Five Memoirs by Western Women Married into Arabic Culture

April 8th, 2011

As an American woman married to a Palestinian, I am continually drawn to books that relate to my own experience. Here are five memoirs by Western women married to Arab men—true stories of love and conflict, struggle and acceptance—that I recommend to you.  

Married to a Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen ~ I’ve recommended this book to many. This fascinating story begins in 1978 when Marguerite, a young adventurer from New Zealand, arrives as a tourist in Petra, the ancient city in Jordan. Soon she meets Mohammed, a charming Bedouin craftsman whose tribe inhabits the caves of Petra. Marguerite’s story is about falling in love, making a home in a cave and embracing a large, extended Bedouin family. What I admire about this memoir is the affectionate tone Marguerite uses to describe her husband, his family, their culture and unique way of life. Recently, I saw Marguerite speak at the Emirates Festival of Literature in Dubai. She recounted her Petra love story with a slide show, and I was captivated all over again. To learn more, here’s an interview with Marguerite conducted by writer Matt Beynon Rees.

The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson ~ In a Seattle bookstore, I stumbled upon a signed copy of this memoir, released in 2010. I read it eagerly, impressed with its honesty and authenticity. Willow, an American writer and graphic novelist, thoughtfully describes her journey to Egypt in 2003. As a young university graduate, she takes a job in Cairo, where she writes about Egyptian society, converts to Islam, and meets Omar, her soon-to-be Egyptian husband.  Willow shares how she learns Arabic, adjusts to her new life and embraces the city of Cairo. This cultural and spiritual journey is intelligent, illuminating and more relevant than ever.

At the Drop of a Veil by Marianne Alireza ~ I enjoyed this memoir many years ago and was pleased to discover it’s still in print. Originally published in 1973, this is the story of an American college student who marries a Saudi man in 1943 and lives in Saudi Arabia for twelve years. With wit and insight, Marianne describes her adventures and life within the Alireza household, giving a captivating glimpse into affluent Saudi society in the 1940s and 50s. Despite the dramatic end to her marriage, Marianne tells her story with warmth and humor. People who have met her or heard her speak remark on her positive attitude and grace.

Imm Mathilda: A Bethlehem Mother’s Diary by Alison Jones Nassar ~ I couldn’t resist this story, as it takes place in Bethlehem, my husband’s hometown. The memoir is based on the email journals of an American expat living in Bethlehem with her Christian Palestinian husband and their children. Even though this book is not quite at the same caliber as the others, I was still riveted to her descriptions of daily life—both the joys and obstacles—of raising a family while living under occupation. She recounts how the curfews, road blocks & military violence affected her life and those around her. She discusses in detail the 39-day Israeli siege of the Church of Nativity in 2002. I recommend this book to anyone who would like to learn more about the Palestinian perspective.

Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life by Queen Noor ~ As a long-time admirer of Queen Noor, I read this book when it was released in 2003. It’s the ultimate girl-meets-King story. At the age of 26, American-born and Princeton-educated Lisa Halaby marries King Hussein of Jordan. She becomes Jordan’s Queen Noor, his life partner and stepmother to his eight children. Her memoir tells the story of their courtship, her life as Queen, the King’s attempts at peace, as well as his untimely death. Granted, this memoir is a bit stiff and guarded; no deep secrets are revealed here. Nonetheless, it’s a touching account of an amazing life with a unique perspective on the region and its contemporary history.

If you have any thoughts or insights to add, I welcome your comments below. Feel free to share any other titles of relevant memoirs. Thanks & Salaam!

  1. Jennifer Erian
    April 8th, 2011 at 16:08 | #1

    Hi Holly,

    Love the first book very much. Sandi Ellis gave me a copy as a gift in our bookgroup exchange. Sandi is a friend of the author and managed to give me an authographed copy. Really enjoyed the story and the update on her life.

    Leap of Faith was also read in our bookgroup some years ago. Very educational for me as I knew nothing of Jordan or its history.

    Nice blog and thanks for posting on FB.


  2. April 8th, 2011 at 17:06 | #2

    I received “Married to a Bedouin” from my brilliant friend and mentor in multicultural marriage, Holly Warah! I thought this book was wonderfully written with great insight into the lives of bedouins, which I have never quite been exposed, with my somewhat westernized (deniable by my husband), view into the Arab culture. Nonetheless, it showed that many of their ideals and traditions still hold very true within the non-bedouin, modernized Arab families. Even my husband read and very much enjoyed the memoir, which leads me to wonder … did your husband read any of these books as well? It would be interesting to hear their discussions on them!

    I appreciate this blog entry very much! When I am done reading my required textbooks, I will be happy to have these titles waiting for some much more enjoyable, leisure reading!

    Stay cool out there in the desert!



  3. Gail Terp
    April 8th, 2011 at 17:13 | #3

    Hi Holly,

    Thanks for these recommendations. I love how you give just enough information to pique readers’ interest. I see my local library has The Butterfly Mosque. Yay!


