From the start, there is something unknowable about her. Jawaher arrives, zero fanfare, in the middle of the school year. At recess, we stare at her from across the courtyard: her coral lips, legs for miles that end in Doc Marten’s, untied.
The first among us to approach her is Aya, unsurprising as Aya is always like this, walking straight up to whatever scares us most. Maybe that’s what growing up in a war does to a girl.
“Cool shoes,” Aya says. “American or what?”
Jawaher has these widely-spaced eyes that give her the appearance of a fawn, and the sort of glossy, full hair that’s always slipping out of its ponytail. She smiles up at us, pulls her hair back.
“What should we call you?” Aya asks. “Should we say: ‘Your Highness’?”
Jawaher finds this funny. She reaches out her hand. Aya takes it, helps her up.
“All my friends,” Jawaher says, “they all just call me JuJu.”
You can’t live in Saudi Arabia and not, at some point, encounter royalty. There are about fifteen thousand members of the Al Saud family in the Kingdom today. Polygamy is openly, routinely, practiced. King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud founded modern-day Saudi Arabia in 1932. He had somewhere around one hundred children, and one thousand grandchildren — including Jawaher.
But our high school isn’t meant for his family. Our high school is dirty and run down, attended by middle-class expatriates only: transplants from other, poorer parts of the Muslim world. Jawaher attends because she wants something more for her life: a rigorous, English-language education, college after graduation. She wants a career and the power to form her own opinions about the world.
Jawaher is friendlier than what a princess is supposed to be. She invites us over one night, for her birthday. It’s the first time I’ve been to her house, which turns out to not be a house at all but a mansion of Disney dimensions, with armed, round-the-clock security standing guard at the high gates. Inside the compound there is an ATM, and a fountain the size of a lake that shoots water into the desert sky. Inside the house, everything smells like irises and myrrh. There are copper tubs, and big statues cast in bronze and jesmonite. I have never seen a place like this. It is a fairytale.
Aya, who is Lebanese and speaks French, calls Jawaher ‘très pudique,’ meaning modest, reserved. We meet Jawaher’s three older sisters and discover they are super très pudique; like très pudique on steroids.
The sisters all have haunted, big, brown eyes and thick manes. They stroll up and down the halls of their stone and marble mansion, like beautiful, depressive, debutantes. When the sun goes down, they usher us into black Escalades with the windows tinted, and we roar into the desert, Mariah Carey’s high notes leaping out of the stereo, making the floorboards shake.
If there is internet those days, we don’t know about it. We’re certainly not part of the World Wide Web, of the wider world at all. As girls in Saudi Arabia, we aren’t meant to be seen or heard. We tip-toe through our days, silent, wrapped in yards of black fabric, nothing visible to strangers. Even now, two decades later, the sisters remain invisible. A Google search of their names reveals little. They have no form of personal internet expression — still très pudique, but now I realize it’s not by choice. Now I realize it never was.
That night, the girls tell us their stories the old fashioned way, around a campfire in the desert, no men in sight, a burlap tent erected nearby, the scent of camel dung fresh, sharp in the night air. Sahar is the eldest and most outspoken of the four sisters. I make sure to sit next to her. When she talks I’m surprised by how mellow her voice is. Her eyelids have a little glitter painted on them and she’s wearing a black choker. There’s an edge to her, like Joan Jett or Carrie Fisher; like an important, troubled, prematurely dead artist.
“I love your choker,” I say, shyly.
Later I will ask my mother to make me one just like it out of craft-store black ribbon. The campfire catches the glitter on Sahar’s lids and I want nothing more than to be her friend. Hi, I’m Hilal, I want to say. Teach me how to be like this. Teach me how to be you.
“Thank you,” Sahar purrs. “Thank you very much.”
Sahar does that thing people do to pack tobacco into cigarettes more tightly, tapping the butt of the pack against her open palm. She chain-smokes, blowing puffs out the side of her painted mouth, and I try not to stare at her too hard. She talks about the psychology course she’s doing at the local university, and mentions Aristotle and Cher in the same sentence. At one point she takes my hand, flips it, and studies the lines; tells me my love life will be extraordinary. She talks about God, about her gay best friend, about how she wants to give away every single thing she owns.
My face grows hot, maybe from the campfire, maybe because we’re talking about boys. I’m telling her I don’t have a boyfriend; how can anyone find a boyfriend under these circumstances, I’m saying. She tells me maybe things will be different when I go to America eventually, to study. “I envy you, you know that?” she says. “You get to leave this place. You get to go live.”
When I find out what has happened to the sisters, I don’t understand at first how grim it is, how desperate they are. I don’t understand why their dad, by then King, would do this to his daughters: prevent them from marrying, hold them, under house arrest, against their will, for fifteen years. In those fifteen years, the rest of us have moved on, moved up. There have been diplomas and marriages and babies; careers in medicine, the arts, in law, and engineering. There has been life, as Sahar predicted. For better or worse, there has been so much life.
That morning, the texts fly back and forth between pinging phones in New York, Karachi, Houston, Beirut. None of us lives in Saudi Arabia anymore. None of us except her. Something bad’s happened to JuJu, the first message says. There is a link to a television report from Channel 4 News in the U.K.
I see their familiar faces fill the screen. Sahar does most of the talking. Jawaher sits next to her, expression grim and fixed, her hair pulled into a bun. They are emaciated, on the brink of starvation. They have been denied most things but the Internet, Sahar explains, remains. The internet is their window out.
Food is becoming scarce, Jawaher says quietly into the camera. Please, she says, someone help us. Sahar believes they are being held captive because of their controversial views on women’s rights. “What are we charged with? What exactly is our crime? What is the crime of 99% of the women in this country who are basically suffering under male guardianship?” Sahar asks, unflinching. “A male guardian can do whatever he wants. He can cut off everything and she is left with nothing. We would like to gain our rights. We would like to gain our freedom.”
They are Skyping with the news channel but, soon after the interview airs, they will go offline for good. Soon they will vanish, no trace, no explanation. “This is a risk we’re taking,” Sahar says, in her final communication with the world. She looks straight into the camera. “We’re happy to do it, we understand full well the repercussions. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us next.”
King Abdullah Ibn Saud passed away three years ago in January. There has been no news of or from Jawaher and Sahar, and their sisters Maha and Hala, since March of 2014.