Desert Isle Keeper
A Veiled Journey
A Veiled Journey is not a romance. It contains enough gripping, nail biting action to make any suspense addict happy but at its core, it is a deadly serious story of an American woman living in modern day Saudi Arabia. Whatever the genre, A Veiled Journey is a courageous book. I could not put it down.
The story opens with a wrenching scene in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, 1958. A thirteen year old concubine gives birth to tiny girl in the presence of the young wife of an American diplomat. Sakeema, the concubine’s mother, begs the woman, Tess, to take her grandchild and raise it as her own. The reason is simple. Sakeema does not wish for the baby to grow up to be the toy of a man. “Here the life of a girl child is worthless,” she says handing her grandchild over to a stranger from an alien culture.
Thirty-two years later, on the eve of the Gulf War, that baby is Dr. Liz Ryan. Upon learning the story of her birth she agrees to go to Saudi Arabia for a year to work in a clinic. Liz hopes to find her birth mother and learn something of her roots. A Veiled Journey is the story of Liz’s work in Saudi, her romance with a Saudi prince, her discovery of her mother and her growing entanglement with the victims of that regime.
Though it pulls no punches in its descriptions of Saudi society, A Veiled Journey is refreshingly free of Middle Eastern stereotypes. This is a carefully written book where the humanity of each individual shines through. There are Muslim women in A Veiled Journey who defend the society they live in and rail against the influences of the west on their husbands. Nell Brien’s perspective is clear, however. As Liz says, when the wife of a Saudi doctor blames his disappearance on his corruption in Boston, “It is in the Islamic city of Jedda that he has disappeared, not in the city of Boston.”
Liz begins her stay in Saudi a naive foreigner. She laughs at the religious fanatics who patrol the streets, though she is warned that they can have an unmarried man and woman jailed and flogged for simply walking together. The scrub nurses in the hospital OR cannot even ask men in the hallway to be silent when Liz is performing delicate surgery. It is only when the male chief of staff disappears in a horrifying incident that Liz realizes the extent of the repression around her.
And that is not her only worry. As a female doctor, it becomes virtually impossible for Liz to avoid observing the pain of Saudi women’s lives. There is no avoiding the decisions that face her. Should she secretly repair the hymen of a young girl who will be legally murdered when her bridegroom learns that she is not a virgin? The male American doctor with whom Liz works tells her not to get involved, but he cannot appreciate the repression around him because, as a man, he never really speaks with Saudi women.
What complicates Liz’s perspective is her attraction for Abdullah, an influential and sophisticated Saudi Prince who showers her with flowers and jewels. Abdullah has been educated in the United States. His wealth, looks and charm would turn any woman’s head. Abdullah’s feelings for Liz are genuine. As the relationship grows, however, we see that although he respects Liz more than any woman he has ever known, it is unlikely that Prince Abdullah has western expectations for their marriage.
The “veiled journey” referred to in the title refers, at least in part, to the journey of understanding that Dr. Ryan takes. She begins as an idealistic and naive woman, but when her ideals are put to the test she demonstrates her courage and honor. The exciting conclusion to this story had me on the edge of my seat. A Veiled Journey does not have a traditional happy ending but Liz makes a big difference in the life of one young Saudi woman. The ending is satisfying, though and made complete sense within the context of the story.
There was almost nothing I did not like about this fascinating book. Not surprisingly author Nell Brien lived for a number of years in Saudi Arabia and every page “feels” right. I am somewhat familiar with the Middle East. The incidents described in A Veiled Journey sound like many that I heard described by Americans and Europeans over dinner tables in Bahrain, in the late eighties. This is Nell Brien’s first book and it is an amazing start. I’m anxiously awaiting her future work.