INTERVIEWS

Soheir Khashoggi

Woman Abroad Magazine
Postmark Publishing Ltd.
England
Issue 7 - Sept/Oct 2001

Soheir Khashoggi:
Success Is No Mirage

In an exclusive interview with Rebecca Ponton, Soheir Khashoggi talks about being a best-selling author, shares intimate memories of her nephew, Dodi Fayed, and reveals her aspirations to be like Audrey Hepburn.

Talking to Soheir Khashoggi, it's easy to see why her first book, "Mirage," was such a big hit, eventually being translated into 19 languages: she's a wonderful storyteller. With Soheir, there's no such thing as an "ordinary" conversation; she talks in mini-vignettes and humorous anecdotes. She draws you in and weaves her spell, making you feel as if you're chatting with a close friend.

Despite having lived in America for the past 20 years, Soheir, 55, still says, "You can call me a nomad. I don't know where home is really. I miss Egypt." Born and raised in Alexandria, Soheir later spent a year in America, attending university, and then continued her education at the American University in Beirut. She obtained a degree in art and design from the Interior Design Center of Beirut.

As a female in the Middle East in the '60s, Soheir says she was not encouraged in those endeavors, but was privileged to become a painter and later a writer. After returning from America, she wanted to go to Florence and study art. "Of course, my father said, "No way, Jose!" she says, laughing at herself for using a very American expression.

After she was grown, Soheir's father had the opportunity to see some of her artwork before he passed away. Upon seeing the expression on his face, she told him, "If you had sent me to Florence, I would have been better than that." Soheir says her father
looked at her and said, "Oh, why didn't you go? I said, "Excuse me? You refused to send me!" And he said, "Well, my dear, at those times, it was different. We never used to allow the girls to be alone." Quietly she says, "I expected that."

Difficult choices

Circumstances have been different for Soheir's four daughters who were brought up in Europe and America, and she says, "I always went with the children everywhere. I think that traveling is a school of its own."

Samiha, 29, a former editor, who now works for a doctor in New York, was born during Soheir's first marriage, which was arranged when she was 24. After a year, with her older brother, Adnan's, help, Soheir fled with Samiha from Saudi Arabia to London, where she was able to obtain a divorce.

When Samiha was seven, Soheir enrolled her in boarding school in Switzerland. "At that time, I got [re]married," Soheir says, " and I was traveling. I think I did a good thing, putting her there, because I didn't want her to see a new man in my life, and I was just going from one place to the other."

Still, Soheir says, "It was tough. I would have loved her to be with me, but at the same time, I think I [made] the right choice. From the very beginning, my marriage wasn't that great," she sighs, "but I stayed in it because it was my second marriage and I stayed because I wanted to raise my children with a father."

Trouble in Texas

It was during her second marriage that Soheir had her most difficult experience as an expatriate. "I've lived in many different places [and] I adjust really well," she says. But this time, her husband's job took them to Dallas, Texas. "Dallas is where my problems started because, you know, they have seven women for every man," she says in a fit of laughter. "I was pregnant at that time with [my daughter] Farida. I would be in the car with my ex-husband, and women would come up and throw their telephone numbers into the car. I had the worst time in Dallas because they were crazy women there."

She turns serious when she says, "I wasn't very happy at all. I had my daughter and I was all alone, I had no friends, no family next to me. It was very tough for me." After five years in Dallas and then a year in London, her husband's work took them back to the US, where they lived for another five years. "I had a good time in Maryland, I liked it there, I had a lot of friends. I started finding myself there. [My husband] was away and I made my own life, with my children."

Soheir's marriage began to fall apart during the last year the family lived in Maryland, and she and her second husband divorced in 1990. She then moved with the girls to Connecticut to be near Adnan, who was living in New York at the time. She says she became stronger after the divorce. "I started writing and I became a different person."

Their mother's daughters

During her second marriage, Soheir had three more daughters: Hana, now 16, and a high school student, and Farida, 20, and Naela, 21, both of whom are college students. All of the girls have inherited their mother's artistic ability and express it in various ways - Samiha through writing, Naela with photography - and, like Soheir, they all paint.

