Although I have been fortunate to tell the stories of a number of courageous women, (Mayada of Iraq, Najwa Binladin of Syria and Saudi Arabia, Joanna Al-Askari of Kurdistan, Maryam of Afghanistan, Yasmeena of Lebanon) and one man (Omar Binladin of Saudi Arabia) I’m best known for my book: Princess: A True Story of Life behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia. Princess Sultana, the heroine of the three books about her life, is greatly loved throughout the world. Millions of people have read her story and faithfully follow her life experiences. In fact, due to this enormous interest, along with some positive change occurring in Saudi Arabia, a decision was made in mid-2013 to write the 4th book about Princess Sultana, her family, and ongoing events in Saudi Arabia. (This book will be titled: PRINCESS: MORE TEARS TO CRY and will be released by Doubleday UK in September 2014.)
Once the princess, the publisher, my agent, and this author reached the decision that the time had come for book 4, it was necessary for me to meet in person with the princess to discuss and decide upon the stories we would tell in the book. I met the princess at one of her many homes where we settled in like the old friends we are. Truthfully, the visit reminded me of the old days in Saudi Arabia when I would lounge around with the princess in Riyadh, Jeddah, or in Monte Carlo, when we would endlessly discuss the painful lives many Saudi women lived, and the options available to her to bring positive change to her world. Those visits started in the mid-1980’s. That was the period of time she decided that her story must be told, and that the world must hear for the first time how most women in Saudi Arabia lived under the total rule of their men. She knew then that few would know that even a princess was bound by heavy restrictions in Saudi Arabia. There was endless gaiety and some sadness during our sessions, but both of us are positive-minded women, so there was more laughter than tears. Those meetings continued until I finally wrote the first book of her life story during the summer of 1991.
When finished, the book was not an easy sale. Even though I had just come off a heady success with my first published book, THE RAPE OF KUWAIT, ten editors representing various publishing houses turned down the manuscript. I had call-in conference calls with those editors and sales staff, and while all claimed to love the book I had written, those same editors spoke with the greatest certainty that American readers would not care about the life of a Saudi princess. Thankfully, there were two editors who fell in love with Princess Sultana and her story, and so there was a bidding war between Liza Dawson, editor for William Morrow, and an editor at St. Martin’s Press. William Morrow won the bid, and set out to publish the story of a previously unknown Saudi princess, Princess Sultana.
William Morrow’s highly competent foreign rights department sold the book all over the world. Within a year of William Morrow acquiring the book rights, many people in the USA, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East soon learned about a feisty princess living behind the black veil of Saudi Arabia. Readers fell in love with a princess who pushed back against the men of her family and fought the restrictive society of Saudi Arabia. Little did anyone in the publishing world imagine that millions of readers would embrace the story of one lone princess who was brave enough to tell the world how she, and other women in the kingdom were living. But the world discovered that there was much to love and admire in Princess Sultana. Time and again, from an early age, Princess Sultana refused to take no for an answer, holding her own with the best of the men in her family, and most particularly against her cruel brother, Ali. Later, as an adult, Princess Sultana was determined to make life better for her two daughters, and so her struggles continued.
While the princess and I had hoped for such a successful outcome with her story, we were admittedly surprised and delighted that the risks she took brought so much personal reward. Over the years the book has thrived, and even today there is a whole new generation of young women (and some men) who are discovering the heart-lifting story of a young woman who fought against the establishment of an unchanging culture, and an entrenched religious system that consistently rules in the favor of men. We have received thousands of letters from young women from every culture in the world, telling us that Princess Sultana’s story changed their lives, leading them to also fight for the dignity of females worldwide.
Since the publication of the three books about Princess Sultana, I have had fewer occasions to visit with her. I no longer live in Saudi Arabia, and I no longer spend the month of September in Monte Carlo each year, where she and I used to meet. In fact, my international travels are fewer now than even a year ago. But once or twice a year we enjoy lengthy telephone calls, and we make a point of seeing each other every couple of years.
