By Anne Opatz
As I strolled the sunny path of the zoo’s primate exhibit, beads of sweat coursed down my skin. I had worn short sleeves, jean shorts and a wide brimmed straw hat, yet it seemed to do little to fend off the relentless San Diego sun. It was my second time at the San Diego Zoo. I hadn’t been able to really enjoy it on my original trip due to the fact that my heath was declining and I could barely walk up the zoo’s steep inclines without needing to sit down and catch my breath. This time around, with my double lung transplant 2 ½ years behind me and my big sister by my side I climbed the hills with vigor, taking in every ocelot, baby panda and emu I saw. I couldn’t have been happier.
It was May of 2013 and I didn’t have a worry in the world (except for whether or not my sister would force me into the reptile house… I absolutely hate snakes!!). We lost ourselves amidst the world’s most exotic creatures. Walking for what seemed like miles we laughed at the animals unpredictable antics. It was during our meandering past our evolutionary brethrens, the banobos, that something outside of the exhibit caught my eye: two dark figures, no taller than five foot, five, walking my direction. They were moving briskly, with an heir of somewhere between cautious and reserved yet with a distinct purpose. I could not see their feet, I could not see their eyes, I could not see if they were smiling as the apes they walked past did front flips across the grass. Not a single inch of their skin showed in the hot San Diego sun and although I smiled and nodded to acknowledge their presence, they did not make any motion in reply. They simply yet silently walked by.
With no offense taken, I continued on my way, catching up with my sister who had gone ahead to observe a mischievous baby orangutan playing with a burlap sack. We wondered through the zoo for hours, only stopping for an hour or so to enjoy a hearty lunch of mac n cheese, however I couldn’t help but let my mind wonder back to those figures. I knew who they were: two women of Muslim faith, wearing the traditional female public garment known as a burqa. I had only seen this type of customary clothing in pictures and on television and heard about them in horrible racially charged jokes. Until now, at 26 years old, even being a cultural anthropology student, I had never actually seen a traditional burqa worn by anyone in person.
After our tummy engorging break we continued on to the second leg of our zoo exploration which consisted of the elephants, bears and yes, the hesitantly agreed upon reptile house. Despite all the world’s creatures surrounding me I increasingly noticed more and more “figures” walking along the paths. Some wore black, some wore sky blue, some wore light gray, some wore army green and each had distinct beading that would jingle when they walked by. I pulled at my sister’s sleeve; the way a child does, asking her, “Have you noticed all the women in burqas?” The look of informed melancholy on her face said it all. She sighed then quietly said, “yes, and it’s kind of hard to see.”
My sister and I said nothing else about these shadowy women that day. The sky was turning from blue to dark shades of pink and the stars were beginning to dot the balmy Southern California sky. Our trek through the San Diego Zoo and my brief introduction to these faceless women was over. Upon my return home normalcy once again filled my day to day. I continued attending my college classes, working towards my Bachelors of Arts degree in Anthropology and life for me remained simple.
It was during a trip to my local bookstore six months later I found myself once again face to face (so to speak) with one of these veiled women, this time on the cover of a book. Two flickering brown eyes peered out from beneath a beaded head scarf and black mouth cover. The word Princess was printed in intense gold letters beneath her eyes. I was immediately taken back to that day at the zoo and those women walking two by two. Curious, I picked up the book and scanned the back for a summary. “Recently named as one of the best 500 books written by women since the year 1300.” I was sold!! I snatched up the book without reading another word. This must be something special.
Princess: A True Story Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia, written by New York Times best seller Jean Sasson is the story of one women’s remarkable life living in Saudi Arabia. Sultana Al Sa’ud, a Saudi Princess, living what could only be considered the utmost of posh material lives, was actually living within a cultural prison. She is just one of the millions of women from Saudi Arabia who are forced to abide by the unimaginably strict religious and national practices forced upon women. Going out in public without a male escort, driving, even showing their faces is strictly forbidden under their countries traditional rules and laws. Often punished through exile, physical violence and even death, the women of Saudi Arabia live life in daily fear for themselves and their female relatives and friends. With her words of heartfealt truth and dignity and the help of Jean Sasson, this woman has removed the veil of a little known female culture. Both she and her literary orator show the genuine world in which Saudi Arabian women live, not only recording their day to day struggles but revealing the authentic strength living within these earnest women.
