“Hello darkness, my old friend.

I’ve come to talk with you again.”

~ Paul Simon

4/52-Walking the Fine Line

For the past few months I have been working on a second edition of East of Mecca. It will include reviews from Amazon and Goodreads and discussion questions for book clubs. Also included is a “second edition afterword” where I address the question I have been most asked since the original publication in 2013, “Haven’t things improved for Saudi women since you lived there in the late 1980’s?”

The simple and tragic answer is, “No.” Circumstances have worsened for Saudi women—and for Muslim women and girls worldwide. Because of culturally-sanctioned honor violence and radical Islamic terrorist groups, gender apartheid against women has reached epic proportions.

The not so simple and much more tragic answer is all the horrific ways in which women and girls are oppressed and abused. While writing the afterword, I felt I needed to research and document everything I found. I’ve been plugged into the world of women’s advocacy groups for years, so I get daily tweets, emails, and Facebook updates on the latest atrocities. I’ve read details, seen photographs, and watched videos that I will never be able to erase from my memory. As I collected more data, I fell into a very dark place.

Despite my mission to educate and advocate, I was immobilized. I simply could not write down the details I’ve learned. It was that revelation that finally allowed me to finish. In my afterword I have a list of facts about women in Saudi Arabia and have suggested two resources. Also included is a list of terms to search on Google, for more in-depth and current information.

My writer’s block is almost identical to what I experienced while writing East of Mecca. The following is an outtake from my original manuscript. It was written in July of 2010, but could have been written yesterday—after I rode my bike in the park. Part is truth and part is fiction. The line between the two is so razor fine,  even I no longer remember which is which.

East of Mecca—Outtake

Summer in Chicago has had a late start. A cold wet June has finally broken into a hot dry July. Today, I rode my bike along the path by the lake, pumping hard to waken muscles gone soft in the long Chicago winter. After an hour, my legs were sore. Sweat collected under my helmet and trickled down my cheeks. I wore shorts and a T-shirt and my newly exposed skin felt the slight peppery sting of impending sunburn. Later, when I took off my sandals, my feet had faint, light stripes—evidence of summer and exercise.

Today was an exercise in avoidance. I had stepped back from writing my story. The process of remembering had stirred up demons. My sleep was tormented with dreams of Saudi; fleeting images of barren desert, a blood soaked thobe, blue silk, and torn flesh. My nerves were frayed and a heavy veil of depression fell over me. I wanted to put Saudi back into the box, but repression doesn’t work like that. Once you have exposed a memory to air and tears, it can no longer be contained. Like combining iron with oxygen and water, it turns to rust—the color of dried blood.

As I biked, Lake Michigan was on my right. Sailboats danced in a regatta just offshore and beaches were littered with pale bodies. To my left was a shady park that is a Mecca for those seeking relief from the summer heat.

Rounding a curve, I saw a young Arab woman standing on a blanket. She wore an ankle-length green dress with long loose sleeves. A matching hijab framed her pale face. Her eyes were closed and her lips moving. She faced east, toward the lake. As I watched, she bowed forward, stood up, fell to her knees, lowered her forehead to the ground, rocked back up onto her knees, and bowed forward again. I recognized the graceful, fluid movements from the many times I had seen them in Saudi. The woman was praying.

Looking to the east, I saw pink clouds on the horizon, reflections of the sun setting in the west. I pulled off the bike path, so I could watch discreetly. Hands holding the grips, legs straddling my bicycle, I stood as if poised for flight.

Behind the woman was a gathering of Arab families. Middle Eastern music wafted in the same breeze as fragrant smoke from food sizzling on grills. There was a murmur of accented voices and the shrieks of children. Scanning the crowd, I saw men tossing balls back and forth. Children ran and played. Women sat or reclined on blankets, leaning against each other, talking and laughing. It looked like the perfect world. Standing alone on the outskirts, I felt a wash of longing—the old familiar tug of an outsider yearning for inclusion.

Suddenly, as if aware of my presence, the woman opened her eyes and looked straight at me. The expression in her dark eyes was serious as she held my gaze. I felt a shock of recognition. I had never seen her before, but I knew her. We know each other, I sensed her saying. We are all the same. She nodded, then closed her eyes and continued her prayers.

I stood frozen—awash with images, memories, and emotions. At that moment I knew. I had opened the box and I would be haunted until I told the story. Women need to know how dangerous the world is for us.

But the fleeting glimpses of darkness at the edge of my periphery were not only the woman on the beach. I knew I would never be free until I faced my own shadow. After another long moment, I mounted my bicycle and slowly pedaled home—resolved to tell our story.