Saudi Arabia: Maryam Khail, An Afghan-American Role Model in Jeddah

Maryam Khail is an Afghani-American woman residing in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She has been active in women’s groups and a proponent for women’s health.  As we many times travel in the same social circles I have always noticed Maryam as the buoyant and vivacious person she is. I had no idea of the pain she was holding inside and her battle to find her beloved son, Duran. In Spring of 2010 the book about her life story “For the Love of a Son” by Jean Sasson, was released for sale. It is every bit a story of hardship, hope and love to which any mother who has lost a child to kidnapping can relate. Here she answers some questions about her life, the process of writing her book, and what it has been like to live between Saudi Arabia and America for the past fifteen years.

Jasmin Keaton,

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

1. Could you briefly describe your childhood in Afghanistan before the Taliban years and what you hoped for your future?
MK: Overall, my childhood was fun and happy except for my father’s illness and me not being born as a boy. As I was growing up I hoped a miracle would happen that a magic wand would turn me to a boy and cure my father. But I was happy enough while I dressed like a boy, and played with them. My parents were very keen for me to finish my education and be able to serve my country. I wanted to be a politician. I wanted to be the first Afghan woman president of the country.

2. Did you have some strong role models to look up to and what did you admire about them most?

MK: Yes, when I was five years old my dad hired one of his relatives who just arrived from Eastern Europe as my tutor. He was my mentor and he wanted me to be someone like Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minster of India.

3. Can you describe your school years in Afghanistan and did they prepare you for your life later in the US and in Saudi Arabia?

MK: During my school years I was very popular. I was a very mischievous girl. The day I didn’t go to school all my classmates were bored. One day the principal came to our class and was wondering why Maryam’s class was so quiet when she realized I was absent! My country back then was very modern. We had movie theaters, we had restaurants and we had a few night clubs. It was a much better life than Saudi today.

4. When you first got married, would you say your marriage was typical for a young Afghani woman and did it go as you expected?

MK: Yes, it was a typical marriage and supposed to go as expected but I didn’t want that kind of marriage, to be abused like the most Afghan women.

5. You traveled to the US as a young adult. Did you find it an adventure or more of a cultural shock?
MK: I got married to an Afghan immigrant when I was in the US. It was an arranged marriage even though my father had always promised me it would never happen to me. The only culture shock I had was the openness of couples living together before marriage.

6. Did you have family and friend’s support during your early years in America? If yes, who?
MK: When dad and I arrived in America my aunt and my uncle were there and we were supported by them.

7. When you wanted to be divorced, was being in America a help or a problem?
MK: The law was on my side of course, so it was easy to get divorced in America.

8. What happened to your family while you were there, especially your son? 
MK: My son was kidnapped from the US and taken to Afghanistan by my ex-husband. He threatened me never to look for him because he would kill me.

9. How did you meet your Saudi second husband?

MK: Years later after my divorce I met him while he was studying at USC and I met him in Los Angeles.

10. How did coming to Saudi Arabia compare with your life in Afghanistan?

MK: As I mentioned, Afghanistan was much more advanced in modern ways. Although it was a Muslim country, it was very different from the Saudi culture.

11. Between the US, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, which did you find the most suited to your lifestyle?
MK: As now of course the US is my choice.

12. How many years have you lived in Saudi Arabia and what do you consider one of your best experiences here?

MK: Too long, 15 years.  As a Yoga & Pilates instructor, my best experience has been working with all kinds of people and nationalities.  I very much enjoy helping my clients to archive their goals and see a difference in their bodies and minds. To me, this is the best reward and contentment I can get.

13. When you go back to the States to visit and you tell people that you live in Saudi Arabia, what is the first question they ask you and how do you reply?

MK: Well, as soon as people find out that I live in Saudi, all their attention is focused on me. They start by bombarding me with their questions such as: how do I live in Saudi, how many wives does my husband have, am I wife number one?  I give them all the answers they need. Some make fun of Saudis, and some are in disbelief, when they come to know that as women here in Saudi our rights are limited. Like they ask me, can I drive? When they hear the answer is NO! that is just a shock for them.

