 2012, or that young girls are often forced into marriage with a stranger, and that lives are filled with fear? Who can believe that the men of Saudi Arabia cannot shake loose their determination to totally control the women? After all, so many men in Saudi Arabia today travel and are well educated. But still, so many men in the kingdom have no empathy for women. Until the men in Saudi Arabia change, nothing will change for the women.
In celebration of the timelessness of the books, we are bringing them out with new covers. Also, there is new material written in the books, with a new chapter in Princess Sultana’s Circle. There will be additional new material over the next year. It is our goal that young women of 2012 should discover these books and have the same reaction to Princess Sultana as their mothers did 20 years ago.
Now that you are writing the story on your own life in Saudi Arabia and other Arab lands, how is ‘Chick’ different from the stories about Princess Sultana?
I tell you, my readers are going to be more than surprised! After all, I am a huge supporter of Princess Sultana and other women in the kingdom who are struggling against many ancient restrictions that clash with modern life. And I always step up and make my feelings known, so I am not shy about this subject. I lived in Saudi Arabia for 12 years, so I saw and heard many horrifying stories, some about Saudi women, and others about employees from developing nations who worked in the homes of Saudis and others.
While I will be honest about my own observations when it comes to the treatment of women in the kingdom, I must also acknowledge how well I was treated. I lived there for many years and can’t complain about anything when it comes to my own personal life. I do not know what to attribute this huge difference between the quality of my life and the lives of native women or women from developing nations to, but it was like night and day.
Honestly, this is why I have always felt a bit torn when writing about Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, I saw many horror stories come to life to other women. On the other hand, I was treated with respect and kindness.
For sure, I have lived through a lot of dramas during my years of travel, whether in Saudi Arabia, or in Kuwait, Iraq or Lebanon, and I am looking forward to telling others about these personal experiences. Meanwhile, I am so pleased that readers all over the world still want to know about Saudi women, and in particular, about Princess Sultana Al Saud!
American Chick in Saudi Arabia (Nook Book) By Jean Sasson, Liza Dawson Associates, 75 pages, $2.99