Last Monday, the American cable network ABC Family announced that they had ordered pilot episodes of several new shows, one of which was entitled Alice in Arabia, a drama whose plot centered on an American girl who is kidnapped by her Saudi grandfather and aunt and forced to live “behind the veil” in a “royal compound” in Riyadh after tragedy befalls her American father and her Saudi mother.
The pilot screenplay was written by Brooke Eikmeier, a former cryptologic linguist in the United States Army who extensively studied the Arabic language. After a backlash erupted on social media, ABC Family announced on Friday that they would not be proceeding with the development of the Alice in Arabia pilot.
When I first read the summary of Alice in Arabia, I immediately heaved a great sigh and took to Twitter. I am one of the people who strongly objected to the decision to buy and develop your Alice in Arabia pilot, for many reasons. My voice was just one in the chorus of Twitter outrage that erupted after the pilot synopsis was announced.
First, let’s talk a bit about your defensive insistence that “Radha” is an Arabic name, based on the photo of a nametag bearing a name in Arabic, which you posted on your Facebook page as a means of proving that the name is real. The only problem is that the Arabic name, when transliterated into English, is most commonly spelled “Ghada.” I’ve heard the name Ghada used many times here in Saudi Arabia; I’ve never heard anyone mention Radha (that’s not to say that it’s never used as a name in Arabic–just that I’ve never heard it.) When the BuzzFeed article about the pilot script emerged, I read it aloud to my Saudi husband. He said, “Radha? That’s not a name. It means, like, an entrance hallway.” (He also mentioned that the name of Alice’s grandfather, Bakr Shookri Al-Saud, is ridiculous, as those names, while Arabic, are not royal family names at all. It would be like if Prince William and Kate Middleton had named their kid a name that’s trendy in the States, but totally off the radar in the UK…like Jackson or something.)
Seeing that photo made some things clear to me. I’m going to guess that the reason you had that nametag, and the reason your name was listed underneath the Arabic name, was that Ghada (or, as you insist, “Radha”) was your Arabic name during your training. I remember Spanish class in high school; we had to choose a Spanish name with which to represent ourselves in class. (Mine was Julieta. What can I say; I was fourteen, and the kick-ass soundtrack of the Leonardo DiCaprio/Claire Danes incarnation of Romeo & Juliet held nearly permanent residence in my Discman.) And then you took that name and gave it to Alice’s aunt–the one who guides Alice into Saudi life by assuring her that Saudi women wear nice clothes “under the drabbest of veils” and that “we read Vogue, too.” (Much like the English word “infidel,” which I’ve never actually heard a Muslim use, I’ve never heard a Saudi woman use the word “veil” to refer to a tarha or a niqab. The “veil” obsession is a Western thing. Also, while some Saudi women may perceive their clothing as “the drabbest of veils,” a lot goes into choosing an abaya–fit, closures, length, accents, etc. Although I sometimes enjoy wearing an abaya and would appreciate being able to do so in public in the United States when I might like to without being vilified, I admit that, while in Saudi Arabia, I sometimes find the required abaya to be an annoyance, especially since I had a baby. Still, an abaya is not just one-size-fits-all black sack that transforms the wearer into a “formless, anonymous woman.” If you want me to, I will send you one.) And when people began to speak up–”Hey, that name isn’t even Arabic!”–it wasn’t just an affront to your script. It was very personal–it was like they were saying, “As a name, ‘Radha’ isn’t really Arabic, and neither are you–you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I’m no psychoanalyst, but it’s not a major leap to guess that you saw yourself in the character of Radha, as the person guiding Alice–and America–into Saudi life.
Except that’s not your job. It’s not your life. I don’t think you’ve ever even been to Saudi Arabia. (But that’s no surprise. Many so-called “experts” on this country have never set foot in it. I can’t tell you how many times people have insisted to me that Saudi women are required by law to wear a “burka” and that they are not legally permitted to leave the house without a male relative.) I’m not going to go into the “white savior complex” here–many others are currently writing about yours all around the internets, and they can articulate those arguments better than I ever could. But to me, it feels like “Radha” is pretty damning evidence of that white savior complex that so many are attributing to you.