Jean Sasson, the key to unlocking Princess Sultana’s silent voice, developed a passion for adventure at a young age. Growing up in a small southern town, Sasson’s love for both literature and culture developed and thrived, eventually lead her to the Middle East. In 1978 she began working in the medical affairs department of King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She met numerous influential people during this time, however four years after she began her work she left the hospital. In 1983 she met a young Saudi princess, whose story would steer her life and her pen, eventually creating Princess, an incredible contribution to literature and the world. Both women’s humanitarian efforts have helped to expose injustices worldwide, setting a president for positive, proactive change.
Princess Sultana, along with the aid of her new American friend, began an eight year long journey to tell the story of a group of women cultural tradition has tried to silence. Stowed away in secret meetings and quieted communications, the princess and Sasson worked tirelessly for nearly a decade recorder her memories: all of the bad, all of the good and all of the complexity which came with not only a Saudi princess, but all Saudi women. Although her true identity was hidden due to fear of retaliation from members of her family, community and government, their collaboration has allowed for a vivid picture to be painted of the treatment they experience.
Through the course of her life and the telling of her story she conveys a deep compassion for the women who suffer daily. Her empathy is limitless, sharing not only her struggles but sharing the stories of injustices that the women of Saudi Arabia face every day. Despite such restrictive circumstances she is the true definition of what a devout mother and resilient woman should be. To the western world, her acts of rebellion and the unveiling of the true day to day goings on of Sauid women, may appear to be minute, but within the context of the world she lives in, Princess Sultana is the Middle Eastern equivalent of Rosa Parks or Sophie Scholl. Through her secret rebellion via the words penned by Jean Sasson, she is the ultimate crusader for female equality and human rights. Mother lioness to her cubs, spokes women for a silenced group, she is superwoman personified. Instead of a red cape, she is seen in the customary clothing donned by millions of women before her and she is determined to swing the course of her countries history towards the equality of future generations.
Some may pick up this book and wonder, why should I read this? Why should I care about someone living thousands of miles away? Before second guessing my strong recommendation for Sasson’s Princess and heading over to the Best Sellers section to pick up Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight ask yourself a question: Why do you read? You read for pleasure, you read for escapism, you read to lose yourself in what you hope to be a remarkable story which stirs your emotions, bringing you pleasure and spark your curiosity.
Taking all of this into account, if we can learn something about someone else and grow in appreciation of our own lives from that knowledge, then our own quest for literary entertainment and enlightenment becomes worth so much more than the $12.99 we spend on Amazon or at the book store. Knowledge is power is an exhausted cliché, but considering the minds of some of the most influential people were sparked by expanding their own cultural boundaries, it may be worth taking the time out to learn from and recognize the power one persons plight can have on an entire nations future. As I sit here, with my Apple ear buds playing Neil Young in my ears, I can’t help but wonder what Apple would have become if Steve Jobs had not spent those seven months in India. Princess Sultana may never become the Saudi female equivalent of Steve Jobs, but she is in her own right is a revolutionary.
According to the princess herself, the education and “knowledge she acquired has given her an inner peace and feeling of oneness with the world.” While I would never dare to compare myself or anything I have been through to even an ounce of hardship Princess Sultana has faced, I do like to think that reading her story has allowed me to better understand just how lucky I am to be a woman living in America. Education, choice, rights, all concepts we in Americans often jumble into our habitual lives, alongside our I-phones, Paula Dean recipes and last night’s Real Housewives episodes. If something as simple as furthering her own education can provide her with an inner sense of tranquility amidst a life ridden with such restrictive, predetermined circumstances, then the least we as free women can do is something the men of Saudi Arabia have never done for their fellow female citizens before. We can read her story and acknowledge them for the strong roles they play and finally recognize them for the inimitable women they are.
To learn more about Jean Sasson and Princess Sultanas story please visit www.jeansasson.com.