Princess by Jean Sasson : Book Review

Heart-wrenching story of Saudi princess and Saudi customs

Bookxpert Rating : 4/5

Genre : Memoir

Princess by Jean Sasson
Princess by Jean Sasson

Buy ‘Princess’ now (paperback)
Buy ‘Princess’ now (Kindle edition)

Welcome to Saudi Arabia, kingdom of opulence, opulence and opulence. And grandeur. Oh, and also secrets, dramas, and cousins. Yes. Definitely cousins! Families here are so huge that every citizen of the country would probably be traced back to a single person if the exercise was to be carried out. Ladies are aunties of aunties, similar-aged persons are distant cousins, or at best, ‘of the royal family but further in blood from our present king than I’!

Late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia
Late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia who was assasinated in 1975 by his nephew

‘Princess’ is the tale of the growing up years of Princess Sultana, the youngest of ten sisters, with this pseudonym so to protect her real identity. Sultana’s father has four wives, and they all have their separate palaces. Each of the wives have children with him, and he rotates between his wives, giving equal time to each. Sultana’s mother, Fadeela, was his first wife, and therefore his head wife.

In the land where the male child is so prized and the female scorned upon, the expectation from Fadeela was for a son that would ensure the succession of her husband’s legacy. He never loved his daughters. For him, girls were scum. Sultana writes how she craved her father’s attention in any way possible-

In a family of ten daughters and one son, fear ruled our home: fear that cruel death would claim the one living male child, fear that no other sons would follow, fear that God had cursed our home with daughters. My mother feared each pregnancy, praying for a son, dreading a daughter. She bore one daughter after another – until there were ten in all….

….In sad contrast, to my father I represented the last of many disappointments. As a consequence, I spent my childhood trying to win his affection . Finally, I despaired of attaining his love and clamoured after any attention, even if it were in the form of punishment for misdeeds. I calculated that if my father looked at me enough times he would recognize my special traits and come to love his daughter, even as he loved Ali.

Sultana’s father only loved and pampered Ali, his son
A weasel

To say that Sultana’s older sister Sara was forcibly married off to a sixty-two year old man who ‘most resembled a weasel'(right), as his third wife, would be an understatement. Fearing that she would create a scene during the marriage ceremony and spoil the family name, Sara was drugged on the orders of her own father. If that isn’t appaling, I don’t know what is!

As Sultana relaxes post-birth in a local maternity nursing home, she gets that rare chance to mix with middle class Saudi women. Girls as young as twelve and thirteen suckling their young; a thirteen year old about to give birth, but bound in chains, wrongly accused and punished for the act of fornication; another fifteen year old cowering in fear because she’d given birth to a daughter and her husband would be furious- the anguish of these women/girls is unimaginable.

As with most of the royals, I had led a life sheltered from ordinary citizens, and now my inquisitive nature led me to conversation with these women.
If my childhood had been bleak, the lives of most Saudi women had been more bleak, I soon learned. My life was ruled by men, but there was protection of sorts because of my family name. The majority of women gathered around the nursery window had no voice in their destiny…

…a young girl about to deliver, shackled in leg-irons and handcuffs, escorted to the maternity ward by armed guards…
…the girl had been tried in the Shari’a(the law of God) courts and found guilty of fornication. Since this was a crime of Hudud(a crime against God), the penalty was severe…
…The physician told the staff that the usual punishment for fornication was flogging, but in this instance the father had insisted upon death for his daughter. The girl was to be guarded until she delivered, at which time she was to be stoned to death.

Sultana just feels thankful that the life she has just given birth to isn’t of the weaker sex.

Qishlah_Palace in Saudi Arabia
Qishlah Palace in Saudi Arabia

And so the book is filled with stories of injustice and pain, while the men cruelly control the lives of the women they should protect, cherish and nurture. We need to keep in mind four things here before we judge harshly:

  1. ‘Princess’ was written in the 1980s, approximately about the years 1965-1985, when rules in Saudi Arabia were much stricter than those today. Even though women’s fates are still controlled by men now, they do have basic rights like the right to vote, drive, start their own businesses, etc. Go here to read a full timeline on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
  2. This is not a condemnation of the Muslim faith whatsoever. It describes some of the events that occurred in the life of Princess Sultana Al Sa’ud, which expose the bigotry of Saudi rules.
  3. ‘Princess’ is written by a royal. The life of a commoner in Saudi will be more difficult than the princesses’ one described.

I did not like Sultana a lot. She seemed extravagant and silly to me on many occasions, especially ones where she demands something, or takes the incredible wealth of her family for granted. She also fiercely challenges injustice and malpractice wherever she sees it, often risking her family’s wrath for standing up to men or meddling in affairs not concerning her. I was often left wondering at her intelligence and resourcefulness, and the potential she could achieve if given the chance to shine.

That said, ‘Princess’ is well written by Jean, in a good flow where the events don’t seem disjointed. The language is straightforward. Sultana’s capers serve to keep the book witty in parts, whereas the mens’ indifference make it downright chilling in some.

Related Reading :

  1. ‘I Live in a Lie’: Saudi Women Speak Up
  2. Rahaf al-Qunun: Saudi teen granted asylum in Canada
  3. My life as an expatriate girl in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
  4. The story of a Saudi student studying in Canada

About the Author:

Jean P. Sasson is an American writer whose work mainly centers around women in the Middle East. In 1978 she traveled to Saudi Arabia to work in the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh as an administrative coordinator of medical affairs. where she met Peter Sasson, her future husband. During their time in the Middle East, the Sassons made many friends, including members of the royal Al-Saud family, who visited the hospital. The most notable of these friendships was between Sasson and “Princess Sultana”, the princess about whose life The Princess Trilogy tells.

What’s good :-

  1. The heart-touching writing style of the book.
  2. Well paced and richly detailed.
  3. The rules of Saudi Arabia are brought through well in the events described by Sultana.

What should have been :-

  1. Sultana seems like a very narrow-minded lady and I did not like her characterization.
  2. That the book has been written from a royal’s perspective, which has largely narrowed down the difficulties being faced by the commoners.

Other Stuff :

The Title:- ‘Princess’, because it describes the young years of the Saudi royal princess – Priness Sultana, and the rules of the Kingdom that serve to bolster men and bind women.
Best Line :-

Happiness is realized only in the face of unhappiness.

Genre :- Memoir
Final Thoughts :- Gripping storyline, witty and sombre in equal parts, this isn’t a read you will regret.
Up Next :- ‘Lying With Strangers’ by James Grippando

Have you read ‘Princess’? Well, what are you waiting for then! Comment away, add your own thoughts, review my review, ask questions, whatever. I’d love to hear from you.
Do let me know if there are any books you’d like me to read of or anything with the blog that I can improve!

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