East of Mecca Trailer
East of Mecca has been awarded a Nautilus Book Award in Fiction for 2015.
East of Mecca is an Amazon.com
Best Seller in
Middle Eastern Literature
This moving and unforgettable novel, East of Mecca, tells a timely, harrowing, and heartbreaking story of love and betrayal, the transcendent power of sisterhood, and the ultimate price of oppression.
Driven by financial desperation, Sarah and Max Hayes are seduced by promises of a glamorous expatriate lifestyle in Saudi Arabia. Sarah surrenders her career when Max accepts a prestigious job with Ocmara Oil Company and they relocate their family to the shores of the Persian Gulf.
Locked inside the heavily-guarded Ocmara compound, Sarah becomes invisible within the male-dominated, fundamentalist, Islamic Kingdom, which is governed by sharia law. Gradually, she is drawn into a clandestine, illicit friendship with Yasmeen, a Muslim Saudi woman. Together they find freedom beneath the veils and behind the walls of the Saudi women’s quarters—until inconceivable events force Sarah to make life-or-death decisions.
Told with riveting authenticity and exquisite detail, East of Mecca explores gender apartheid through the abuse of absolute power with an elegant balance of cultural nuance and moral inquiry. Long after you have turned the last page, you will be haunted by the vivid characters and powerful scenes illuminating this tour de force.
“My skirt dragged in the water, clinging to my legs, making each step a struggle. In the distance a woman covered in black stood at the edge of the ocean, a pair of white running shoes dangling from one hand. It looked like she was gazing at the horizon as I had been, but I couldn’t see her eyes behind her veil. It was just how she stood—stock-still, facing east. I watched her as I emerged from the water… As we walked along the shore, I turned back, searching. The Saudi woman was gone.”
– Excerpt from Chapter 5
About Sheila Flaherty
I am an award winning writer and clinical psychologist who specializes in helping people navigate life changes with grace and ease. I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s in Behavioral Sciences from the University of Houston. I earned my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago.
Growing up an “Army brat” and as a young woman I lived in numerous places in the United States and overseas, including Germany and Singapore. My life experiences and education have contributed to my goal to be a kind, intuitive, and life-transforming therapist. I’ve had a thriving counseling practice in the Chicago area for many years, except for one year spent in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
I have always been passionately drawn to righting injustice. While living in Saudi, my compassion led me to practice counseling secretly, helping to empower the American and Saudi women I met. My experiences fueled my passion for writing East of Mecca, a novel about women living within the confines of a violent, oppressive, male-dominated society.
In screenplay format, East of Mecca has placed in numerous screenwriting competitions, including the Nicholl Fellowship, Big Break, BlueCat, and Table Read My Script: London. East of Mecca was a Finalist in the 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York, a Gold Finalist in the 2016 Beverly Hills Screenplay Competition, and a Finalist in the 2005 CineStory Screenwriting Competition. In 2017, I was selected as a Top 50 Writer in ISA Fast Track Fellowship VI.
East of Mecca was awarded a Silver Nautilus Book Award in Fiction for 2015, is IndieReader Approved with a 5-star review, was named one of the best self-published books of 2016 by IndieReader, and one of the best self-published books by Rebels Market in 2018. East of Mecca currently has over 100 reviews averaging 5 stars on Amazon, and has been an Amazon Best Seller in Middle Eastern Literature for three consecutive years. I have been awarded residencies at the Ragdale Foundation for my work in fiction in 2010, 2013, and 2016.
My life mission is to enlighten, inspire, and empower others for the greater good.
My Core Values
- Equality: Respecting the rights of all, without taking from some, to empower others.
- Integrity: Doing the right thing guided by inner spiritual values.
- Love: Attempting to bring passion and heart to all relationships and endeavors.
- Faith: Action without expectation or proof of outcome—only hope.
- Service: Striving to always work for the greater good, not expecting personal reward.
- Humility: No need for external praise or reinforcement.
“The evening air felt charged as we walked the narrow streets of Rahima. Middle Eastern music blared from shop radios, intermingling with sounds of laughter and language. Carpet sellers stood in the doorways of their shops, holding glasses of tea. Baskets of rice and spices rested on sidewalks and racks displayed abayas and thobes.”
– Excerpt from Chapter 7
Praise for East of Mecca
5 STARS! EAST OF MECCA is a powerful and agonizingly vivid tale of the struggle for women’s lives, well-being and agency in the face of a controlling fundamentalist dictatorship.
East of Mecca offers a deeply engaging narrative on the brutality waged against women and the bonds that unite them. The vivid and powerful scenes illuminating this story will stay with you.
