Two decades on, she summons up the courage to write about the horror of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in “Yasmeena’s Choice
Jean Sasson has wanted to be a writer ever since she was in her teens. After moving to Saudi Arabia in the late Seventies, she discovered stories waiting to be told. There, she met Princess Sultana, whose life would later inspire her to write the “Princess” series, about being a woman in Saudi Arabia. But first came the “The Rape of Kuwait”. Now “Yasmeena’s” Choice takes one deeper look into the horror of Kuwait’s invasion by Saddam Hussain-led Iraq in 1990. Sasson shared with Weekend Review details about how the book came about and her ongoing projects:
“Yasmeena’s Choice” is a shocking account of a Lebanese flight attendant who found herself in Kuwait at the beginning of Saddam Hussain’s invasion of the country. Tell us about the circumstances that led to the meeting.
I was invited to travel to a newly freed Kuwait on the Freedom Flight, a special flight arranged by the Kuwaiti Ambassador Nasser Al Sabah. The flight was full of politicians, journalists and writers. The Kuwaitis wanted the world to see what had happened to their country during the seven-month occupation. While most on the Freedom Flight were in Kuwait just for one day, I decided to stay on to give myself plenty of time to interview Kuwaitis and others who had been trapped during the entire occupation.
After being in Kuwait for a few weeks, my driver and translator were contacted by members of the Kuwaiti government — who, I do not recall — and was told that I would be allowed to meet with the women who were pregnant after being raped. The government wanted these ghastly stories to be known to the world. And so I was taken there, where I saw about 50 very sad pregnant women walking about. Some of them did not want to talk to me at all, which was not unusual, as rape is such an unsettling situation in any woman’s life. But, a number of the women did want to talk, although no one gave me such intricate detail, as did Yasmeena.
She was very loud, very vocal, extremely emotional, and completely different from the other women. She poured out details that basically shocked me into silence, yet I knew I was hearing the truth from a very distraught woman. Yasmeena had led such a “easy” life in Lebanon, with a father who adored her, that never in a million years did she dream she had anything to fear from an Arab man. She was about five or six months pregnant at the time, but I am only guessing from what detail she told me. She was not very big, although she thought she was! Although she was forceful, strong, and determined for the world to know what had happened to her, I felt that she was very fragile. She broke my heart, in fact.
Did Yasmeena’s abductor truly believe that after setting her free, she would wait for him and join him in Basra?
The important thing is that Yasmeena believed that the captain was convinced she would do so. And she knew him better than anyone by that time. She had done a very successful job of convincing him that she cared about him. Male ego can sometimes amaze us all!
How many other women who were abducted, arrested or raped did you meet in Kuwait at that time?
I do not know the exact number. Prior to my introduction to the specific women housed in the villa where I met Yasmeena, I had already met and interviewed approximately 25 women who had been abducted and taken as prisoners into Iraq. Those interviews were conducted at hospitals, or at the hotel where I was staying, or in two cases, in the homes of the women.
All were deliriously happy to have survived and made it back to Kuwait. Those women talked to me in front of my male Kuwaiti translator, and while they told about the nightmare of prison and torture, none of those women never mentioned rape to me. Then, towards the end of my time in Kuwait, I saw another 50 or so women who had been raped, but I only interviewed 11 of them.
Did you meet all these women at the same time? How did you feel about their stories?
So that readers of this article do not get confused, I met the 25 women I mention above, separately, and none knew of the other. However, the women I met in the villa (who were pregnant), I met during a two-day period at the government’s suggestion. While I interviewed each woman separately, all were being housed in the same building. There were about 50 women in the villa, although I only interviewed 11 of the women, those willing to talk to me.
Of course, I felt terrible about their stories. All were obviously pregnant, and all were emotionally shattered. Some of them could not speak as they were crying. One in particular kept pointing to her swollen belly and weeping loudly. She never gave me any details of her rape, for she was unable to be coherent. It was terrible and I suffered along with them.
While it is horrifying for any woman to be raped, there is an extra dimension of pain when a pregnancy results from the rape. One thing is certain: I believed every word they spoke. Women cannot lie about such a horrible thing. If anything, they would want the rape to be a secret!
Were any of the other raped women pregnant?
Every woman in the villa was pregnant. That’s the reason the Kuwaiti government had them housed there. They were taking care of them. None of the 25 women I met individually were pregnant.
Did you meet Shaikh Sa’ad Al Sabah in Kuwait or in Saudi Arabia? Tell us about that meeting.
I met the crown prince twice. The first meeting occurred in Taif, Saudi Arabia, a month or so after the invasion of Kuwait. I was in Riyadh at the time, and had flown to the mountain city to interview him, as well as Shaikh Jaber Al Sabah, the Emir of Kuwait.
Shaikh Sa’ad was very friendly and open during that first meeting, confiding many details of what had happened to him, and to other members of the royal family during the invasion and subsequent flight into Saudi Arabia.
Then, when I arrived in Kuwait City on the Freedom Flight, I met him once again. He was extremely happy and friendly when I met him in Kuwait, because he was back home. I have a photograph of that second meeting. During that get-together, Shaikh Sa’ad insisted on giving me a present for writing the book, “The Rape of Kuwait”. Then he offered me a villa in Kuwait City!
I was stunned, but managed to reply, thanking him but telling him that I could not accept any gift(s). He kept smiling and told me to let him know if I ever needed anything. That is the Arab way, as you know, generous to a fault. That was the last time I saw, or spoke with, him.
