‘Daring to Drive’: One Woman Changes a Kingdom

  • Daring to Drive by Manal Al-Sharif (Simon & Schuster); June 2017; in collaboration with Lyric Winik
  • In 40 words or less: From childhood, Manal Al-Sharif was unwilling to settle for the roles assigned by teachers and religious authorities. Necessity pushed her to defy convention and drive. Her story provides insight into the harshness of life for less-privileged Saudis.
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Locale: Saudi Arabia
  • Time: 1980’s – 2012
  • As a part of telling her personal story, Manal schools the reader on the history and customs of Saudi life, particularly since 9/11. The critical role Aramco (the state-operated oil company established by John D. Rockefeller) plays in offering women wider opportunities, somewhat outside of the constraints of the broader society, is a catalyst for Manal’s activism.

If you doubt for a moment that one person can bring about major change, Daring to Drive and this week’s dramatic announcement that women will be permitted to drive on the streets of Saudi Arabia prove it. Manal Al-Sharif was not born into an activist family. Her upbringing was in a harsh home, governed by strict Islamic rules and the unbending strictures of an education system determined to minimize girls’ opportunities and ambitions.

Manal always went her own way. She simultaneously questioned the authority of her teachers while exploring very fundamentalist religious teachings, putting her at odds with many including her siblings. 9/11 was a turning point for her, causing her to reassess her belief in the strictest religious teachings and the true nature of the factions calling for the demise of the West.

It is information technology that finally brought Manal to national and world attention. While she wanted to be an engineer, this was not a profession open in any way to women. The limited higher education options included a single path to information technology. Her tenacity and good fortune brought her to Aramco,  giving her a taste of some of the freedoms and opportunities open to women elsewhere in the world. As she learned of the Arab Spring through her laptop, another rarity, she realized that Twitter could provide the platform to bring together Saudi women across the country willing to drive!

This is far more than one woman’s quest. To tell Manal Al-Sharif’s story demanded looks into working-class family life, the juxtaposition of civil law and religious authority, the differential information available to the privileged and ordinary citizens. Decades of Saudi history and custom are woven into the telling. Not surprisingly, Daring to Drive has been received with acclaim in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom, with its large expat Saudi community and many wealthy Saudi visitors. The book has not been available within Saudi Arabia.

Manal was interviewed exhaustively in the development of this book. To bring her story to the page required the failed collaborative efforts of four skilled writers. It took hours of additional Skype conversations and extensive research for Lyric Winik, the final collaborator, to successfully convey the extraordinary personal journey Manal has taken from frightened small child to international activist.

It pays to have friends. My good fortune is to know Jenna and Gadi Ben-Yehuda. Knowing my love of books and authors, they introduced me to Lyric Winik as the book was being released in June. Lyric and I made plans to have her meet with a book group I facilitate on September 26. At 4:00 that afternoon the news bulletins and emails started pouring in – the Saudi Arabian government announced that beginning in June 2018 women would be allowed to drive in public in the kingdom.

Book club meeting, Tuesday, September 26, 2017, discussing ‘Daring to Drive’.

Meeting with a writer is a wonderful experience for a book group. It provides insights beyond the written page – how the narrative was constructed, what research was required, and the challenges of bringing the story to the public. We had many questions for Lyric, and we asked them all. And then we rejoiced for Manal and all the women of Saudi Arabia who have endured so much for so long in silence.










Afghani Women Showing Their Strength

  • unknown-7The Pearl that Broke its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (Harper Collins, 2014)
  • In 40 words or less: Two young Afghani women, separated by four generations,  struggle to find their rightful places in their families and society.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: Afghanistan
  • Time: Early 20th and early 21st centuries
  • Read this to better understand the historical issues for women in Afghanistan, regardless of who is in power.

“I was a little girl and then I wasn’t. I was a bacha posh and then I wasn’t. I was a daughter and then I wasn’t. I was a mother and then I wasn’t.” Rahima at 15

At every turn, the women of The Pearl that Broke its Shell consider their naseeb or destiny. Nadia Hashimi novel reminds the reader how difficult it is for someone to break out of a preselected gender role where power and control are asserted physically and an ingrained belief in fate can quash any measure of independence.

Nadia Hashimi’s life experience is about as far from that of her character’s as one could get. Born in the U.S., she wrote this, her first novel, while a pediatric emergency physician in Washington, DC. Hashimi tells the tortured story of life in Afghanistan through the voices of Shekiba, a young girl orphaned in the early 20th century, and Rahima, her great-great-granddaughter born about a century later.

The world of Afghan women is dictated by strict societal norms. Arranged marriage at a very young age to someone chosen by male elders; bearing and raising children (preferably male); cooking and maintaining the collective home along with sisters-in-law and, possibly, other wives; bowing to the will of her husband, mother-in-law, and any senior wives. The wives are dependent upon one another for assistance and companionship, sharing family stories among themselves and with their girl children. And they are their sole source of knowledge about marriage, childbearing, and childcare since they often marry at thirteen or even earlier.

