Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword: Part I: Interview with Jean Sasson

Author Jean Sasson has opened up to the world the lives of women in the Middle East, and more recently, even been the voice for Osama bin Laden’s son and wife, Omar bin Laden and Najwa Bin Laden, all through the fabulous repertoire of books she has written. Writing not just as a narrative that tells the tale of brave women, Jean speaks from the heart and offers a sight of the best enumeration of history and politics through the eyes of people who experienced it firsthand. In an exchange via email with DeltaWomen, Jean takes us through her journey so far.

Jean's repertoire of Novels

Writing is a talent. Unearthing stories of people who inspire people is an even bigger talent. Was this something that you always wanted to pursue?
Well, I never really considered the difficulty of interviewing subjects and bringing such inspiring stories to life -- Instead I thought of how I would one day write. But, life threw me a curve and after living in Saudi Arabia and discovering so many worthwhile stories, I was thrust into a situation where I had to learn how to get into the minds and hearts of subjects and tell their stories in a way that would bring the reader to identify with them and feel that they are in the middle of a very important story. It is a very delicate situation, I will admit.

How do you pick out your subjects and decide the focus for your stories? Is there a specific yardstick you have, to evaluate a prospective story?
Well, the stories more or less came to me. I am asked to write many stories, mainly of women, but not entirely. All the stories are heartfelt and meaningful and deserve to be told and known by the world. However, I must "feel" that I connect with the person. So, out of 30 or 40 book possibilities each year, I can only pick ONE story to tell. However, thus far, I have just "known in my heart" the story that I should write. With Princess Sultana, (The Princess Trilogy) we were first friends, and she had discussed for years the fact that the world needed to know the truth of life for women in Saudi Arabia. Then I met Mayada (Mayada) in Iraq when I travelled there in 1998. I had not thought of writing her story, although it was fascinating. But once she was imprisoned, and managed to be freed, and had learned another side of Iraq, and the stories of women whose families were less influential than her own, I then spoke with her about telling her story. Joanna's story came to me from her brother, after he read Mayada's story. I met Joanna (Love in a Torn Country) in London and after getting to know her, and learning all the details of her life, felt very drawn to her. The Bin Ladens (Growing up Bin Laden) contacted me via email and I really liked them and felt they were extremely nice people with a valuable story to tell, a story that no one the world really knew. Maryam's story (For the Love of a Son) was brought to me by her friend in Jeddah, who contacted me through a friend in London. So, as you see, most of the stories happened nearly by chance of my finding out about these amazing people!

What inspires you? 
I am inspired by people of character. All of the books I have written have been about strong women (and in Omar's case, a strong man) who led challenging and difficult lives, but who never ever compromised their values and morals. They never gave up but fought hard for truth and right. Such people inspire me, and I admire them.

Your latest book, For the Love of a Son is a beautiful portrayal of motherhood set in the backdrop of Afghanistan. Can you tell us something about your journey in the course of writing this book?
Honestly from the first days of the Taliban torturing and murdering innocent women, I always wanted to do a book about an Afghan woman. So when Maryam's friend Alison accidentally met a friend of mine while on holiday in Spain, she managed to get in touch with me and tell me about Maryam's story. I felt something electric about Maryam, a woman who would Never, EVER stop searching for her son. Yet, an important part of the story was how a very strong woman like Maryam was manipulated by family into marrying a brutal man she did not want to marry. This opens up the very important issue of how it is so important for family to support women - and, this does not happen as it should in the Muslim culture. Maryam acknowledges this, as do my other heroines. The women's feelings are not important to the culture. When they are beaten and abused, even their mothers look at them and say, "What did you do to upset your husband?" It's always the woman's fault, no matter what happens. This is wrong, and I believe Maryam's story goes a long way to show people that it is up to the Muslim families to make a change and to support and care for the women who are brutally abused. My journey while writing this book was one of determination that this story be out, and that the world learn how helpless women can be when their families desert them.

Sometimes, the writer's abilities shadow the true narrative of the subject. How do you keep your assessment of things outside the ambit of the narrative that you pen in such authentic prose?
I try to get to know the subject so well that I can honestly feel their lives, so when I am writing, I feel I am them, and I am feeling their joys and pains as clearly as if it were me living it. After I write about an event, I have my heroines (or hero) read what I have written from our personal conversations, and then tell me if I got it right. Amazingly, they have always told me, "It is as if you were me. You captured my feelings perfectly." I think that is the goal of any writer who is telling another's life story. Also, even if I had a different experience in a similar situation, I am able to push those thoughts from my head. I become Princess Sultana who is furious with her brother, or a frightened Mayada who is in a prison room, or a fleeing Joanna on a mule, or a hysterical Maryam who has lost her son. That's why I often weep as I am actually writing because I truly feel that this wrong happened To Me and I can feel it. I believe that this ability comes from the fact that I have empathy for others; therefore, I truly can feel their pain and their joys.

