I've already shooed her male American translator out of the Weston Hotel room. Now I'm alone with esteemed Saudi writer Raja Alem and we are free to chat about Middle Eastern attitudes toward women, a subject close to my own Palestinian-Canadian heart. I'm suddenly aware that we two Arab women have just instinctively segregated ourselves.It's not long before we're onto the veil. This she defends as a sun protection device, although she does allow the requisite contempt for the Saudi modesty police (mutawa'een). "They go through the streets and say, "Cover, women! Please cover! Cover! Cover!' I just walk away like this.' She raises perfectly plucked eyebrows in disdain and turns away.
"Look,' I tell her. "I like to cover my face in the sun, too. But I don't want to go to jail if I don't.'
When I scheduled this interview (Alem is here to read at the International Festival Of Authors), I had no idea what to expect. Her new book, Fatma, is the first of her seven novels to be published in English. It's a flaming tale that starts like Memoirs Of A Geisha and ends in Carlos Castaneda country, a narrative about a 16-year-old girl married to a man who continually rapes her until she changes into a snake woman and has extremely detailed and erotic (but still metaphorical) sex with her desert lover.
At the press conference, artistic director Greg Gatenby introduces her as a woman who could only travel with male permission. But here she is, onstage, no veil in sight.
She is imperious, 40ish and has impeccable posture. Arabs love ceremony, and she is, after all, onstage. She is beautiful, her face open, sensual and round, surrounded by a breast-length cloud of black hair. Under a sheer black caftan (abayah) embroidered with large gold circles -- I'm talking Fredericks-of- Hollywood sheer -- she wears a thoroughly modern black T-shirt and silky pants ending in outrageously pointed boots.
When moderator Marilyn Powell comments during the discussion that she understands that Alem and her sister "sacrificed marriage' for their art, Alem smiles and gently replies, "You consider that a sacrifice?'
She talks about her beloved father, a poet, who died two years ago and who told her, "Don't let any man hinder you. Don't consider any man the ultimate. You are the ultimate.'
Now back in the hotel room, I ask, "Who is your guardian now?" She looks affronted. "A guardian," she repeats. "No, not a guardian. My brother comes to the airport with me and signs the paper. It is just a little paper."
She is just as practical about not being able to drive in her home city of Jeddah. "Yes, I would like to," she shrugs. "But it is easier to be driven. I am an observer. I can observe when I have been driven,' she says in her soft, high-pitched, but definitely commanding voice.
This sense of inviolability may be inherited. Alem's grandfather, in Mecca, where she grew up, was the "sheik of the Zamzam water carriers," the group that brought water for the worshippers, and although not millionaires, her family has status. She is anxious to point out to Westerners that Saudi Arabia has a valued legacy of respect for women. The current laws in the Islamic Kingdom under King Fahd seem to be more of an annoyance to her than a terrifying restriction of civil rights.
"In Mecca, the women used to make this celebration where they danced all night and no men were allowed into the city," she says. "When they found a man, they roped him and made fun of him. The women were a kingdom inside a kingdom."
The magical realism in Alem's novels seems to flow from a deeply held penchant for the metaphysical. Everyone, she believes, is connected to everything else, and death is merely transformation. Thus, she speaks of dead people in the present tense: "He adores me, my father,' she says. She tells me I really must see her grandmother dance with a veil.
"Oh, is she alive?" I ask. "No, she is dead," she replies matter-of-factly.
Raised on the Qur'an and a mixture of Bedouin spells and superstitions (as I was on Catholicism mixed with coffee-ground readings and evil eye totems), she's arrived at an artistic sensibility reminiscent of ancient Arabic writing, unabashedly passionate and fearlessly playful with words.
"When I first wrote," says Alem, who at 17 had published newspaper articles and had graduated from high school second in the kingdom, "they thought I was a man. "Raja' can be either a man's or a woman's name. When they found out I was a woman, they said, "Oh, she must be ugly,'" She laughs, flicking her hair into a pretty cloud, serenely aware of her made-up, gleaming face.
"And when I was 17 and received letters from men about my writing, my father would let me read them first."
This encouragement from her family is unique, violating the cultural restrictions around them. Nor is it exactly my experience here in Canada. And this woman writes about sexuality in an Islamic kingdom.
I tell her how my novel, 13, admittedly a pretty rude little book about a nasty Catholic girl, was received by my Arab family. My cousin Ramzi did not send the book to my aunt in Nazareth: too scandalous. They all proudly attended the launch in their best finery to give love and support, but no one made a comment about the content.
Uncle Anise privately told my mother he was shocked at the swearing. Alem is surprised. In her world, art has to be respected. You can't be squeamish.
She may be an example of the educated, accomplished Arab woman, a type we don't often see in the media, but Alem also wields the consummately feminine, almost roguish sensuality possessed and celebrated by Arab women. It's a sense of being fully satisfied with being female that North America, with its conflicted, image-driven society, is losing. While many of those veiled Arab women are dying inside, many are also looking back at us and our paucity of sexual identity with pity.
Alem and I discuss our man troubles (after covering the burning question: "lipstick, Chanel or Dior?"), and she sheepishly admits that she has to inform her family if she dates.
"In my family, the one I would tell is my younger brother," she says. "I tell him, "I know this man and I like him.' He wouldn't see it as his right to give (permission). He used to say, "I have two men sisters.'"
Alem grins and looks apologetic about men for the first time. "They think it's a compliment! Men think...' she corrects herself. "The government thinks it can restrict us. Nobody can restrict us. There are ways behind the ways."