—David Finch, author of New York Times bestseller The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband
Brilliantly captures the everlasting ties of sisterhood, the struggle of the forsaken, and a mother’s resolve to protect her family in the face of grave danger. If you’re somehow able to set this book down, it will probably take you a moment to remember you’re not actually living the story.
—Kristen Finch, Life Coach
East of Mecca is an elegant balance of cultural nuance and moral inquiry, well-told with precise detail and emotional impact. It is an important story for our time.
—Mark Bryan, founding member of Oprah Winfrey’s Change Your Life team.
This is an important story that is written so well that you won’t be able to turn off your bedside lamp until you’ve turned the last page. Sarah is a woman that most of us can relate to and will feel a kinship with as she faces the many challenges that come with being a woman in Saudi Arabia.
This would make an excellent companion piece to A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING. But while Eggers novel highlights the absurdities of life in a conservative, oil rich kingdom, Flaherty deals with the horrors of a dogma that considers women little more than property. The story is riveting, and Flaherty’s prose is elegant and powerful. This is definitely a book not to miss.
—Eric Diekhans, Screen Writer and Television Producer
This is a cautionary tale of good intentions gone wrong, of the skewed power dynamics that couples are likely to confront, both within and outside their home, if they choose to pursue the American dream overseas in a society that denies women basic human rights.
—Mary Trouille, Professor of Women’s Studies, Illinois State University
Sheila Flaherty is a gifted writer. Her compassionate words paint the picture and touch the reader’s heart. Her descriptive language and knowledge of the country is convincing and believable. The brutality also forces the reader to look closely at their own beliefs and search for the truth of Godly love. This message makes the book a must read!
—Carl Ray Copeland, Retired Haltom H.S. Football Coach, Texas
This book has changed the way I look at woman garbed in the traditional dress of the Middle East. The characters still linger in my consciousness, the sign of a great piece of writing.
—Sarah Thurber, Managing Partner, FourSight LLC
You’ve heard that it’s all about location, this book takes you to its every location, swiftly, solidly and strikingly. You can taste the era, the culture, the country, the pain. It takes you on a journey through two women’s achingly different lives and brings you their united beauty and torment.—Jo Ann Cross, Amazon.com Reader Review
Sheila did a wonderful job of portraying the plight of victimized women in a Saudi Arabian company town without attacking religion but by uncovering the true cause of the disparity. Well written and thought provoking.
—Melissa Heisler, Stress Reduction Expert, Author
“At first, the salt stung more than tears and sweat, but soon it stopped hurting. I took long, hard strokes, turning my head side to side. It had been years since I’d been swimming. I doggedly plowed through the water. Later, with practice, I would learn grace. Finally, exhausted, I stopped and floated on the surface. I looked at Yasmeen and smiled. Laughing quietly, Yasmeen grabbed one of my ankles and towed me to shore.”
– Excerpt from Chapter 22
Below is a collection of Sheila’s photos taken during the year she spent in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and around the Middle East.
“The applause became rhythmic clapping as we filed into the living room and joined the circle around two women who were dancing. Their bellies undulated and they waved colorful scarves while calling out in high-pitched trills. The dancers passed their scarves to others who stepped inside the circle. Women of all shapes, sizes, and ages danced.”
– Excerpt from Chapter 31
It was the last box. Wrapped tightly in packing tape with “Saudi” written on the side in black marker, it sat alone in the middle of the living room floor. Everything else was gone. It was a time of moving on and letting go. I’d sold the battered Victorian house and closed on the new minimalist condo. I could have chosen to cart the box with me, settled it into the far corner of the storage area, and left it unopened. But the move would have made that a deliberate act. Not that forgetting isn’t sometimes a deliberate act.
For the past eighteen years I’d known where the box was. On some level I was always aware of it, shoved deep into the recesses of the hall closet—lying in wait like a repressed memory. I couldn’t open it, but I couldn’t throw it away. For the past few years, it had been getting harder to ignore. I couldn’t turn on the news or open the paper without a nudge, a reminder. Fleeting glimpses of a black shadow. Dark eyes above a mask. The box lived on the periphery of my mind like the forgotten words of a song, or the remnants of a disturbing dream. And then the news coverage of the Girl of Qatif, a young Saudi rape victim sentenced to jail and 200 lashes, made the memories too loud to ignore.
When I dragged the box out of the closet, I was surprised by how light it was. I set it on the floor and walked around it for a week. It waited in silent reproach. Now, all else was gone except an old boom-box that kept me company while I cleaned. Finally, it was time. All other distractions and demands had been silenced or met.
