Think of contemporary literature centred around women in the Middle East and Central Asia, and one of the names you are indubitably bound to encounter would be Jean Sasson’s. The eloquent writer has been one of the most enduring voices to carry true stories from the heart of the desert long before the Middle East became the cynosure of all eyes thanks to the Arab Spring and the ISIS’ horrific activities. Here’s a conversation with the author herself.
Tell us a bit yourself, your childhood and growing years, your family and education.
I was born the youngest of three daughters to my parents and lived in a tiny town of only 600 people -- a wonderful way to grow up -- innocent and safe -- as the baby of the family, I admit that my mother spoiled me -- I was greatly loved by her. I was born an avid animal lover and was the only member of my family to have many pets, including cats, dogs, birds and chickens! After I learned to read, I became an avid reader, so much so that reading was the major part of my life. In fact, by age 15 or 16, I had read all the books in my school library and a high school literature teacher made it her cause to keep me supplied in books from the small college located only 30 minutes from my hometown.
What got you to start writing about the Middle East?
From an early age I was reading about the world, and the books written by Leon Uris and Herman Wouk stroked my imagination. Later I grew into English, French, and Swiss travelers to the Middle East. Therefore, I had an early interest in the exotic Middle East. When I received an opportunity to go to the very closed society of Saudi Arabia, I jumped at the chance, staying there for 12 years and loving "nearly" every moment of it. I was fortunate that my boss was Saudi and was King Khalid's cardiologist. Through him (I worked at the royal hospital) I met the king and the crown prince and various other royals.
Having told so many stories from the Middle East and Afghanistan, there is a pattern that readers see emerging – what do you believe is the solution to the situation these women face?
YES, I believe that there is a fairly simple answer to the problem and that is: EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION, not only for the females but also for the males. With education comes the knowledge that should help to eliminate the backward thinking of the men AND the women, for I have met MANY women in the area who were as much a part of the problem as the men.
With the Arab Spring having begun in 2011, and there being no end in sight in Syria so far, what do you see as the state of women in the region against this backdrop?
There has definitely been a tragic step backward for so many women, and particularly with the seemingly uneducated and violent members of ISIS (both men and women, sadly enough) taking over so much of the territory and pushing their views and violent acts on innocent people. Like most negative forces in life, I believe that ISIS will one day be cornered and that their influence will diminish. Only then will the areas so affected by this brutish group of men AND WOMEN (there are many women who are supporting these brutes) know some relief. But life is like this: A step forward for humankind and then a step backward. At some point our steps forward increase and slowly overtake the backward thinking of many.
What have some of your enduring challenges been, while telling these stories?
The foremost challenge has been to protect the subjects of my books and yet still be able to tell the truth of their lives. So many topics are off limits for them or they would be severely punished by their families. So, it is yin and yang — pushing forward to make a good change, but holding back to keep from being responsible for a person to be severely punished or even killed… None of my books have been easy and have had such challenges.
How do you choose your subjects, and connect with them? You are such an empathy driven storyteller, and it’s clear that there is such a powerful rapport you build with your subjects!
Each writing experience has been totally different. With Princess Sultana, we were friends before which made it easier for me to tell the story of her life and to really KNOW her. After living for 12 years in her country, I understood her and her life much easier than other subjects. With Mayada, we were friends, too, but for a shorter period. But Mayada became one of the best friends of my life. It was a year or two after meeting her before we decided that she had a story that should be told. Joanna’s story came to me through her brother, who had read Mayada’s story. (They are cousins, but never knew each other because Mayada’s family was the wealthy side of the Al-Askari family and Joanna’s the poor side, and never did they mix! They didn’t even know each other until after I wrote Mayada’s story! With Maryam, I was led to her by one of Maryam’s friends who met my London driver in Spain! Omar Bin Laden contacted me directly. So, as you see, each case was totally different.
It just so happens that I was born with an empathetic nature, so I truly care about others, and certainly cared deeply about all my subjects and literally “felt their pain.”
You also told the story of Najwa and Omar bin Laden. What was that experience like? What were your key challenges in that journey?
Surreal, truly! I could not believe that I was hearing from the son of Osama Bin Laden. At first I hesitated to write the story but after talking to Omar a number of times over the telephone (he was in Egypt at the time) I came to see that Omar Bin Laden is a gentle and kindly man he is tough when he needs to be, but all in all, very sweet and kindly. And, he had a HUGE and important story to tell in my opinion. I told him that I would write his story if his mother would also be in the book. To my great surprise, Najwa agreed. I found her to be absolutely lovely. Osama Bin Laden had a beautiful, loving and sweet wife and his son Omar was sensitive and caring. Too bad Osama didn’t appreciate them as he should. The key challenges was that Najwa did not speak English, so with a translator in between my questions and her answers, it was difficult. At that time, Omar’s English was shaky, so it was difficult to understand each other, but we fought through it and with the help of Omar’s wife, Zaina, who worked very hard getting the answers to me in English, we worked it out. It is such a delicate task to be writing the story of a person, that when the communication (dealing with two languages) is difficult, everything is difficult. But, we managed, and I am very proud of the book, probably the only book that will ever tell the truth of the private life of Osama and his wife and son.
What’s happening in the next couple of months / years?
I am in the middle of deciding what writing project I will tackle next. I should make a decision within the next month, then I’ll organize my life and start writing in October/November. I have written 13 books and my goal is to write 7 more books… So, we’ll see!
Written byKirthi Jayakumar
Kirthi Jayakumar is a lawyer, activist and writer based in Chennai. She has worked extensively with grassroots organizations and runs the Red Elephant Foundation, an initiative for women’s rights. She also runs a journal and consultancy that focuses on International Law,called A38.