Saturday, February 9, 2019

Book Review: 'East of Mecca' by Sheila Flaherty

Chicago author Sheila Flaherty is a clinical psychologist who earned her a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s in Behavioral Sciences from the University of Houston, following which she earned her Ph. D. in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. As a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping people navigate through life changes with grace and ease and enlighten, inspire, and empower others for the greater good. Sheila solidly believes that women’s rights are human rights and has always immersed herself in fighting to right injustice. She has lived in many places (being an ‘army brat’) and her time spent in Saudi Arabia contributed immensely to this moving novel, for while living there she secretly counseled American and Arab women. In addition to her work as a therapist Sheila has placed in several screenwriting competitions, including Big Break, BlueCat, CineStory, and the Nicholl Fellowships. In 2010, 2013, and 2016, she was awarded residencies at the Ragdale Foundation for her work in fiction.

In an Author’s Note Sheila states, ‘East of Mecca explores the dangers inherent in relationships where absolute power is awarded to only one entity—be it an ethnic group, a god, or a gender. Saudi Arabia is ranked among the world’s worst human rights abusers and in 2012 was ranked 131st out of 135 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index. But oppression and domestic abuse is not unique to Saudi Arabia—it is a universal tragedy. My goal is to lift the veils of those rendered invisible—whomever and wherever they are—and to give them a voice.’

And so she succeeds on every level to accomplish her intent, this story being in fact a quasi-memoir of Sheila’s year in Saudi Arabia, a fact easily transparent in the opening lines – ‘I startled awake early this morning, long before the alarm, heart pounding as I sensed her presence. Sitting up, I looked around. It was that time just before dawn when the light is a darker shade of grey—before a white thread can be distinguished from a black thread. Sunrise in Saudi Arabia is the exact moment those threads become distinct—when the first of the five daily calls to prayer begins. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, shapes become clear. Soft edges sharpen. Shadows darken and colors appear. There is the bed, the dresser, the chair, the lamp. Heart still pounding, I got up and walked through the condo. After switching on the coffeemaker, I opened the drapes and watched the horizon lighten—going pink with the promise of the day. Outside my window I can see Lake Michigan and the park. During summer months, the park is filled with Arab families. Children play while their parents lounge on blankets, talking and laughing. Men tend smoky grills full of beautiful food. Women wearing hijabs stand on rugs and bow to the east at sunset. Middle Eastern music fills the air—mournful, full of longing and desire unfulfilled. These many years later, Saudi is not done with me. The Middle East can do that to you. It settles in like a virus, lying deep and dormant, flaring without warning. Triggered by a sight, smell, or sound, it sets off a fever of profound yearning—like the ache of a torrid love affair gone wrong. The memory of old wounds, loss, and grief resurfacing.’

What follows is a profoundly moving tale in which Sheila assumes the name Sarah and as the synopsis states, ‘
Driven by financial desperation, Sarah and Max Hayes are seduced by promises of a glamorous expatriate lifestyle in Saudi Arabia. Sarah surrenders her career when Max accepts a prestigious job with Ocmara Oil Company and they relocate their family to the shores of the Persian Gulf. Locked inside the heavily guarded Ocmara compound, Sarah becomes invisible within the male-dominated, fundamentalist, Islamic Kingdom, which is governed by sharia law. Gradually, she is drawn into a clandestine, illicit friendship with Yasmeen, a Muslim Saudi woman. Together they find freedom beneath the veils and behind the walls of the Saudi women’s quarters—until inconceivable events force Sarah to make life-or-death decisions.’

It is the blend of a therapist’s approach to the human condition and an eloquent poet Shelia Flaherty not only makes her points about injustice remarkable, but she also weaves a fine novel in the process. Highly recommended. Grady Harp, November 17

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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