Saturday, October 8, 2022

Interview With Award-Winning Author Sabeeha Rehman


1. What motivated you to write your book, to force you from taking an idea or experience and turning it into this book? I want the reader to see a side of Saudi Arabia we are not exposed to. What makes the country so attractive to Westerners like myself who planned to go for two years and ended up staying for six? Not to mention single American women. I want to present an anti-dote to the harmful and outdated stereotypes of the Middle East, one example being Saudi women who passionately embrace the veil and fight for their right to veil their faces. I want to dismantle the myth of the oppressed Saudi woman—what some see as oppression, others see as liberating. And I want to reveal the parallel cultures in that land, from the two-door entrances into homes (male/female) in Riyadh, to the desert Bedouin camel culture where women drove freely when driving in cities was banned, to snowfall in the mountains of Abha in the summer where women-owned businesses thrive, to swimming pools in the desert oasis and compounds for expats where all restrictions on dress code fall apart.  

2. What is it about and who is it for? This is about my experience of working in a hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a woman in a male dominated culture, where often I was the only woman at the table amongst my Saudi male colleagues. Through observations chronicled in real-time, I take you on a journey of discovery. Reading my emails sent back-home, you will experience Saudi culture as I try to navigate public spaces, share my confusion as I encounter the ‘morality police,’ appreciate the liberty the abaya (black cloak) offers, wonder at the ease of not being in the driver’s seat, and be awestruck by the seductive power of Saudi hospitality and the privilege of being an expatriate. It is a wry, incisive account that offers insight into that insular patriarchal society, what was contradictory or confining for a naturalized American who is a woman and a Muslim. You will observe the contradictions as the country attempts to balance tradition with practicality: expats living in compounds equipped with all the amenities of ‘back home’ including co-ed swimming pools and a lifestyle at odds with the public face of the country; or salesMEN handling lingerie in stores. This book is for the American reader, curious about the Saudi culture, with an inquisitive and probing mind, willing to allow his or her mind to be influenced by my personal account; someone who wants to know the real Saudi Arabia.  

3. What takeaways might the reader will be left with after reading it? Two takeaways:

  1. Saudi Arabia? It’s Not What I Thought.
  2. Saudis, while not “just like us,” are every bit as complex and various as we are.  

4. How did you decide on your book’s title and cover design? If I said that writing the book was the easy part but picking the title was much harder, I wouldn’t be exaggerating. The title became a family project. My children, grandchildren, cousins, nieces, all made their pitch. I wanted the title to reflect my positive experience of Saudi Arabia, with an element of mystique and nuance accounting for the contradictions in that culture. Nothing was working. It was my editor’s prompt that nailed it, when he asked: if you were to write a daily blog on Saudi Arabia, what would the title be? Without missing a beat, I said, “It’s not what you think.”

The cover design was another marathon. Again, my family was totally into it with my eighteen-year-old granddaughter Laila, an artist, leading the pack, and my sweet twelve-year-old granddaughter Sofia, putting pen to paper drawing samples of the cover, with my son Asim not far behind. Of course, Arcade’s artist was to design the cover, but anyone and everyone wanted to have a say in the theme. Thanksgiving chatter was all about the book cover. Ideas were flying off the table faster than the turkey and trimmings. Everyone agreed that the cover should convey the contradiction in the culture, the irony of the abaya, the concept what-you-see isn’t what-you-get, and all the while, depicting an Arabian image. It fell into place when my son Asim suggested that against the backdrop of Riyadh’s skyline, a woman in an abaya be walking towards the city, briefcase in hand. An executive cloaked in black; the abaya that is synonymous with repression, and the briefcase that conveys power. Arcade’s artist knew exactly how to bring that image to life with her use of brilliant color and motifs.  

5. What advice or words of wisdom do you have for fellow writers? If you are writing a memoir, just start writing and see where it takes you. No need to do an outline—it’s not a term paper. This is your emotional experience. Just write and you will find your voice. A memoir writer has to be credible. Don’t hold back; the reader will see right through you, and you will lose credibility. Be willing to expose your vulnerability. It’s o.k. to be self-deprecating. And show compassion towards those who may have wronged you in the past. Be careful about hurting the feelings of people you are writing about.  

6. What trends in the book world do you see -- and where do you think the book publishing industry is heading? Book Clubs are flourishing, and people are reading books they would not have selected on their own. That has expanded the scope of genres and authors being read, not to mention the ease of digital and audio books. In my experience, more people are reading or listening to books than in the prior decades, and this is despite the reduced attention span caused by social media. Brick and mortar bookstores may be closing (are) but readers are not going anywhere anytime soon. The pandemic-induced virtual book talks have taken authors to places they would not have ventured into in-person. My co-author and I did approximately 100 book talks for We Refuse to be Enemies—almost all on zoom. I have to believe that this phenomenon has resulted in an increase in readership. So. books are not going anywhere anytime soon either.

