Saturday, June 23, 2012

American Chick in Saudi Arabia

American Chick in Saudi ArabiaAmerican Chick in Saudi Arabia by Jean Sasson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Jean Sasson has written several other well-known books (The Rape of Kuwait and Growing Up bin Laden, for example), but this is her own story of going to live in Saudi Arabia in 1978 as a single, blond, American woman. She was and is a champion for women's rights in a region of the world where women are still very much second-class citizens. Sasson was an extraordinarily adventurous woman in an era where even Western women were just learning to spread their wings. (My biggest accomplishments in 1978 were learning to read and attending preschool, so I can't say I have much first-hand experience of this struggle.)

As interesting as I found her stories, I was disappointed that the book felt hastily written. It's extremely short, for one thing--only 67 pages of the 80 in my eBook version from NetGalley were written by Jean Sasson. And not much time is spent on setting the scene or laying out a coherent storyline. I was nearly to the end before I realized that Jean was not the 23-year-old ingenue I'd been picturing but rather a 30-ish twice-divorced woman. Perhaps I should have done some research on her before reading her memoir?  I did read in one of the appendices that more information, including a timeline, is available on her website.  Too bad that wasn't in the book!

In addition to the feeling of skipping thither and yon, I got the impression that this slim volume was written not so much to tell Jean's amazing life story but to highlight a particular viewpoint about women's lack of freedom in Saudi Arabia both then and now. It felt evangelical, like a crusade, which made me uncomfortable despite my belief that Saudi women are long overdue for a cultural revolution resulting in equal rights. For a memoir, very little of the book focuses on Jean's daily life in Riyadh. And if she's going to use the book as a pulpit for freedom, I'd have liked to read more of an in-depth analysis of her day(s?) beneath the all-encompassing black robes and veils. In her thirty years in the Arab world, surely she must have witnessed a variety of responses to the restrictive modes of dress?

Then again, I did just read a Goodreads posting from Jean herself letting readers know that this is only part one of what she envisions as a 5-volume memoir, so perhaps later portions will fill in some details. Obviously I am not the only reader/reviewer who wished for more of the story. Had there been more substance to this first part than tales of three Saudi women she met from different backgrounds and their experiences with their husbands and veils, I would likely have rated the book three or even four stars. As fascinating (and sad, in the later two cases) as the women's stories were, the telling felt more like a campaign than a reflecting back, as I'd hope a memoir to be. Nevertheless, I will be interested in reading volume two to see what improvements and additions Sasson makes.

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