Even then, I circled, restless and reluctant. I poured myself a glass of red wine. On bare feet I padded quietly into the living room, bringing the bottle with me, just in case. The house was still and slightly chilly. It was early evening and the windows held the diminishing glow of daylight. I dimmed the overhead light and lit several candles.
I sat cross-legged on the ancient hardwood floor and took a sip of wine. Using a serrated knife, I sawed through the tape and opened the box. Immediately I was hit with the lingering smells of smoke and desperation. Underneath, and more subtle, I caught the sweet scent of henna, sandalwood, frankincense, and myrrh—the perfume of the Middle East. Wadded pieces of newspaper, covered with Arabic calligraphy, formed a protective layer. I tossed the paper into the empty fireplace. Now, everything in the box was dark, swaddled in black cloth.
Reaching in, I pulled out the first thing I touched, immediately recognizing the dense familiar weight. Wrapped in a scarf was my Nikon EM. I examined the camera and took off the lens cap. Peering through the viewfinder, I looked out the windows into the darkening night. After setting the Nikon on the floor, I took a swallow of wine and picked up the scarf.
The scarf was long and black, scalloped edges embroidered with red and gold silk thread. Green and red sequins formed the shapes of flowers. I smoothed the scarf across my lap and traced the flowers with my fingertips. The gauzy fabric was ripped in several places. I wound the scarf around my neck.
Digging deeper, my fingers closed on black silk. I gathered my abaya into my arms and buried my face in the soft cloth, breathing in the odors of incense, blood, freedom, and fear. Suddenly I saw blood billowing through water—a maroon river swirling down a drain. In that moment I felt the first sting of tears. Awash with emotions and memories, I sat on the cold hard floor, rocking gently, keening. When I finally lowered the cloth, the sky was black. I slipped my abaya over my T-shirt and jeans, finding comfort in the warm damp silk. I finished my glass of wine and poured another.
The only thing left in the box was a small, light blue backpack. I lifted it onto my lap, unzipped it, and looked in. On top was an audiotape labeled with one word handwritten in black ink: “Belly.” I smiled and set the tape on the floor. Next up was a crumpled burgundy and gold box of Dunhill cigarettes. As I lifted it to my nose, I smelled the faint, sweet scent of tobacco. I set the cigarettes beside the tape.
Rummaging deep in the bag, I found a cowry shell with minute pink speckles scattered across the rounded top. The opening on the flat white bottom had tiny tooth-like edges. Touching it to the tip of my tongue, I tasted the sea.
I pulled a blue airmail envelope out of the backpack. On the front, SHUKRAN was printed in red ink. I took a swallow of wine and a deep breath. As if tucked hastily into the envelope, a small photograph crookedly faced away. I knew what it was without looking. I turned the picture over and saw a woman’s face, bruises and torn skin barely visible beneath a thick layer of makeup. Her solemn dark eyes stared straight into the camera—straight into mine. I stared back for a long time.
With trembling fingers, I picked up the Dunhills and pulled out a crumbling cigarette. Specks of tobacco scattered like confetti. I lifted a candle and put the tip of the cigarette into the flame. The brittle paper flared quickly. I inhaled, choked, and exhaled. Holding the cigarette loosely between my fingers, I watched the curling smoke. I took another drag, gagged, then threw the cigarette into the fireplace and watched as it smoldered. The wads of newspaper caught, smoked, began to burn. The flames quickly consumed the paper and the fire was out.
I put the picture back into the envelope and as I slid the envelope into the backpack, I heard a faint jingle. Reaching in, I felt along the bottom of the bag and pulled out an ankle-bracelet. Intricately hammered from dull silver, it was lined with dozens of tiny bells. Khalakhil, I heard her say. Holding both, ends I shook it. The bells made a sweet soft music. Be brave. I fastened the bracelet on my ankle.
After putting the camera, shell, and cigarettes into the backpack, I stood and stretched. I tossed the empty box into the corner and finished the glass of wine. Then I put the tape into the stereo, pushed play, and stood in the center of the room, waiting. Soon, Middle Eastern music filled the air, the rhythm slow, faster, slow again. Eyes closed, I stood in my abaya and scarf, swaying until muscle-memory took over—the placement of a foot, the undulation of the belly, the shimmy of a hip.
As my body moved to the beat, I felt the weight of the khalakhil and heard the chime of bells. I surrendered to the music and the memories. When I smelled the sweet and bitter scent of Clementines, I opened my eyes. The candles flickered and threw long shadows against the bare walls. The windows cast back my reflection. And, as if she had been conjured, we moved in unison—together again.