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Pulling Aside the Veil


Debbie W. Wilson

She wears black robes and veils over designer fashions, diamonds and rubies.

She fights her alcoholism in a country where drinking is a crime.

She battles for women's rights while seeking a more devout walk in her strict Islamic faith.

Saudi Arabian Princess Sultana returns to her readers in Princess Sultana's Circle (Woodstock, NY: Windsor-Brooke Books, 2000, 255 pages, $24.95) by Jean Sasson.

In Princess, Sasson described the early years of her friend, Princess Sultana, in Sultana's own words, though those accounts of life in Saudi Arabia endanger her. Sultana chronicles her years of growing up in a home where only sons were valued, her arranged marriage to her cousin Kareem and her desperate attempt to prevent Kareem's taking a second wife when cancer prevents her from having more children. (Saudi Arabia allows a man four wives.)

Sultana's Daughters recounts the events that led Sultana's older daughter into lesbianism, her younger daughter into Islamic fanaticism.

Now Princess Sultana's Circle sweeps us into Sultana's early forties. Sasson disappears after the introduction, leaving us under the spell of the passionate Sultana. With the news that her despicable brother Ali is forcing his man-shy twenty-one-year-old daughter to marry the lecherous companion of his youth Hadi, Sultana drinks herself senseless. She and her sister Sara had witnessed Hadi, the most vile man she knows, and Ali rape a nine-year-old girl when they were teenagers.

We agonize with Sultana over the fate of twenty-five harem girls, some of them under ten years old. Because they have been sold into slavery by their impoverished parents, she has no legal way to save them.

With the help of her older daughter Maha and her sister Sara, she tries to prevent Kareem's discovery of her drinking for fear he will divorce her. Her desire to obey her Islamic faith competes with her depression over her helplessness in defending the women around her as she battles against her dependence on alcohol.

Not everything causes despair. Amani, her younger daughter, stages a one-girl PETA raid in Paradise Palace. As Amani makes off with the singing birds in the garden, Maha has wandered off to look at the stallions. Sultana would have stopped the two girls, but her hostess has fainted at Amani's outrage. Envisioning the scene, I had to laugh at Sultana with her royal cousin peeking from her faint to see if Sultana were still there while pretending to have passed out. And Amani takes wings with the birds.

Imagine your spouse handing you a credit card with $500,000 on it and telling you to enjoy yourself in New York City. "Oh, and by the way, if you find any jewelry you want, just have them hold it until I can pick it up tomorrow, because I don't think the credit card will cover it." Even Sultana was surprised at that. Most of us will never experience a spending spree like Sultana describes. But then most of us do not receive an allowance of $10,000 per family member each month for being a member of the royal Al Sa'ud family.

Nor do most of our families experience the national hostility that the royal Al Sa'ud family does. Sultana describes watching a dissident who escaped from Saudi Arabia to Great Britain on television. In exile after being tortured in Saudi Arabia, he has begun an organization called "The Committee for the Defense of Legitimate Rights." She is prepared to hate this man until she recognizes the truth of much of what he says. To her shock, seventeen-year-old Amani has friends who support his cause, and Amani sympathizes.

For all the despair, Princess Sultana's Circle offers hope that the plight of women may gradually improve. For the first time Sultana's sisters and their husbands support her efforts. Her husband Kareem takes several of Ali's brothers-in-law to try to prevent the marriage of Munira to the reprehensible Hadi. Then at the climax, when Sultana's circle forms, the husbands join their wives to defend an innocent girl.

Sasson's writing flows smoothly. She is a consummate and powerful storyteller whose first two books in this series have become bestsellers. Though the story is riveting, Sasson's delivery carries Sultana's passion effortlessly. The story is not always pleasant, often infuriating and frustrating, but alerts readers around the world to the desperate condition of Saudi women.

Sasson's living in Saudi Arabia for over ten years gives her the experience to describe the customs and sites of the Middle East that a Westerner would need to understand the account.

We can hope that another account will follow with Sultana's circle spreading safety to more helpless young women.

Princess was judged one of the 500 most important books written for women. All three books deserve to be taken off the bookshelf and read.

Copyright 2001
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