A beautiful young woman goes to Paris, the city of romance. Soon she meets a handsome and wealthy man of the world who, on bended knee, professes undying devotion. She is swept away to live in a far-off land, lavished with jewels, surrounded by servants and blessed with children.
The beginning of Mouna Ayoub's story sounds happy enough. But as she goes on to write in La Verite, or The Truth (Michel Lafon; 230 pages), an autobiography that shot to the top of France's bestseller lists last week, her 18-year marriage to a Middle Eastern billionaire was no fairy tale. In a juicy portrait of Saudi Arabia's super-rich petro-sheiks, she recounts how she was seduced by all the baubles that money could buy, only to discover herself living in a gilded cage, trapped by a patriarchal desert society with zero tolerance for modern women. Her complaints — which she is making public during a bitter divorce dispute — may not surprise anyone familiar with Saudi customs that, for example, require women to be veiled from head to toe and forbid them from driving cars. But seldom have outsiders been treated to such a scathing, firsthand account of Arabia's unhappy wives.
Ayoub, 43, may be familiar to the readers of French gossip magazines as an insatiable buyer of haute couture dresses. Ordering up frocks at thousands of dollars a pop, she housed her wardrobe in a 500-sq-m climate-controlled room. She entertained celebrity friends at her town house in the exclusive Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, or sailing the Mediterranean aboard her $30 million yacht.
Ayoub acknowledges that she owes her extravagant lifestyle in part to the wealth of her husband, whom she gives the pseudonym Amir Al-Tharik in the book. He made a fortune building hotels, conference centers and mosques on government contracts.
But if her tale provides a rare look at the extravagance often wrought by unimagined wealth, it also serves as a disturbing manifesto against the extreme restrictions imposed on women by some ultraconservative Arab societies.
A Lebanese Christian who converted to Islam and became a Saudi citizen when she married, Ayoub met Al-Tharik at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Paris in 1976. Soon after they wed, she says, her husband overheard her laughing with foreign male guests at a dinner party in Saudi Arabia. From across the room, according to Ayoub, he thundered, "Shut up!" Sometimes Ayoub's attempts to circumvent the traditions that keep Saudi women wrapped up were comical: once, in Tunisia, she disobeyed her husband's edict not to leave the hotel, only to run into him at a china shop, where his colleagues did not recognize her because they had never seen her unveiled before. During summers on the family yacht, she would venture ashore disguised as a member of the crew.
In the book she claims it is common for Saudi men go on drinking and gambling sprees to Las Vegas, and to brothels in Europe. Wives, who risk being stoned for adultery, must be available for sex whenever their husbands might summon them to the bedroom. But not all women are leading wholly subservient lives, Ayoub says. Despite the risk of a death sentence if caught, some sleep with their Filipino drivers, or seek sex partners during Paris outings.
Ayoub decided to break away after one of her sons became ill with leukemia and was treated in the U.S. As she recalls it, through her daily interaction with the doctors and nurses she became transformed from being in effect another member of her husband's household staff to a valued partner in her child's care. Soon she was driving around town — in her own Porsche — and dressing like her new heroine, Madonna. After she returned to Saudi Arabia, she confessed to her husband that she had fallen in love with an American fitness instructor. She claims he replied that adulterous women deserve to die, a response that, she says, prompted her to attempt suicide. In 1996, Ayoub moved out, Al-Tharik remarried, and their five children went off to boarding school.
Ayoub says she decided to publish La Verite after a Lebanese magazine began a series of articles portraying her as a slut, a "Madame Bovary of the desert." Her former husband declined to comment on the book, but his lawyer did not rule out future action for violation of privacy.
Ayoub fears that her book will lead to further estrangement from her children, who by Saudi custom remain in their father's care. But she hopes that, in addition to giving them her side of the story, La Verite will show other Arab women that they can exist without their husbands. And if anybody still wonders whether money can buy happiness, Ayoub offers a convincing perspective. Her answer seems to be no, but it helps.
With reporting by Patricia Strathern/Paris