NEW YORK – To truly know some people’s reality, sometimes you have to live their nightmare. Before marrying a man from a prominent family in Saudi Arabia, Alexandra Symeonidou had only the vaguest idea of the lives of women in Saudi Arabia.
In her biography, Nightmares in the Saudi Arabian Desert, which has been translated into English and is an Amazaon.com best seller in the UK, she tells of being trapped in another world.
“They are totally different,” she told TNH, even those educated and working in the West. “Everything they do depends on their religion. It’s a fanatical theocratic and phallocratic system. The man is the master. He dominates everything, and the woman has absolutely no rights. She is an object.”
“Everything you do is under your husband’s signature and authorization, including coming and going from the country. You cannot leave,” she said.
“Saudi Arabia is a big jail.”
Born and raised in Greece, Symeonides studied and then worked in France. She decided to work as an air hostess at Saudi Air, excited at the chance to see parts of the world other airlines did not fly to.
In the late 1980s she met a pilot – a captain – who was from an important family, and they fell in love.
In the beginning he was charming. “I can’t explain the magic spell that they cast…They have a very special way of attracting women, they promise you heaven on earth, and once they get you, they take you to hell for a European woman.”
They were married, and “from day one the dark side of my life started. Everything was restricted.” That she could not go out and socialize on her own was the least of it. “He oppressed, mistreated, and beat me.”
The torment lasted nine months. “It seems like a short period but every day was like a century.”
Symeonidou grew up with three brothers in a traditional Greek family, her father a businessman and her mother a housewife. They made sure their children had good educations.
Ultimately, her mother, who was lucky to get a visa to visit, saved her.
She witnessed the abuse, including beatings that sent Symeonidou twice to the hospital, once while she was pregnant.
When her husband left the house after a particularly abusive time – Symeonidou was four months pregnant – her mother decided to get her out.
“We ran into the desert,” she said, but she was still terrified of bumping into him once they left the house.
They hid for a few hours in a store owned by an Egyptian, whom she told to contact the Greek Embassy. When they got there, officials were concerned about Saudi anger and frightened about violating Sharia law. They nevertheless got her to a hospital, but it refused to admit her. Her husband was required to sign.
Symeonidou found the Egyptian gynecologist who had previously examined her, and when she told him about the situation he authorized the admission.
In Islam only the man can request a divorce. The consulate contacted her husband, negotiated the divorce and she returned to Greece.
The nightmare did not end, however. Her ex-husband’s attempt to get the son that was born was another hardship. “I was very sacred. We moved from one place to another.”
It took her three years to write the book, which was a best seller in Greece, because it was difficult to keep reliving the pain. In all she has published eight books – four about the Saudi days – and she is currently writing a novel.
In her youth, Symeonidou liked to write, but she never thought it would become her profession. Her ordeal made her an author.