I had a wonderful month-long vacation in Dubai for the Holidays.  I was impressed with Dubai’s stunningly modern cityscape and infrastructure and the cosmopolitan lifestyle that has made Dubai a true melting pot of  the Middle East.

Because of this, I saw a country of contradictions.  Where else can one see skimpily clad women alongside heavily veiled ones?

This juxtaposition had me intrigued.  I have often wondered then how veiled women or those who have to wear abaayas feel or think about those who never wear them.

So, I just had to buy this book which narrates the true-to-life story of a Saudi princess—a fascinating perspective as it comes from a an Arab woman of note.

Author              :  Jean Sasson

First Release   :  September 1992

Publisher (this edition)        :  Bantam Books  (1993)

No. of pages     :  303

This is the true story of Princess Sultana (fictitious name) of the royal house of  Al Sa’ud, the current ruling clan of  Saudi Arabia.  She tells of her privileged life of mind-boggling riches and of her real life as a woman pinioned by cultural fetters of gender prejudice.

Princess Sultana is a feminist, a woman who feels deeply about the indignity and the precarious  situation of women in Saudi Arabia whose laws and fanatic customs demean, denigrate, and threaten their very lives.  In the milieu of extreme patriarchy where severe punishment is meted for breaking social and religious laws, she is a rare voice, a courageous one, as she has risked her life to tell her story, anonymously, through the author, Jean Sasson.

She recounts her life—how it is like to grow up as a Saudi princess, what incidents she had witnessed and heard of— grave injustices,  appalling torture and punishment done to women, some of whose only sins were falling in love with a non-Muslim or being unfortunate enough to have been raped.

If I was hoping to find some answer to my question on how veiled women feel about thier abaayas,  I did get her opinion.  Of course, this is only one opinion. There should be several, supporting or opposing ones.  I’d love to hear about opposing ones.

Princess Sultana narrates that at the first moments of the first veiling were exciting.  Veiling signifies a child’s transition to womanhood and is practiced as soon as the child reaches menarche.

“For a moment, I felt myself a thing of beauty, a work so lovely that I must be covered to protect men from their uncontrollable desires.”– p.111

But in the next instant, she envies the freedom of those only partially veiled.  (She has to wear a full veil covering her entire face.  I’ve seen women veiled this way in Dubai and frankly, the sight of a heavily veiled woman, who looks like a walking death shroud, did creep me out a bit).

“The novelty of wearing the veil and abaaya was fleeting, though.  When we walked out…I gasped for breath and sucked furiously through the sheer black fabric.  The air tasted stale and dry as it filtered through the gauzy cloth.  I had purchased the sheerest veil available, and yet I was seeing life through a thick screen.  How could one woman see through veils made of thicker fabric?  … my heart plunged to my stomach when I realized that, from that moment, outside my own home I would not experience life as it really is in all its colour…”

“I stumbled over  several children of a bedouin woman, and looked in envy at the freedom of the veil.  Bedouin women wear veils that fell across their noses, leaving their eyes free to examine their surroundings.  Oh how I wished to be a bedouin!  I would cover my face gladly if I could only leave my eyes free to see the inifinite changes of life around me.” — p. 111

Perhaps then, veiled women do feel a certain envy toward those who never have to wear them.  The object of envy would be freedom—freedom to express one’s individuality through their own choices of make-up and fashion; freedom from restrictive clothing;  freedom to revel and have confidence in one’s own body.  These are little freedoms which most women take for granted.   I have sensed sometimes these women’s longing to have the social confidence Western and most Asian women have, an inherited assurance owing to totally different cultural views.

However, I am straying from the subject —which is a review of this book.

Princess is indeed all of these — shocking, fascinating, heart-breaking, outrageous, thought-provoking, unbelievable.  It is mind-boggling to think how ideas and acts, presumed to be medieval, be alive and and accepted in this day and age — the age of information.  The book is simply written, far from being a literary work of note in terms of writing style; but Sasson does convey the story coherently and sequentially well.

