Visiting an American Legend in Saudi Arabia

There are times when you can feel you are too tired to open just one more email but sometimes it’s really worthwhile.

I saw the notice in my Inbox, something about Barakat Trust having a book signing event, Wednesday, January 27th. That was the day I had already a very full schedule including holding my own book club meeting at 6:30 PM. It’s about as easy to gather a bunch of women who have jobs or take care of children at the end of a long week as it is to corral cats with one hand and a jump rope. I still felt I had to see what the signing was all about so I clicked open the email with a small sigh. I just couldn’t afford to risk missing an opportunity for my club members. I was so glad I did.

The Barakat Trust was founded in 1988 to support students and scholars with an interest in preserving Islamic cultural heritage.  One of those activities has been the reprint of Marianne Alireza’s “At the Drop of a Veil” and she was the featured author for the night of the book signing.

The book was not published or financed by Barakat Foundation but the book signing was an event to launch the “Friends of Barakat Trust.”

Marianne Alireza was one of the very first Americans to come to Jeddah in the early 1940s. Her book has been for many of the expatriate women who married Saudis and came to live here, the very first introduction to how it feels like to make such a huge departure from all that we are used to in our lives. “At the Drop of a Veil” is a profoundly human, loving and honest account of Marianne’s experiences in Saudi Arabia and was very influential in my own decision to come to live in Jeddah in the mid-1980s.

The event was hosted at her house and open to families. I carpooled with a girlfriend who is too timid to go to these events on her own. I thought I had memorized the map of the villa because everything was based on a landmark on Tahliya Street. As we drove up the street east towards Madinah Road I noticed that the familiar landmark has become a thing of history. I blame myself for not going shopping at all while I live here, I would have noticed that if I took to my housewife role a little more heartily. After trying some seat of the pants reckoning I had to admit that we were running out of time before our book club meeting and I’d have to call for instructions.

Once we arrived at the villa we were treated graciously. Marianne was wearing a beautiful blue, gold and red caftan, her hair in her pixie style clipped to the side. She was sitting at a table near the entrance of the house with a stack of books to sign in front of her. People were printing the names they wanted inscribed on slips of post-its and she gamely signed book after book.

I just took in the view not really sure what to tell her when it was my turn. How could I tell Marianne that all those years ago I found her book in my college library and was transported back to Jeddah with all its romance and mystery. She was having many of the same difficulties I was trying to blend in with a culture and different language that was a far cry from what we were used to. I recalled her stories about missing her husband when he was called off to events for men only. I would think of my own upcoming separation from my husband once he finished his studies and would return to Saudi. Her gulf might have been in the same town, but mine would be thousands of miles. In some ways I thought I might never actually live in Jeddah but that thought all changed more than twenty years ago and I’ve been here since.

I watched her sweet smile as she heard the little anecdotes the different people where telling her as she signed the books. I had seen her years ago at an American Ladies of Jeddah meeting when the membership was mostly made up of American women married to Americans. Marianne was one of us, one of the women who was in a mixed marriage. She had come to share her experiences and her memories from her time in Saudi and was at that point living between Southern California and the Kingdom. She brought a smile to my eyes when she mentioned that her extended family always looked forward to her end of the year turkey dinner. I thought myself what a challenge it was nearly 20 years ago to find cranberries and celery, never mind cornbread stuffing. I could also appreciate the star power of being able to produce a turky dinner with all the frills as my in-laws also had come to enjoy those dinners.

Here I was standing in her villa eighteen years later. There were her friends and family sitting on the living room couches, a small seating area had been set up with a film on the Barakat foundation and some of their projects and recipients and in the dining room a sumptuous array of finger foods both sweet and savory. Waiters came about with a rainbow assortment of juices and water and half the fun was seeing all my friends who had also come for the evening Jeddah can be small and cozy and nothing quite makes it feel that way like bumping into familiar faces at these events.

I should pause a bit to fawn on the beautiful trays of appetizers including mini bastilla! One of my favorite Moroccan dishes, I had never seen it miniaturized in this way before. It was the traditional chicken filling wrapped in a tender triangular shaped pie crust and sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon. There were tiny fresh lumpia, little triangular sambusak, tiny kibbeh, rolled tuna sandwiches, cheese filled goodies, succulent olives, tabouleh and sweets too numerous to sample. Little ginger snaps, traditional baklava, fruit en brochette, just an unexpected and very welcome gesture of hospitality from the organizers.

By time I had gone back for a few more books, her family had arranged for her to have a small break. She had been signing books non-stop for over an hour. Despite her years she still has that spark to her and that loveable “can do” spirit. One of her granddaughters confessed to me that they had to insist she take a break. She is not one to admit being tired or unwilling to come forward. I felt myself have a small blush of shame at grumbling about being tired after work.

After only the briefest of breaks she walked back to the signing table, a small smile on her face. I was once again in front of her to have just a few more books signed for gifts. As in the past at that ALJ meeting long ago I had mentioned that her book, “At the Drop of a Veil” was the first I had read on Saudi Arabia. What I didn’t tell her was that it was also the best.

I will always treasure that evening and wish I could have expressed to her friends and family how kind they were to open their home and treat us all like family. God bless you Marianne, you have touched more lives than you will ever know.

For more information on the Barakat Trust, please visit their website at www.barakat.org.

And many thanks to my dear friend “Y” in Jeddah for sharing this memorable evening with American Bedu!

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8 Responses

  1. Good post Carol and “Y”. I enjoyed reading it, although it was bit a confusing in the beginning, made me think that you (Carol) were in Jeddah! I even had to check the calendar to make sure Jan. 27 is indeed a Wednesday…. i was thinking that this might’ve happened some years ago… but the very last line explained everything!
    Again, interesting post!

  2. Is she part of the famous (and wealthy) “Alireza” family in Jeddah?

    I have to confess I had not heard of her before now.

  3. A really enjoyable post.
    And now to Amazon to try and get the book!

    LOL @ ”trying to corral cats”!

  4. Yes; she is indeed part of the alireza family.

    Glad you enjoyed and I wish I could relax in Jeddah!!

  5. The evening was fabulous. Marianne was as gracious and lovely as ever, but much quieter than I remember her in years gone by. The outspoken ‘rebel’ in her, that I could always relate to in this part of the world, seems to have quieted down now. She seems happy and at peace with her children and grandchildren surrounding her.

    Always the worker, I’m sure this isn’t the last we’ll hear of Marianne Alireza.

  6. It sounded like such a magnificent evening all around and Marianne sounds like someone everyone would want to know!

  7. I am just amazed at this I pad. My daughter showed me you your entry on your visit to the Barakat book signing and am overwhelmed at the comments you have made regarding me and my book. I have always said it is a people story and the truth of the matter is that people are people. They have the same needs, the same wants, the same joys, the same sorrows.
    I appreciate your interest and comments.

  8. Is there some way I can send a message to Marianne Alireza? I am finally beginning my book on living in Jeddah, 1966 – 1972, and had Marianne’s granddaughter in my nursery school, Abracadabra. Have just bought At The Drop Of A Veil again (my first copy lent out and never returned,) and it is even more fascinating reading now. How I wish I could again meet this wonderful lady.

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