Marianne Alireza: At The Drop Of A Veil

>Marianne Alireza: At The Drop Of A Veil
Marianne Alireza

I was researching on a different topic for an upcoming post and stumbled upon an Arab News article on Marianne Alireza’s book, “At The Drop Of A Veil”. I was delighted to have found it again! I remember the various emotions I went through while engrossed in reading the vivid descriptions of her life: excitement at her meeting an exotic Saudi man and marrying him, curious about how her first impressions of Saudi Arabia once she arrived there, amazed at how she lived so primitively despite her husband’s family being well-to-do, disappointed when her husband took on a second wife, anger when he divorced her, suspense at her preparations to take the children from him and finally elation when they all successfully escaped. Imagine my shock when I read that after all of that, her children decided to return to Saudi Arabia! The book is set in the mid 1940 to 1950’s and may seem to be from another time period for Saudi Arabia but it is still a good read.


An Interview With Marianne Alireza on Her Journey into Saudi History
By American Women For International Understanding
Delegation to Saudi Arabia
October 29–November 09, 2002

There is an awesome power in words. They carry ideas, record events and inspire whole generations. The same simple sounds and symbols can have a cathartic effect on the users, allowing them to come to terms with what is past and share experience with others. Sometimes it only takes a single word to end a life or begin a peace. As a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so a story begins with a single word. With Marianne Alireza, that word was simply: “Why?”

Comfortably seated in a room redolent with family history, the question dropped into the gentle flow of conversation. “Why did you write the book?” The book in question was published some 14 years after Marianne left Saudi Arabia and details with great affection her time in the Kingdom and records the events surrounding her divorce from her husband. “Wow. That’s a tough one,” she replied. I had the impression that the question hadn’t been asked for a long time, but that now we were far enough from the traumatic events of the time to reflect on them without pain. She sat quite still, there but not there, with her clear blue eyes softly unfocused as she journeyed back to the head of the river of events that been her life for the last 40 years. Very quietly and in an almost reverential tone and eyes clear again, she replied, “My husband divorced me, but my family didn’t.” That observation is the very essence of Marianne and her family. It underpins the structure of her life and has provided the reasons and power that sustained her over the years. It is somehow very right that Marianne, who came to the Kingdom as a young woman, the first Western bride in the history of Saudi Arabia, should now be, as she describes herself, “the matriarch” of a large and “very Saudi family.”

“The family, all of them who had worked and had shared their lives with me, all pressed on me that I belonged here,” she continued. The word “belong” figures prominently in her conversation, surfacing frequently in reference to her children and her current life.

“There was another reason as well. I was the first of a kind and it was a unique experience. I felt I had to share it.” It was certainly unique and involved integrating into a society where the customs and traditions were not just a matter of different manners, but of wholly different perspectives.

When she first settled in the Kingdom, Marianne saw herself in some ways as the harbinger of change. Initially, the veil was the tradition that she found most difficult to come to terms with. Although there were times when she was able to dispense with it, nonetheless it was a trial. To her eyes, accustomed to exuberant lifestyle of post-war California, it was a symbol of confinement and oppression. Her views were entirely different from the women she met. “Because their life had always been behind it, the veil was security and protection. It was not, as it was to me, a hindrance to liberty—proof that their men respected them and wanted to protect them.” It was but one example of the potential friction that exists at the interface between any two cultures and the area that most requires patience and understanding.

Does she see this still applying fifty years on? “Yes, many women still see the veil in the same way,” she said. “However, more women now feel comfortable in relaxing the tradition in small social groups or when working.” I wondered if this was an indication of a move toward the promotion of women’s rights in the Western sense. “No, not at all. Women here have rights—of course they do. They also have great power and they exercise it behind the scenes, many running the administration of very large families.” She recalled her experience of Asma, her mother-in-law. “She ran the accounts, purchases, payments, catering and day to day hiring and firing of a family group and social activities of anything between 80 to 150 souls! That’s bigger than many small businesses. She managed all that with silver riyals, pencil and paper and a formidable memory—no computers then!”

This was not uncommon—it was what women did. Marianne pointed out that with the coming of oil wealth and subsequent change in lifestyle for modern Saudi women, their household commitments have often lessened. Thus the potential organizational skills women have fostered behind the scenes and could bring to the business world in Saudi Arabia have been made available. “A huge relatively untapped source of skill lies there,”—for the benefit of the Kingdom.

Women in the Kingdom during the early 1950s were not educated as they are today. Public schools were for boys only and a girl’s educational skills were often limited to reading and writing, oriented toward running her own household after marriage. Rapid and vast changes were taking place in the Kingdom’s infrastructure with the building or roads, hospitals and the development of the oil extraction industry. With this came the opening of schools and the emergence of the people to new concepts of living and new ambitions, picked up at the interface of the contrasting cultures of the foreign workers and Saudi culture.