  4. April 8th, 2011 at 17:16 | #4

    I’ve heard of the Butterfly Mosque and Queen Noor’s book but the others are new to me! I love new books – def have to check these out!

  5. Lainey
    April 8th, 2011 at 20:54 | #5

    Holly, thought of you recently when I took a Chicago taxi ride with a Christian Palestinian from Bethlehem. I was surprised by the crosses hanging from his rear view mirror. We had great fun discussing Israel — he was surprised and pleased that I had been there — and exchanging the few Arabic words I know.

    I am so impressed with your three posts in three days. Keep up the stellar work.

  6. April 8th, 2011 at 23:25 | #6

    What a fantastic list. I rarely read memoirs, but I will have to give these a try. Thanks for sharing them with us.

  7. April 8th, 2011 at 23:59 | #7

    I read Queen Noor’s book while we visited Jordan, and, from a thoroughly Western viewpoint there were times when I was, taken aback? Not approving, perhaps, of her adopting so…relentlessly…her new identity. For example, it hurt to read how she refused to let her mother call her by her born name, seemed callous and thoughtless. (We’ve all treated our moms this way to one extent or another, so perhaps this was part of my objection!) On the other hand her story is a beautiful love story, and a wonderful portrait of the royal family, and her devotion to both the king and the people of Jordan deserves nothing less than the highest admiration.

  8. Holly
    April 9th, 2011 at 04:39 | #8

    @Clarissa Southwick
    So glad the list is useful to you.

    @Jennifer, @Gail, @Amanda, @Lainey & @Natalie ~ Thanks for all your encouraging comments and for discussing the books a bit further. I enjoy hearing other people’s insights into books. Happy reading!

  9. Holly
    April 9th, 2011 at 04:40 | #9

    @Sariya I enjoyed your comment. You gave me a laugh. No, my darling husband has not read any of these books, but you have given me an idea…. 😉

  10. Adelaide
    April 9th, 2011 at 19:25 | #10

    Thanks for this list Holly! I can tell already that your blog is going to be a vital source of good information for us. Keep reading and posting.

  11. April 9th, 2011 at 23:09 | #11

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  12. April 10th, 2011 at 01:11 | #12

    Very nice information.

  13. Linda A
    April 11th, 2011 at 04:50 | #13

    Need to get the ones I haven’t read….read Queen Noor’s book right after it 1st came out. Finished “Married to a Beduoin” back in January. Have the Butterfly Mosque (haven’t started it yet). Thanks for the list Holly!!

  14. Mary Beth Hickey
    April 11th, 2011 at 12:59 | #14

    Congratulations Holly! I will look forward to doing more reading!

  15. April 14th, 2011 at 05:52 | #15

    trying to find you on facebook, wats ur profile

  16. April 14th, 2011 at 18:03 | #16

    Thanks for asking about Facebook. I’m planning to set up an Arabic Zeal FB page next month, so that readers can get updates on new blog posts. Check back in May.

  17. Linda A
    May 23rd, 2012 at 23:27 | #17

    New books to add to my list…I already have 2 of five!!!

  18. Linda A
    May 23rd, 2012 at 23:28 | #18

    DUH….I have 3 of the five!!! @Linda A

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      May 24th, 2012 at 06:47 | #19

      Linda, If you haven’t read THE BUTTERFLY MOSQUE yet, I recommend that one. Meanwhile, I’m reading a book set in Saudi now that you might enjoy. Review coming soon. Happy Reading!

  19. January 18th, 2013 at 01:47 | #20

    U put together quite a few fantastic points in ur blog, “Arabic Zeal

  20. January 24th, 2013 at 14:22 | #21

    How did u actually obtain the concepts to write ““Arabic Zeal

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      February 6th, 2013 at 16:51 | #22

      Good question. I don’t remember how I came up with the name…. Thanks for reading. 😉

  21. January 30th, 2013 at 05:40 | #23

    My 30-yr old American daughter lives in an Arabic city in Israel for the past 7 years. Her husband’s a wonderful, kind Arab-Israeli man and we have two beautiful grandsons there, ages 5 yrs. and a baby who’s 4 months old. I’ve been there several times and love their family and her husband’s family as much as she does. But it can be lonely and occasionally frustrating for a young mother to have no one to talk about the culture differences with. It would help if she could connect in person with other English-speaking – and especially American or British – women. Googling hasn’t helped find such a support group – especially one that actually meets in Israel. Any suggestions for this or other web-based support groups?

    • Holly S. Warah
      Holly S. Warah
      February 6th, 2013 at 16:34 | #24

      HI Cali-Mom,
      Thanks for reading. I can relate to your daughter’s situation.
      It’s wonderful that you go visit her there & are supportive of her choices.
      I will email you privately with information on a group that she might be interested in.
      Stay tuned, Holly

  22. April 26th, 2014 at 05:08 | #25

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