So, in August 1990 you decided to write a book about the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Can we say that you were born as an author at that time as you wrote your first book (“The Rape of Kuwait”) or were there any previous writing attempts?
From when I was about 15, I always knew that one day I would write books. During my 20s, I wrote two books, one a poetry book, and the other a work of fiction, prior to going to live and work in Saudi Arabia in 1978. But once I arrived in Saudi Arabia, I was so busy working and travelling the world that I set aside any plans to write or to even think about publishing a book.
After meeting Princess Sultana in 1983, and after she discovered my plan to write books, she decided that I should tell her story. We had a lot of conversations about her life story, but I avoided writing it until after I left Saudi Arabia for good in 1992, two years after Kuwait was invaded, and my first book was published, selling over a million copies in a few weeks.
Let’s go back to the book, “Yasmeena’s Choice”: You are known to use very delicate and non-graphic language in your books. What made you decide to write in such an open and bold manner? Have you had any feedback about this?
In fact, this is one of the two reasons I did not write “Yasmeena’s Choice” for years. I know that many historical books are written many years after the fact, so this is not unusual. However, my reasons were more personal. One, I was concerned about Yasmeena’s emotional wellbeing. She was so fragile that I worried that the published book might create even more painful issues for her. Second, I knew that if I wrote this story, it would be necessary to tell exactly what happened to the women. How else would anyone be able to understand the horror they had endured? My purpose in being explicit was to upset people, to let them know that war-rape is a horrendous crime targeted against innocent women.
Would anyone become overly upset if I simply said, “Yasmeena was raped.” While they would care, they would not “feel” the horror of it. I want readers to feel what these innocent girls and women endured. And so I had to brace myself to write what was told to me, totally unfiltered. I was stunned when Yasmeena told me these details. I was very edgy while writing the book. So it affected me to be so graphic, too.
I have had feedback. Interestingly enough, most readers say they want the truth. One reader was very wise. She said, “Yes, it is graphic, but I will read it. The women who were raped were not able to close a book and walk away from being raped.” I had not thought of it in that way, but she is right. The women raped could not stop the horror. As a woman, I want to support all women who are abused. I wish the rest of the world felt the same. If so, perhaps the horrors might be stopped.
Did you ever get in touch with her after your meeting in Kuwait? Do you have any idea if she did give birth and where she might be today?
No, I did not get in touch with her after Kuwait. However, I followed her case and was told about the birth and what happened to her, and the child. I do not want to tell everything about the ending of the book in this interview, so please allow me to stop here.
How well is the book being received? Do you have a blog for the book yet?
Very well, in fact. Frankly, I thought I might be verbally attacked for writing this book, but it has been the opposite. I’ve received many letters, notes and feedback from readers who thank me for writing this very emotional and “difficult to write” book. I have a blog that readers can visit through my website www.jeansasson.com.
I would like you to clarify briefly to readers the difference between Saddam’s elite guards and the ordinary Iraqi soldier.
Of course, I will tell something of what I know. The Republican Guard was a branch of the Baathist Iraqi military during Saddam’s presidency. They were the elite troops of the Iraqi army and reported directly to president Saddam Hussain, (their last commander was Qusay Hussain, Saddam’s son) while the Iraqi army and paramilitary forces reported to superiors in the military.
Even their uniforms were different, with the Republican Guard wearing red berets and the Iraqi army wearing black berets. Also, the guard members were mainly composed of Sunni Iraqis, rather than Shiite Iraqis. It’s a well-known fact that they were better equipped and trained than the ordinary Iraqi soldiers, who most likely did not want to be in the military. And, they were tough soldiers, and carried out orders that most ordinary Iraqi men would not. I personally met former members of the Iraqi military when I visited Iraq in 1998, and I could tell from discussions with them that the men were ordinary husbands, fathers and sons who had no desire to fight wars. I believe that most of the atrocities inside Kuwait were carried out by members of the Republican Guard, not the ordinary Iraqi soldier.
Why did you publish the book now? Why didn’t you write the book as part of your first book — “The Rape of Kuwait” — that was published after the 1991 US-Iraqi war?
In fact, my book, “The Rape of Kuwait” was researched and written immediately after the August 2, 1990, invasion. So that book had been written, printed and published before I travelled to Kuwait on the Freedom Flight. Therefore, it would have been impossible for me to include these stories in a book already published.
Some people have asked me if this book might create bad blood between Iraqis and Kuwaitis, in fact. But people who follow my books know that I always care about the women I write about, and women’s issues. I can’t be concerned with the politics, although I certainly never write a book with the intention of creating tensions, other than if a specific country/government is intentionally harming women. Then, frankly, I do not care, I want to cause tensions. So, while I wish for Kuwaitis and Iraqis to return to a good place with good feelings, I do not believe that a truthful story will stop that process, unless the movement and feelings are not genuine in the first place.
Tell us a little about your next project.
As usual, I have a number of ongoing projects. I am about to start writing “Princess 4”, which will be titled “Princess: More Tears to Cry”, telling the story of what is happening in today’s Saudi Arabia, as many women are working to free themselves from the total rule of their men. Readers will want to know that the fourth book about Princess Sultana will be released by Doubleday next September.
Secondly, I am working on a film about my early experiences in Saudi Arabia, and Thailand, and my total devotion to the cause of helping women who are being held in sexual bondage, such as the young girls and women sold into sexual slavery in Thailand. The working title for this film is “Jean Sasson and The Good Monk”.
By Mayada Al Askari