Soheir's pride in her daughters is obvious. "They're really good girls," she says. "But you know, I raised them alone. I raised the girls 11 years by myself. Their father was never around and he only sees them once a year. I've been a single mother for a while."

In 2000, Soheir moved to New York. With the three younger girls living at home and Samiha also in the city, Soheir says, "[It's] the five of us together. Our house of women. I have one male - the dog," she says laughing. "They're great girls, they're my best friends."

Because they carry their fathers' last names and not Khashoggi, Soheir's daughters may be able to forge their own identities sooner than she did. Like most Middle Eastern women, Soheir has lived in the shadow of the men in her life, starting with her father, Mohamed, who was a physician to the king of Saudi Arabia. Custom and tradition dictated that her two husbands would dominate the relationships. And the name of her older brother, Adnan, whom she respects and says is "like a father to me," is rarely mentioned without the words "billionaire arms dealer" preceding it.

Sweet success

The success of "Mirage" in 1996 allowed Soheir to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight. With great delight, she tells a story about Adnan being at a dinner party and having one of the guests turn to him and exclaim, "You are the brother of Soheir, the writer!"

"Mirage" takes readers into the secret world of today's harems and provides an insider's view of Middle Eastern aristocracy. Even now, six years after its publication and eventual translation into 19 languages, Soheir still appears at book clubs to answer questions and give readings.

"I love these types of book clubs because the questions are so funny, and I try to make my answers funny," she says, citing the example of a man who asked if the Saudis still lived in tents. "I told him, don't forget the camels," she recalls, laughing at the memory. "I wish they had this in Saudi Arabia," she continues wistfully, still a bit hurt that "Mirage" was banned in her own country. Nevertheless, "My book is in every house in Saudi," she says triumphantly.

Soheir recently acted as consultant for the screenplay based on "Mirage," and is currently shopping it around to some of the biggest names in Hollywood in hopes of securing a production deal.

To Dodi, with love

She also plans to travel to Egypt in the future to discuss the possibility of her second book, "Nadia's Song," being made into a movie. The story of forbidden love between a wealthy young man and a servant girl is set in Egypt, and is dedicated to her beloved nephew, Dodi Fayed, who was killed in 1997 in the car crash that took the life of Princess Diana.

Soheir recalls another car accident Dodi was in; this time, when he was only two years old. Soheir was taken to the hospital where Dodi, his mother, Soheir's older sister, Samira, and his father, Mohammed Fayed, were being treated. "I was running in the corridor, calling, "Dodi!" I was screaming. They gave him to me and he was fine - just a scratch on his head. He was hugging me, and I didn't even ask about my sister, I was so bad. And she was okay, but just to tell you how much I loved that boy."

Dodi was separated from his mother at the age of two when she left his father. But, Soheir, who was nine years older, says fiercely, "He had me, he always had me. I was like a mother and a friend and a sister to him."

"Later on, as a young man in his 30s, he became very close to Samira . . ." Soheir's voice trails off almost to a whisper, "shortly before she died. It was devastating for him."

A desire to help

Soheir is now at work on her third novel due to be published in 2003. The book has a working title of "Vanished" and focuses on the close friendship between three women even though each comes from a different culture. The storyline deals with their marriages and misfortunes, but mostly with their strengths.

Soheir describes writing as one of the greatest pleasures in her life, but she has other aspirations for the future. The only Saudi Arabian woman in attendance at the 2000 "Violence Against Women" forum founded by Spain's Queen Sofia, she was approached about helping organize a charity ball to benefit women in the former Yugoslavia, and has recently helped
raise money on behalf of Afghan women. "I would like to be involved in anything concerning women's issues," she says. "If I can one day be of any help, I will do it voluntarily. I really would love to [do humanitarian] work. I want so much to be like Audrey Hepburn, [and do] what she did."

Copyright 2001 Rebecca Ponton. No part of this article may be reproduced without the express written consent of the author.

Article available for reprint. Contact: rebecca@rebeccaponton.com

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