And so it came to pass that I was able to meet with the princess and several of her family members earlier this year. We had not seen each other for nearly two years and so one week turned into two weeks and two weeks turned into three weeks. I had forgotten what it’s like to visit with the royals. They bring their habits with them when they leave the kingdom. None go to bed until the wee hours of the morning, and then few get up before early afternoon. All the women lounge around in robes until someone suggests a shopping trip. Store managers are approached and asked to open stores around midnight, and many comply because the royals spend more money in one evening that most of us see in a lifetime. Food is far too abundant. Large tables are set up all around the villa, with one holding fruit, and another holding salads, and yet another holding main courses, and yet another holding desserts. Of course there is the table holding fruit beverages, milk, and water.
There’s so much socialization and gaiety that after a week I had to insist upon a quiet time for the two of us to discuss the upcoming book. Thankfully, the princess was understanding and complied, telling her family to leave us alone for four hours a day.
And so we discussed the highlights of family happenings and various members, including her brother Ali, her sister Sara, all their children, as well as Princess Sultana’s three beloved grandchildren. I was amazed to hear the tales of her son’s two children, and pleased when Princess Sultana provided me with three or four highly compelling stories regarding two of her grandchildren that I will be sharing with readers. (Readers, you will love it!)
Finally we got down to serious business and decided upon the ten Saudi women whose stories will be shared in Princess: More Tears to Cry. Due to King Abdullah’s full attention regarding women’s issues in the kingdom, there are some positive stories to relate. Yet the status of women in Saudi Arabia remains uneven. While some families push for their daughters to be an important part of Saudi society, the majority of Saudi Arabians do not want their daughters to be involved in public life in the kingdom. Yes, females are being educated, but there are few jobs for these educated women. Yes, females know what they want, but still they are under the power of the men of their families. Yes, many women wish to drive for convenience, but no, they are still forbidden from taking the wheel.
There’s so much to share with readers. I’ve already begun the writing process and look forward to revealing all that Princess Sultana told me.
There were other books she and I discussed. While visiting, I told Princess Sultana about my latest book, YASMEENA’S CHOICE: A True Story of war, rape, courage and survival, and provided her with a manuscript copy (the book had not yet been published). The book is more graphic than any I have thus written, and I warned the princess beforehand that there was a chance she might not want to read the book. (For all of those accustomed to my books, you know that I handle sexual matters and violence quite delicately in my books, for various reasons. One, I don’t care much for graphic writing, and two, all my heroines are Arabs and Muslims, and such topics are considered totally private in the Muslim world.
While the princess read my manuscript, I read other books I had taken with me. But we generally read in the same sitting room. I kept my eye on the princess and watched her wince in shock at certain descriptions in YASMEENA’S CHOICE. She remains an emotional person and once she even threw all the manuscript pages up into the air. It took us quite some time to put the pages back in order. Several times she squealed, other times she sighed.
When she finished the book she looked at me full in the face and said, “This book aged my heart, Jean Sasson.” She paused, then continued, “But to tell you the full truth, it is the most important book.”
Little more was said about the book, other than the day before we bade farewell, when she stared at me for a full minute, and said, “That Yasmeena is the bravest girl I have ever known. I could have never held up to be an actress in those moments.”
I knew what she was talking about, although we never discussed the sexual assaults. We would have both been too embarrassed. But I’ve often asked myself that same question. “Could I be as brave as Yasmeena?” I do not know the answer and hope that I never find myself in a similar situation where I must test my courage.
And so I said goodbye to my friend once again. I feel in my heart that I shall see her again, but none of us know what tomorrow might bring. And so our visit was even more cherished.
I look forward to revealing more details to readers in the upcoming book, Princess: More Tears to Cry. I hope you are as intrigued to read the book, as I was to visit Princess Sultana.