Sarah Hayes was thrilled when her husband Max got a job working for Ocmara in Saudi Arabia. The chance for a new adventure, as well as financial security for their family seemed like a dream come true. But from the moment Sarah, Max and their kids Kate and Sam arrived, she has also felt constant anxiety and a sense of being smothered by both the country’s restrictive rules concerning female dress, travel, behavior and the company’s insular, cliquish culture. When she makes a Saudi friend, Yasmeen Ali, and is welcomed as a guest into her warm, loving female family network, she finds her world broadening and brightening – but Yasmeen has secrets, too, that threaten to tear apart both her life and Sarah’s.
This is a heartrending, beautifully-written story of cultural conflict, of imbalances of power and of the dangers inherent for women when a patriarchal religion governs the state – and the home. The author’s writing is simple and lyrical; the introductory chapter does a magnificent job of opening the story on a dramatically tantalizing note. The relationship between Sarah and Max is deftly drawn and it changes inevitably as the characters themselves do. The plot seems at first to meander but as it goes on little betrayals, quarrels and incidents build on each other inexorably and mercilessly until the devastating climax. The author provides a nuanced, if an outsider’s, view of Saudi culture describing its beauties and the warmth of its people lovingly while still vividly demonstrating the helplessness of women caught in a society that gives them no agency whatsoever.
EAST OF MECCA is a powerful and agonizingly vivid tale of the struggle for women’s lives, well-being and agency in the face of a controlling fundamentalist dictatorship.