As a writer on women in the eye of a storm at different times, do you ever feel threatened? Have you ever believed that you've taken too much of a risk?
Well, I've had some threats and I've had some harassment, but I never felt threatened, nor felt afraid. Although I'm afraid of spiders and of heights, I've never been afraid of another human being, so no one has been able to intimidate me. I can never recall feeling fearful or nervous of another person. Although I am not a violent person, I have always felt myself capable of defending myself, and would, without hesitation. Therefore, I've never felt that I've taken a risk of any kind.  

As a writer on women's issues, what do you think could be construed as the "status of women" in the world, today? Are women truly liberated?
I believe that the "status of women" is different in every region. Even in the USA, there are places where women have it better than in other places. It's the same all over the world- even in the Middle East. It is different in every country. In my opinion, women are not truly liberated anywhere, although they are coming close in Northern Europe. In the USA, women are still beaten and abused by men, although our laws will punish the abuser. But often it is too late and the woman ends up dead. There's a case every week or so. In some countries, men are applauded when they are abusers of women. Until the entire world realizes that until all women are free to live in dignity, our earth is not a great place for anyone -- men suffer too when women are not free.  

Your work focusses on the Middle East and Afghanistan. What about the rest of the world?  
Yes, I focus on the Middle East and have written about Afghanistan. Yet, there are many stories in many other countries. Since I can only write one book every two or three years, it is difficult to cover the world, although I am anxious to write a book about a woman from Pakistan and a woman from India and a woman from Thailand. Possibly that will happen one day. 

Do you think the assessment by Thomson Reuters was right in that it surmised that Afghanistan is the worst place for a woman to live in? Funnily enough the survey didn't include any country in the Middle East within the top five worst countries, despite the fact that women can be subject to lapidation as a punishment. What are your views on that?
I would say that Thomson Reuters has it right, although it is difficult when deciding these "lists" because there are so many countries where life for women is brutal.  From my personal travel and experiences, I would have submitted the following list had I be asked for the top five... 
 1) Afghanistan: America's presence in Afghanistan has done nothing to help women. For this, I am ashamed as an American that we have not made this an important part of our policy there. We have failed the women of Afghanistan. The present government of Afghanistan has totally failed their women.
2) Yemen
3) Pakistan: Mainly limited to small villages -- in the cities it tends to be much better for women. The government of Pakistan seems to scorn women. That's a pity because Pakistani women can really help their country and should be given the chance. There are many Pakistani women in prison today only because they were raped -- they were a victim, but they are blamed for a crime of which they were the helpless victim.
4) Saudi Arabia: Although women are educated in Saudi Arabia, there is no one to help them if the man of the family is an abuser, or even decides to murder them. No one will step in to help them, NO ONE. This does not mean that there are not good Saudi men who are kind to the females in their family. Sadly, there are just as many men who are not so inclined.
5) India: Once again, mainly limited to small villages - there are still places where young brides are burned to death only because the family is ready for another dowry. It's a shame for a great country for India to have such things occurring.
I have never been to Africa other than Egypt and Libya, so I can't speak on the Congo and Somalia, although from what I have read, those two countries are doing nothing to protect their most valuable asset - their women.  

In your opinion, is a woman truly an agent of social change? If so, do you think that it is restricted only to the educated and empowered segments?
Yes, I believe that a woman can be an agent of social change.  There are women today living in Afghanistan and Yemen and African nations who are standing up to the men and to the powers in control and making small gains.  But the truth of the matter is that due to the importance of education and other resources necessary to be heard, generally females bringing social change are very often limited to the educated and empowered.

A little something from your desk for the women of the world...
NEVER EVER stand by in silence if you see anyone being mistreated. Jump in, take a chance, help a human.  As I say so often to those who criticize me for writing books about women’s issues, "When anyone is being harmed, whether physically or emotionally, it is not only my right to intervene, it is an obligation." I truly believe this, whether it is about women, children, or animals - any live creature being harmed will get my 100% support.  For me, my life is worth nothing if I can't help others. I am willing to put my life on the line, and when I have done this, others have backed down.

By Kirthi Jayakumar


  1. Hi! Love your blog and so happy to have made an appearance on it! You asked a lot of very important questions. Keep on doing good work... Jean

    1. Hi Jean! Thanks so much for such a sweet comment! I really loved your answers myself, and I'm sure the readers of our blog would have enjoyed reading the interview, too! <3