“Dr. Sarah Moss visits Saudi Arabia to decide whether to risk marrying Ibrahim, a devout Saudi Arab. She has heard only evil about the Saudi system, where men keep “their” women secluded. Ibrahim’s brother, an Islamist hardliner, hates Sarah, as does his fierce jealous mother. Ibrahim finds himself torn between his love for Sarah and his devotion to his family and culture.” (The Burning Veil)
Ahhh a book that narrates the intricacies of being a non-Saudi woman in love with a Saudi man in Saudi Arabia…right up my alley! I have been wanting to get my hands on a book that tells the story of how the lives of non-Saudi women in a relationship with a Saudi are fraught with the high drama of leaving our families in our native countries to join new families in Saudi Arabia, the constant dance between two cultures, the struggle to retain our identities in a society that is not very accepting of social differences, grappling with mental stresses that are born out of residing in a country where women are treated like second class citizens, all the while striving to ensure that our marriages weather the storms. I think to myself, who better understands these complexities like my fellow non-Saudi wives of Saudis and can write that book? Could they do that and show that there can be a cloud with a silver lining in such marriages?
Jean Grant is a Canadian-American who lived in Saudi Arabia for nine years. She wasn’t married to a Saudi but she personally saw with her own eyes the effects of Saudi/non-Saudi marriages on her compatriots. And she understood it enough to write The Burning Veil, with a desire to concoct a more positive ending for Sarah, the main character of the book:
“In Saudi Arabia, I taught at Dhahran Academy. Since women weren’t allowed to drive, every morning at 7:15 a.m. we teachers were bussed to the school. One morning, I noticed a fellow teacher silently weeping. She was an American married to a Saudi, and the marriage was going poorly. A few weeks later, she left. I met several women like her, who came to the kingdom full of hope and very much in love. A few stayed on. Several left. I was curious about Saudi American marriages. I hoped for a better outcome for my heroine, Sarah.” (Jean Grant, About Me)
Additionally, her time spent in the Middle East was to Jean’s advantage as it provided her the background she needed to write the story line:
“The novelist Eudora Welty said, “Writers and travelers are mesmerized alike by knowing of their
destinations.” That could easily be the epigraph for Jean Grant’s finely crafted new novel The Burning Veil. The story of an American woman’s introduction to Saudi Arabian culture, The Burning Veil avoids clichés of the Middle East, and finds a compassionate thread in even the most conservative of its characters—from Muslim extremists to American racists. Grant, a former journalist who lived in the Middle East for 20 years, takes on touchy subjects with a deft, professional touch, and is careful not to foist her political agenda on the reader. Her novel connects two vastly different societies, showing that love and mutual respect is the best way to coexist.” (Foreword Reviews)
Indeed! Love and mutual respect are in fact two of the best virtues to build the foundation of a successful marriage. Did Sarah and Ibrahim (Sarah’s love interest) have this luxury in their marriage? That is, if they married at all. I’m afraid I can’t tell you…you’ll just have to read the book to find out. For now, you can read the interview with Jean, whom I thank profusely for agreeing to answer my queries.
Best wishes Jean! Tara Umm Omar
What inspired you to write “The Burning Veil”? When I first started to write the novel, I wanted to point out the good things about the kingdom, things that so few people I met believed could be true. Later, the characters took on a life of their own.
How did you decide on the title? I wanted a title that was both memorable and related to women and the kingdom. In hindsight, I wish I had chosen “Blind Cats.” That’s a reference to Saudi slang for a woman, namely a pet that’s helpless, but very pleasant company, nice to caress. I object to that view of women, for it denies them their strength.
Who designed the book’s cover and what is the significance of the picture? The artist Laura Rottinghaus designed the cover. The picture is meant to evoke the niqab, the face veil that allows only the eyes to peer out. And instead of beautiful eyes, the person holding the book sees the ominous title, The Burning Veil in letters of fiery red.
Why did you choose fiery red instead of any other color? I chose fiery red because of an incident with fire that occurs late in the novel. (I don’t want to say what it is as that gives away a bit of the plot but you can get an idea if you look at the dedication to the schoolgirls who perished in Mecca March 11, 2002.
Who is the targeted audience of your book? My target audience is first, expats, especially those in the kingdom. But I hope the book interests anyone who likes a good love story and who is interested in questions of religion and cultural diversity.
What benefits or messages do you expect readers to get out of your book, if any? I hope my book increases tolerance for Islam and respect for diversity of viewpoints. If there is a message in the novel, it is that of the blessing of forgiveness.
Did you learn anything from writing your book? Please explain: I did a great deal of research while writing the novel. I learned a great deal about Islam and the position of women in the kingdom.
What has been the reception in Saudi Arabia and internationally towards “The Burning Veil”?
The critical reception has been excellent.
The book was reviewed by Lisa Kaaki in Arab News in Saudi Arabia. She writes: ” In her first novel based in Saudi Arabia, Grant neither distorts reality nor present an unflattering image of a country widely misunderstood to this day. This story of love between a young American doctor and a handsome Saudi engineer conveys with great accuracy the complex differences between two distinctive mentalities and their respective cultures.”
The 15 reviews on Amazon.com give it 4.5 stars.
The Burning Veil is a finalist in the categories of Fiction—religious and Fiction—multicultural in the prestigious ForeWord Reviews 2011 contest. The winner will be named in June.
What are your hopes for “The Burning Veil” in the future? I hope that people will read it and recommend it to their friends. It makes an excellent book for discussion in a book club since the ending is controversial.
Is your book also available in Arabic or any other languages? No.
Is your book sold in Saudi Arabia? Jarir bookstores has sent it to the Saudi Arabian censor for review. Until the censor clears it, it is not available for sale in bookstores.
Is your book available on Kindle? Yes. Check http://tinyurl.com/3po9a7c
Any other books on the horizon? I’m now working on a novel set in Beirut during the Civil War and in France. I’m thinking of calling it, Faithless in France.
Enter the URL address for a website, blog, Facebook/Twitter fan page, etc:
My facebook site for the book: http://tinyurl.com/3hkzn9w
Your nationality and country of residence: I have dual nationality. I was born in Montreal, Canada, but I became an American so I could vote for President Obama.
What are the things you like/liked about living in Saudi Arabia? I loved hearing the adhan, the Call to Prayer. It was exciting to live in a place which people had come to from all over the world. I enjoyed the easy pace of life too. I was a journalist for Arab News when I lived in Dhahran in the late 70s and early 80s, the “GO GO YEARS,” and I had great good fortune to interview fascinating people from all walks of life. I loved the ladies parties and the sense of sisterhood.
What are the things you dislike/disliked about living in Saudi Arabia? The censorship and absence of democracy. The lack of public lectures and forums. The way certain work seemed reserved for particular nationalities.
What would you like to see improved in Saudi Arabia? I’d like women to be allowed to drive and for there to be government child care with well-trained and well-paid Saudi women staffing child care centers.
Do you think non-Saudis should change anything about themselves in order to fit into Saudi society? Integrity is a virtue to be cherished, but it must be matched with courtesy.
Do you think a non-Saudi man/woman can be happy in Saudi Arabia? Absolutely.
Do you think a non-Saudi woman can live alone in Saudi Arabia without a husband or her family? Many do, especially those in the medical field.
What do you think non-Saudis should know about Saudis? Non-Saudis need to understand how deeply Saudis cherish their faith.
Photo Credit: Jean Grant