“The women I knew had seen nothing yet to give them this ambition. The life they knew was too old and the one on the way was too new.” Marianne repeated, “The veil gave them security and protection.” It was something familiar to them and in the face of a transforming society, they saw no need for changing the tradition. Now that modern Saudi culture is established and women are very well-educated, attitudes have the potential for change. “Women certainly have more freedom, but are surrounded by rules that tend to hinder perfectly respectable pursuits, particularly in business.” There must be ways to accommodate the customs and traditions of an ancient culture into the structures of the modern technological and business world, she continued. There also has to be a willingness to take a few chances and to make a few mistakes.

Life was certainly simpler in Marianne’s time as a new bride, then as a young mother. It was also considerably tougher. “I am a strong person,” she said. “I had to be.” It certainly served her well. Although in a privileged position in a leading family, she could not escape the heat, humidity and vagaries of the sanitation. Added to the strains of bringing up young children—not just hers, but any that happened to be around the house at the time, enormous pressure came to bear on her.

Health was the main concern—and in the heat and humidity of Jeddah, it was difficult to achieve the “rosy glow” of good health that Marianne associated with children in America. Access to the Red Sea provided some respite to the stifling conditions and the enclosed area of the compound, one of the advantages of its being located just outside Jeddah city. Marianne sought permission to get the children out and to the seashore, not only for their benefit, but for hers as well. The outings relieved some of the feeling of claustrophobia that living in the closed quarters of the house and compound generated. It also offered a new challenge for her to take on, teaching the children of the household as well as caring for their general needs. Gradually, her focus turned away from comparing her current position with her native culture and rested increasingly on the family and her children. She noticed that when other children—visiting or those of other members of the family were around—they wanted to join in the games that Marianne played with her children.

“There was an aimlessness among these children that concerned me,” she said. The lack of stimulation and the few, very simple games they did play were just to fill time. As a result, Marianne turned to teaching the children as much as she could, both through play and more formal lessons. Able to access materials and equipment through the family’s business connections, the household became partly a school and allowed Marianne to teach long-remembered childhood lessons, games and activities and even a correspondence English language course. It was a perfect way to reconcile the pull she felt from her Western origins and integrate with the Eastern culture she now had to live with. It also opened the children’s minds to the world of possibilities that existed outside the traditional culture of Saudi Arabia and exercised their young, inquisitive minds.

Life became infinitely richer and when social occasions involving interaction with Western visitors to the Kingdom or when visits to Europe or America were made, she saw them as highlights rather than intervals of relief. Thus it was in 1952, after a visit to the USA and London for the funeral of King George, on her return to Jeddah she recalled, “It was good to be home and it was.” Finally, the journey started in California seven years previously was completed.

Twelve years and five children into the marriage while in New York on a visit, Marianne received a telephone call from a mutual friend to inform her that she was legally divorced. “Stunned. Simply stunned,” she said when asked for her reaction. The only explanation Marianne received from her husband for the sudden and devastating blow was: “It won’t work, I know myself.” Four of the children were taken back to Cairo while the youngest boy stayed with Marianne.

Later that year, the children were placed in boarding schools in Switzerland. Marianne traveled to Switzerland and was finally re-united with them while they continued their education. Negotiations towards tidying up the legalities around the divorce were protracted and unproductive. Frustration and difficulty in achieving results built to such a pitch that Marianne eventually moved the children from Switzerland to the United States. “This was a shocker in Saudi Arabia, but the general reaction was that I was not to be blamed. Any mother would have done the same. Marianne felt that this reaction was because she had shown good faith in going to Saudi Arabia and becoming part of the family for twelve years and that “they were upset as Arabs and Muslims that it had ended thus. Over that twelve years and with openness on all side, Saudi Arabia and the Alireza family had become home.

Eventually, arrangements were made that resulted in the children returning to Switzerland and Marianne living there with them. For a while, life was settled. She recalled a visit from Asma, her mother-in-law. When Marianne first set foot on Arabian soil, Asma had welcomed her with the words “We love you as we love our son.” As Marianne lived there and the relationship and bond with the family became deeper and stronger, what might have been seen only as a form of words proved to be the very basis of the relationship between her and the family. Asma’s total of three visits simply reinforced Marianne’s belief that the power and support of the family was greater than any single event that happened within it and that it would be that strength that would sustain and support her.