Shekiba was the only daughter of the outcast son in a large family that lived off the land. Maimed after a cooking accident, her father protected and educated her. After all of her immediate family succumbs to cholera, she is grudgingly taken in by her uncles, and grandmother and their families, becoming the house servant. She is tall and strong, so when the opportunity arises to better the family position, she is given to the ruler as a guard for his large harem. When it’s discovered that a man has entered the harem, her life changes yet again. All seemingly well before the age of twenty. And her life was just beginning.

Rahima is the third of five daughters, hearing the family stories from her unmarried great-aunt. Her father is often gone, a warring clansman for the ruler of the local area. Much of his pay is in opium, making life for his family even more difficult. Too often families prohibit girls from attending school or leaving their homes out of concern for interaction with local boys. Some families with only girls engage in a “wink-wink” subterfuge, dressing a girl as a boy to enable her/him to be educated, to take care of tasks such as going to the market, and possibly doing odd jobs to augment the family’s earnings. Rahima becomes one of such girls, a bacha posh, the existence of such a status indicating its acceptance. But before she even reaches puberty, she and her two older sisters are given in marriage to the ruler and his brothers to enrich her father’s family.

In The Pearl that Broke its Shell, juxtaposing the lives of individuals a century apart reminds the reader that despite the strides taken to improve the lot of women in Afghanistan, the tribal culture remains repressive and often dangerous. By creating brave and vivid female characters, Hashimi raised the awareness of the plight of many Afghani women in a way that news articles rarely do. This was a wonderful discussion book for a group I led earlier this week.

Reading offers perspective when terror strikes

images-3November 13, the day that Paris exploded, was my birthday. And shortly after the early news reports confirmed the extent of the terror, I turned off the television. Most of the weekend was spent reading. Living in the DC area, staying on top of the news is as much a part of life as ridiculous traffic.

I can no longer spend endless hours glued to the repetition of the same information. While the terrorists attacked the lives and livelihoods of the citizens of Brussels, the ripples of their actions wound everyone seeing the reports.

Daily news reports talk of isolationism, interventionists, refugee crises and political intractability. Reading Erik Larson’s Dead Wake about the last voyage of the Lusitania and Churchhill’s calculated effort to bring the US into WWI brings to mind President Wilson’s policy of isolation which only changed after many American lives were lost in the sinking of the ship. This echoes some of today’s political rhetoric.

In Epitaph, Mary  Doria Russell’s compelling historical novel about the circumstances leading up to the shootout at the OK Corral, the Republicans and Democrats have vastly different approaches to border issues between Mexico and the Arizona territory. Some of the politicians turn a blind eye to the incursions of rustling cowboys and the killing parties across the border. The lack of cooperation among the parties and the border economic and political issues are all too familiar.

George Santayana is credited with saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Whether I am reading fiction or narrative nonfiction, I remain alert to the lessons shared. If anything, my reading gives me a much better perspective on the extraordinary domestic and foreign policy challenges we face as Americans.

As the day that changed Belgium forever ends, I watch the late news because information is power. And then there are the rare stories of people reaching out to help strangers, a reminder that when we treat each other with kindness rather than hate good can and will happen.

Seeking and Finding ‘In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist’

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  • Unknown-17In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist by Ruhama King Feuerman (The New York Review of Books, 2013)
  • In 40 words or less: A rebbe’s courtyard in Jerusalem and a shard of pottery discarded on the Temple Mount are catalysts for life changing experiences for three lonely people.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Jerusalem
  • Time: 1994
  • Read this book for a well-crafted story bringing in the many different peoples that make up Jerusalem.

There is a timelessness to Ruhama King Feuerman’s novel despite its contemporary setting. The courtyard of the title, on Nineveh Street in Jerusalem, is a place where seekers of all sorts congregate. A wise and ailing rebbe and his wife offer guidance and soup to an array of regular and occasional visitors. Isaac, a former haberdasher from the Lower East Side, arrives in the courtyard while looking for a new direction in his life. As luck would have it (and out of the goodness of their hearts), Isaac becomes the assistant to the rebbe, ferrying messages, keeping order and conversing with the visitors.

Among the visitors is Tamar, a young American who has moved to Israel and become more religious. She is effervescent in personality and dress and is in search of her bashert, the person who’s destined to share her life. She asks the rebbe’s guidance in finding him.

On the Temple Mount, Mustafa toils daily as a janitor, sweeping, washing, and hauling trash to maintain the holiness of the site. Mustafa has been an outcast from birth, his head awkwardly twisted almost over his shoulder. Rejected by his family who are concerned about the negative influence his condition may have on the marriage prospects of his siblings, he lives narrow existence of work, dinner and sleep with little human contact.

In the course of clearing out buckets of debris from questionable digging on the Temple Mount, Mustafa finds a shard of pottery that appears to have some value. Mustafa sees Isaac as someone who can explain what he has found. Looking for answers endangers Isaac and Mustafa but they are resolute in what becomes a quest for both. As with almost everything in Jerusalem, religious and political controversies, control of holy sites and distrust among groups become obstacles in their path.

Over the course of the novel, these three lonely, family-less people find connections with each other. The story has ample twists and turns, but it is the blossoming of the people and their friendships that gives it lasting strength. This is a slim book, tightly written and very well-suited for discussion among book groups.