For Filipinos, it would be  of interest to know that Princess Sultana makes a lot of references to our “kabayans”, overseas workers who form a significant part of the labor force in Saudi Arabia.

This book is so interesting that it may spur one to read Jean Sasson’s other novels, all of which deal with women in the Arab world.

My Mark :  Outstanding

Author : Margaret Atwood
Copyright : 1985
Release Date : March 16, 1998
Publisher : Anchor; 1st Anchor Books edition
ISBN-10: 038549081X
ISBN-13: 978-0385490818
Pages: 320

My first thought after Chapter One : surreal. I thought, oh no, not one of those esoteric ones again.

This isn’t the normal type of book I’d pick up to read; but now, I understand its surprising appeal. It’s the kind that can linger in you way after you’ve finished the book and gone on to others—disturbing, thought-provoking, and very unique.

If you haven’t read a synopsis anywhere or bothered to look at the teaser at the back cover, you’d be a little lost in the beginning. The story starts out vaguely with the distracted ramblings of the narrator, Offred, as she tells of her circumstances in the present. In between, she surprises you with sudden glimpses of her past; and this is how the story falls into place — in bit by bit revelations. Persevere reading through enough flashbacks until you get the picture; and, see how Atwood gets you hooked by the middle of the book.

So what’s this all about ?

Sometime in this century , an extreme and radical theocracy violently supplants U.S. democracy and changes the structure of every societal aspect as we know it — the family unit, religion, judicial system, etc. This is the Gileadean Republic, the totalitarian response to everything plaguing the Caucasian race, most notable ones being the decline in fertility and birth rates of normal babies. This severely patriarchal society forces a new way of life, based on the Old Testament Bible, twisted to serve a ruling male elite — the Commanders, and to justify the total subjugation of women as merely breeders, domestic slaves, and pliant wives, to name a few roles.

Offred is a handmaid, a breeding vessel whose primary social function is to lie on her back, hope to be impregnated, and bear a normal healthy baby for the good of society. Failing this mission in her childbearing years, she becomes an intolerable burden to all. The story is Offred’s account of her thoughts and emotions as a handmaid in this unforgiving Giledean order.

I am a sucker for beautiful writing; so despite the surrealism, I was inevitably drawn to the author’s poetic style. I wish I, too, could string the right words together so gracefully that the resulting prose is effortlessly elegant, even when I’m being snide.

Atwood also has a distinct way of looking at things. I can’t help but give you a taste of it:

(In reference to a Bible): “ …He lets the book fall closed . It makes an exhausted sound, like a padded door shutting, by itself, at a distance : a puff of air. The sound suggests the softness of the thin oniony pages, how they would feel under the fingers. Soft and dry, like papier poudre, pink and powdery, from the time before, you’d get it in booklets for taking the shine off your nose…” — p. 85

“The interviews with people still alive then were in colour. The one I remember best was with a woman who had been the mistress of a man who had supervised one of the camps where they put the Jews, before they killed them. In ovens, my mother said;…

He was not a monster, she said…She did not believe he was a monster. He was not a monster, to her. Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled off key, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of raw steak. How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation…” — pp.136 -137

“…every spring they had a Humphrey Bogart festival, with Lauren Bacall or Katharine Hepburn, women on their own, making up their minds. They wore blouses with buttons down the front that suggested the possibilities of the word undone. These women could be undone; or not. They seemed to be able to choose. We seemed to be able to choose, then. We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice.” — p. 24

If asked, would I read another Atwood novel, my answer would be a resounding “Yes”. But only after taking a deep breath while preparing myself before a dive into eccentricity. Now, I’m just making a guess here. Maybe her other novels aren’t strange; but, what I do hope is that she delivers writing of this same calibre.  It is exactly for this that A Handmaid’s Tale earns a permanent place in my shelf.

My Mark : Excellent