Once again, negotiations about the future failed and legal avenues were frustrated. With prospective court action threatening to remove the children once again out of her reach to the Kingdom, Marianne acted. For a second time, she took the children away and returned to the United States where they were educated and spent the rest of their formative years. “The children were brought up as Muslims,” Marianne said, “and I felt that it was right that, when they reached mature years, they should be able to choose what they would do and where they wanted to be.” That is exactly what happened and as young adults, the children moved between the cultures with alacrity. “I think it’s fair to describe them as ‘citizens of the world!”

The children, now mature people in middle-age, are perfectly able to operate in East and West. Each prominent in their chosen fields, Marianne reflects on the events that surrounded and shaped their early lives. “I’ll never be sure that what I did was right; I’m only sure that I had to do it in the hope that it was right.” she says.

Marianne now spends time in both Jeddah and California. She takes great pleasure from the responsibility that comes from being the “matriarch” of the Alireza family having achieved over the years the position that Asma was in when first they met. When we met, she had just finished yet another day of meetings and planning around the family affairs. “They used to do all this without the technology we have now. Think of it!” she smiled.

Living comfortably in each culture and well versed in the traditions of the West and Saudi Arabia, how does she view the changes she must have seen over the last half century. “The obvious changes have been incredible. It’s almost impossible to believe how much the country and the infrastructure have changed. Jeddah was tiny when I first came, just a small area of what is now a huge city.”

What though of the less obvious changes? Here, a moment’s pause and a thoughtful look. “I suppose that the wealth that has come to Saudi Arabia has also brought some problems as well as benefits. One in particular is that the work-ethic has diminished.” Amplifying this idea, Marianne described the Saudis she knew as tough people living in a harsh land and carrying with them a strong faith in Islam. The influx of wealth and the physical benefits this has brought has reduced the need for the toughness of character that was needed simply to survive in the environment. With it has gone the need to work to survive, an easier life has been available now for two generations of young men. “It’s the same result of progress you see anywhere,” she said.

Marianne’s association with Saudi Arabia spans more than half a century. Her intimate knowledge of its ways combined with her position as a Western woman with the status of “Big Mother”—as she puts it, in a senior Saudi family gives her a unique perspective. With 15 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, she looks to the future as well as the past. She sees the future of the Kingdom as very positive, with certain provisos. The process of widespread education and investment must continue but with it must go a willingness to make mistakes. Adherence to tried and tested ways will carry a developing nation some of the way forward, but it is important in a changing world to adapt and adopt to survive.

This does not mean, however, that all the ways of the West must be taken up; far from it. “These are faithful people, the most faithful people in the world. Their faith is easily strong enough to sustain and support the people in a technological world. Saudis are perfectly capable of taking up ideas as they need them and discarding those that are counterproductive to their traditions or religion.” However, they must at least look at and experiment with the changing ways of the world.

It has been a long and tough journey from Southern California to Jeddah, from West to East, from bride to matriarch, with innumerable lessons learned and taught. The family, the bedrock of Marianne’s life, is thriving and stronger than ever. “Saudi Arabia is now as much my home as California.” Not bad for ‘a little ol’ lady from Pasadena!’

***This post was picked up by Blogadena masha’Allah***



Published by

Tara Umm Omar

American married to a Saudi.

3 thoughts on “Marianne Alireza: At The Drop Of A Veil”

  1. >Nice article Mashallah…Well it reinforces my belief that in any marriage children are the key factor which influences lives. Marianne was indeed mature by not instilling hatred in her kids towards their father or his family, unlike many other divorced mothers. Apart from that many western women married into Arabs/ Muslims from Asia marry in for love or other reasons but still consider their husbands culture as inferior which is why we have so many bad cases today, but looks like Marianne was an exception to this.On a side note, though i don't know much about US but i think her being a Californian was much helpful for her to assimilate to an extend, had she been a Texan then things may have been much worse 🙂


  2. >I read her book years ago, way before I moved here. I don't know how she did it back then. Even in today's world it's very difficult, and we have many more modern day necessities and conveniences like the internet and air conditioning. She is one heckuva woman. Thanks for posting this!


  3. >Abu Abdullah- I think Marianne is from a totally different generation of women, the early to mid 1900s, with sounder family values when it came to marriage and children. Her upbringing of her children reflects this and it seems she really tried to make her marriage work before deciding to leave. Honestly when it comes to an American woman living in Saudi Arabia and married to a Saudi, we are all in the same boat, no matter which US state we came from. That also pertains to any woman from other countries besides the US. How our lives turn out in KSA, for the better or worse, is truly qadrAllah.Susie- You're welcome. I read her book before I moved to KSA too. Reflecting back on how it was for Marianne living here during those times, we women of today have it too easy!


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