When I engaged with you on Twitter, you tweeted to me that it was ridiculous to suggest that people can’t write in the voice of characters they are not. You asked if that meant you couldn’t write male characters. Of course you can. If I were to write a script or a story, I wouldn’t hesitate to write about male characters–from the point of view of another character, or an omniscient narrator. But it takes a whole lot of talent–and experience–to write in the voice of someone you are not, and when you do, you run the risk of…well exactly what happened to you. Notice how the incredible Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in her own voice, while bringing us the unforgettable (male) characters of Atticus Finch and Boo Radley? You don’t have to steal voices–and silence the real ones–to tell a good story about a character whose life is not your own.
I admit, though, that after it was all said and done, I felt guilty for jumping on you the way I did, and for feeling and expressing relief and joy when I found out that the plug had been pulled on your show. I’m sorry for that. I mean, I’ve identified as a writer since I was six, when my parents bought me a brand new Smith-Corona typewriter for Christmas, so I could get my stories down on paper faster. I know what it’s like to pour your heart into a story. I admire you because you put that story out there and let people read it. I thought about how it would feel to put my heart into a project, to have that project gain recognition, and then have it torn down by people who, in my perception, don’t understand the emotions and intentions that went into it. I would be devastated.
But you see what I did there? I reacted in a way that was true to my experience, and then took a step back and empathized with you. I put myself in your shoes, and I came away from that bearing guilt that I contributed to the events that made you feel the way you did. You have repeatedly claimed that what gave you the right to tell Saudi women’s stories through Alice in Arabia was “empathy.” If you truly empathized with the people to whom you sought to “give a voice on American television,” you would have stepped back from the melee, took a hard look at what they had to say (with their pesky voices), and acknowledged how your work affected them and how it made them feel. You have shown no such willingness to do so, instead preferring to insist repeatedly that Alice in Arabia is needed and the only reason it didn’t make it to air was because of an angry mob who didn’t want to listen to your voice, even as you tried to co-opt and drown out all of theirs.
I live with two Saudi women–well, three, if you count my 10-month-old Saudi-American daughter–and I would never presume to tell their stories. I will write how I feel about them. I will write about my relationship with them. I will write about my conversations and interactions with them, and about how their presence in my life has shaped how I see the world. But I cannot and will not speak for them.
You know what? I have an Alice. I am raising an Alice–not in the kidnapped sense, but in the Saudi-American daughter sense, and even though, as her mother, I watch that narrative unfold every day as I contribute to its shape, I would not tell her story. I could write about how I feel about her, about my hopes and fears for her, about who I think she might grow up to be, about what I know about her and what I think I know about her. But I can’t write from her perspective. And one of my hopes for her is that someday she will grow up and do just that, so no one else will misrepresent her, even within outwardly good writing.
Far from being a “hack,” as some have characterized you, I surmise that you must be a pretty talented writer. I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think major TV networks buy scripts from people who write atrociously. So, Brooke, my advice to you is this: write. In the words of Mark Twain, write what you know–because I’m pretty sure you’ve got stories of your own to tell. You mentioned on Twitter that through Alice in Arabia, you wanted people to “fall in love with the culture” the way you did. So write about how you fell in love with Arabic. Write about what made you join the Army to become a linguist, and how your views about Arabic-speaking cultures evolved. Write about the people who helped shape your views of the Arabic-speaking world. You’ve got a lot of really interesting life experience without having to co-opt anyone else’s. So write about it.
You know what would make an absolutely incredible TV pilot? A story about a US Army linguist who learns Arabic and tries to write a TV drama that takes place an Arabic-speaking culture, only to discover in a devastatingly public manner that her beloved project is, as Brad Paisley would say, “accidentally racist.” She steps back and listens to the outcry, acknowledging the privilege that led her to believe she was the appropriate person to write that show in the first place. In the following episodes, her perspective shifts as she seeks out and examines other ways in which her lived experience has shaped her worldview, for better and for worse.
If that were a novel, I would totally buy it.
This Alice in Arabia thing is just the beginning of your story. Now tell the rest. And make it good.