First, there was a dream—written in black ink in a spiral notebook—Northwestern University printed in purple across the cover.
My husband tells me that an ancient women’s creed part of the Koran is being carried across the desert by two women on horseback and coming into town. He orders me to get the story.
I climb into a small white pickup truck and drive a long way into the desert on a road heavily fenced on either side. It is sweltering hot—my hair is in a pony tail, but sweat drips from my bangs and runs down my face. At the end of the road is a checkpoint with three male guards who make me sign off the road. They give me clipboard and a pen, but the pen isn’t working and it takes me three attempts to sign my name.
After the checkpoint, I mount a horse and ride across the desert until I arrive at a ranch. There, I wait and watch until the two women ride up on horses. The women are very old. White scarves wrap their heads, framing tan, wizened faces. White flowing clothing covers their arms and legs and they wear leather sandals. They ride up to me and stop. Their dark eyes regard me silently. After looking me up and down, they exchange glances then solemnly pass me a colorful woven bag containing the piece of the Koran.
The dream is dated October 17, 1985. Twenty-eight years ago today. Four years before I went to Saudi Arabia. Before I knew Saudi was in my future. Before I had any exposure to Islam or understanding of the Koran.
I found the notebook a few years after returning from Saudi. As I read the dream, it came back instantly. With stunning clarity, I recognized the long asphalt road—enclosed on either side by high chain-link fencing topped with barbed wire—cutting through flat, beige, barren desert. It was the road on the Ras Tanura compound leading to the Najma stables where Aramco employees keep their horses. I remembered the relentless scorching heat—sweat matting my hair, dripping from my bangs and ponytail.
The setting of East of Mecca is a wire-enclosed compound. There are barren deserts, small white trucks, and horses. There are women’s stories. I’ve been telling the story of Saudi Arabia in one form or another for the past 24 years. East of Mecca has taken a long, circuitous route to get here—a presentation at The American Psychological Association convention in 1991, a screenplay, and finally, a novel. (Three attempts before it worked!)
Over time I’ve realized how profound and prophetic the dream was. When I was told to “get the story” of the ancient sacred women’s creed, I was entrusted as one of the messengers of the untold stories of the women in Saudi and other Islamic countries. I’m not so grandiose as to think I am the only messenger—there are many of us.
There is Malala Yousafzai, the sixteen year old Pakistani girl who, at age fifteen, was shot by the Taliban because she advocated for education for girls in her country. Even after her brutal attack, Malala will not be silenced.
And there is Haifaa al-Mansour (Twitter | IMDb), the first female Saudi filmmaker. She wrote and directed Wadjda, the story of an 11-year-old Saudi girl who dreams of owning and riding a green bicycle. Bicycle riding is outlawed for women in Saudi. Haifaa directed Wadjda from inside a van to avoid discovery and prosecution by religious police.
This past weekend at the Chicago International Film Festival, I attended the premiere of Honor Diaries, a film featuring nine courageous women’s rights advocates with connections to Muslim-majority societies. They discussed issues such as freedom of movement, forced marriage, honor violence, and female genital mutilation. Afterwards, I was privileged to meet Paula Kweskin (Twitter | IMDb), the director, and Raheel Raza, one of the brave human rights advocates featured in the film.
All these women are part of a growing movement to raise awareness of women’s oppression and affect change worldwide. I have joined the movement, and I aspire to be even a fraction as courageous as they. I continue to believe the dream I had twenty-eight years ago came to me with a divine assignment—and I’ve long given up any futile attempt to stop. Now, East of Mecca (Buy on Amazon.com | Book website) is published—and my journey has just begun.