BY DAYNA NORRIS
How wonderful when a book with an inviting title more than fulfills its promise. When three books welcoming you to the cloistered world of Arab women are more revealing than even imagined, it is a reader’s delight.
You might think Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia, by Carmen bin Ladin, would read like a People Magazine article on designer clothes and big jewels, but instead it is a poignant tale of a Swiss-born, American-educated Arab woman who marries for love, but finds herself trapped by the rigidity of Saudi society. Her relatively liberal husband, Yeslam, is one of 50 children of Sheik Mohamed bin Ladin, who started Saudi Arabia’s largest construction company. Yeslam’s half-brother Osama is portrayed as an intense fundamentalist from an early age, even by conservative Saudi standards. Carmen tries to break the rules by hosting mixed gender parties, speaking to the servants, and walking rather than being driven across the street. Change comes so slowly that eventually for her own sanity and the future happiness of her three daughters, she leaves Yeslam and Saudi Arabia and reports it all in this fascinating book.
Doesn’t Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi, just sound like it would be good? It is better. In pre-revolutionary Tehran, Dr. Azar Nafisi, a professor of English literature, is free to teach Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, Austen, or whomever however she wishes. As the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime gets more and more restrictive, she is continually censored by class monitors for encouraging wanton Western views. She is told, “There is no absolute in Western literature, so it has no value.” Required to wear the ankle-length chador and a head scarf, she can be called to task if hair strands slip out.
Eventually she gives up the struggle, but soon organizes an eclectic group of female students to secretly read and discuss American novels in her home. The structure of Nafisi’s book is the parallel between the novel being read and the girls’ experiences. Nabokov’s Lolita bespeaks their victimization by fathers, brothers, and husbands. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is killed by the carelessness of the rich: “They smashed up things and creatures, then retreated back into their money.” Iranian women were being destroyed by leaders who hid behind their pseudo-piety. Henry James wrote of courage; the students are brave to learn and braver to live what they learn. Jane Austen’s proper British courting rituals may seem antique to Americans, but in a land of marriages often arranged between old men and young women as business pay-offs, the defiance of Austen’s heroines is beyond inspiring. Just as Carmen bin Ladin had the financial means to escape Saudi Arabia, Dr. Nafisi had the academic credentials to start again in the West when she finally managed to leave Iran in 1997. Luckily for readers, she also had the fortitude to tell her story and writing ability equal to the authors she loves.
Best of all is Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life, the autobiography of Jordan’s Queen Noor. When Princeton cheerleader and Arab-American Lisa Halaby became the fourth wife of King Hussein, the world was shocked. Yet when she tells of their meeting—in 1976 when she was accompanying her father to the delivery of Jordan’s first Boeing 747—it all seems sweet and natural. The King’s third wife had recently been killed in a helicopter accident, leaving him with three motherless children. After a month’s courtship that included motorcycling throughout Jordan, the couple followed the traditional Muslim ceremony with a Scottish honeymoon. Lisa, now Queen Noor Al Hussein, the Light of Hussein, began her queenly duties: learning Arabic, immersing herself in Jordanian history, volunteering for the Red Crescent, and promoting Jordanian crafts. Her main duty was fulfilled by adding four children to the King’s brood.
Throughout the book, Queen Noor deftly presents to the American reader the Arab view of the Middle East’s 20th century. From the complications of the Balfour Declaration to the 1948 massacre to the assassination of Anwar Sadat, Jordan has been in the center of the maelstrom. Her tenderness in conveying the impact of the constant turmoil on the common people is quite real. Now a widow, Queen Noor continues to educate Americans about Jordan—the beautiful city of Petra, the refugee problems, the security concerns, but mostly the spiritual core.