As for the publishing industry, there is likely to be mergers and acquisitions. Self-publishing has evolved into an industry in itself, and more and more hybrid publishers are dotting the landscape. How this eventually shakes out is something I am unable to predict. So, my guess is as good as yours. Or perhaps, yours is better.  

7. What challenges did you overcome to write this book? The challenge was to ensure that this book, which relates decades-old experiences, has relevance in the shifting landscape of Saudi Arabia. For example, in the years I was there, women were not allowed to drive; now they are. Women in Riyadh had to wear the abaya in public; now it is no longer a requirement. So, what makes my 20-year-old stories relevant? It’s the culture. Whereas the laws have changed, and women have a choice, the traditions and culture that define the identity of that nation remain intact. Beliefs and traditional ways observed by families prevail and cannot be reversed by edicts. And that is the premise I draw from, while providing updates in the epilogue, and in some cases in the footnotes.  

8. How would you describe your writing style? My style is conversational, informal, and infused with a touch of humor. When writing, I want to feel the presence of the reader, be looking into their eyes as I tell my stories, anticipate their reaction, and try to answer their questions. In this book, I share my experiences in real-time. The morning after I landed in Riyadh, I wrote a long email to my family and friends, describing my Day1 experience: what I discovered, how it made me feel, what was confounding and what warmed my heart. And it took off from there—the daily reports, that is. The chapter “First Impressions” is devoted to a chronological day-by-day account of my first month in Riyadh. From there on, you will read about what it was like to work in ‘corporate Saudi,’ life after work in a city that offers no entertainment, the spiritual experience of the pilgrimage of Hajj, death of the King Fahad in our hospital, being there on 9/11, all related in a compilation of observations made in real time and my reminiscences.  

9. If people can buy or read one book this week or month, why should it be yours? Wouldn’t you want to go deep inside the most closed and secretive country and be surprised?

Wouldn’t you want to know why Americans, like myself, a hospital executive who had everything going for her, pack up and move to Saudi Arabia? And then end up thriving.

Wouldn’t you be interested in knowing what is so seductive about Saudi Arabia that expats like myself can’t get enough of it? And why it is so culturally confounding? Wouldn’t you want to read a book that gets you exasperated when you learn that I secured a high-profile job at a prestigious hospital but first had to obtain my husband’s written permission to work?

Wouldn’t you want to know what it was like to be in Saudi Arabia on 9/11? Wouldn’t you want to come with me on the pilgrimage of the hajj, a place tightly closed to non-Muslims, and see how it is that such a physically challenging journey can be so spiritually rejuvenating?

And I am sure you would want to see how Saudi women exercise their power and irreversibly expand the boundaries of their power. And I am sure you will love to have a hearty laugh at some Saudi humor.  

About The Author: Sabeeha Rehman is an author, blogger, and speaker on interfaith understanding. Her memoir Threading My Prayer Rug. One Woman’s Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, named one of Booklist’s Top Ten Religious and Spirituality Books and Top Ten Diverse Nonfiction Books, awarded honorable mention in the San Francisco Book Festival Awards, Spiritual Category, and was a United Methodist Women’s Reading Program Selection. She is also the author with Walter Ruby of We Refuse to be Enemies. How Muslims and Jews Can Make Peace, One Friendship at a Time. She is an op-ed contributor to the Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, Baltimore Sun, and Washington Jewish Week. She lives with her husband in New York City. Her next book It’s Not What You Think. An American in Saudi Arabia will be published on October 11, 2022. For more information, please see:


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About Brian Feinblum

Brian Feinblum should be followed on Twitter @theprexpert. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog ©2022. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester with his wife, two kids, and Ferris, a black lab rescue dog. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s The Independent.  This blog, with over 4,000 posts over the past decade, was named one of the best book marketing blogs by BookBaby and recognized by Feedspot in 2021 and 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. It was also named by as a "best resource.” For the past three decades, including 21 as the head of marketing for the nation’s largest book publicity firm, and two jobs at two independent presses, Brian has worked with many first-time, self-published, authors of all genres, right along with best-selling authors and celebrities such as: Dr. Ruth, Mark Victor Hansen, Joseph Finder, Katherine Spurway, Neil Rackham, Harvey Mackay, Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Warren Adler, Cindy Adams, Susan RoAne, Jeff Foxworthy, Seth Godin, and Henry Winkler. He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America, and has spoken at ASJA, IBPA, Sarah Lawrence College, Nonfiction Writers Association, Cape Cod Writers Association, Willamette (Portland) Writers Association, and Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association. His letters-to-the-editor have been published in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Post, NY Daily News, Newsday, The Journal News (Westchester) and The Washington Post. He has been featured in The Sun Sentinel and Miami Herald. For more information, please consult:



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