14. You have a great Saudi husband mashallah, do you think other non-Saudi women could be happy marrying a Saudi man?

MK: This is a tough question to answer, a non-Saudi woman must think twice before marrying a Saudi.

15. When did you first decide you wanted to write your book? Was there a moment when you decided that you simply had to do it?
MK: Ever since my son was kidnapped, my American friends would tell me that my story should be in a book. When I found my son again after almost 18 years’ separation, many told me again to write a book.

16. How long did it take from starting your first sentence to seeing the book on the shelves?
MK: It took me one year to write the book but it took me 4 years to get it published and to see it on the shelves.

17. What has been the reaction of your friends and family about the book?
MK: They all are very, very, proud of me.

18. Now after sharing your story with the public, would you have made any changes to the book before it was printed?
MK: It is my true life story. No, I would not change anything although I did not have a chance to share everything as I would have liked to in depth.

19. How does it feel to have your story out?

MK: I’m very flattered to see my book with my face on the cover as well. It is a great accomplishment for me, I’m very happy.

20. What is the most important thing you would like to share with other women after all your experiences?
MK: I would not wish the kind of experiences that I went through on anyone, not even my worst enemy.

21. What is the url for your website?


22. Would you write another book?

MK: Yes, inshallah!

Thank you Maryam, for your interview and I hope that your family is reunited one day in peace and happiness.


15 Responses

  1. Waw! what a fascinating interview!
    And now I will have to get the book of course…

  2. Excellent and gutsy answers.

  3. Salaams Sister

    Thanks for sharing your story and I will get the book.

  4. Thank you very much for your kind responses.
    May God help us all.

  5. You have been blessed with a new life with a new husband. Don’t worry about explaining your life to those in the West or trying to get them to be able to accept it. They will never quite get it. Just find ways to enjoy yourself and your new family.

    Who knows. Someday, your son may come to his sneses and learn to accept how wrong he was to treat you the way he has in the past.

    “Love your mother, love your mother, love your mother, and then your father.” He needs to learn what that really means.

  6. @ NewBeginnings- ‘Who knows. Someday, your son may come to his sneses and learn to accept how wrong he was to treat you the way he has in the past.

    “Love your mother, love your mother, love your mother, and then your father.” He needs to learn what that really means’

    Did I miss someething here? What did the son do wrong? Allow himself to get kidnapped?

  7. And what about people in ”the west” not getting what? Accepting what?
    What’s that about?
    Are you a racist? Or a bigot?

  8. I just finished readin ghte book and that is why i “searched” for you on google. This book really moved me ..being a mother myself.. it was very emotional. i am agast the way women are treated in your land. I hope good sense prevails someday. Hope your sons see sense.

  9. This is the most moving book I have ever read, I couldn’t put the book down. Your story opened my eyes and educated me about life for an afghan woman. I wish we could do something about these strict laws in Afghanistan and other countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Thank you so much for sharing your story and for being so brave. I pray and hope for peace in Afghanistan and protection for all children who seem to be forgotten in this terrible war, and I hope and wish your son will find peace and love.

  10. Maryam Khail. One of my wish in thsi world is to meet you. I am muslim men from Malaysia and your story really touches me. Your story helps me gobe through my difficult moments. And I wish to thank you face to face if I had the opportunity to do so.

  11. Maryam, your life storey is so touching and brought many tears to my eyes. It has inspired me in many ways.

  12. Thank you very much. i wish you all a wonderful live.

  13. Thanks again,

  14. I have read your very gripping story,for the love of a son.ihave read most of sassons books.but after contacting mahbooba rawi it was such a coicedence that jaen emailed me to say that jou were meeting with mahbooba in Australia about 2 yrs ago.,as both of you are from Afghanistan.i have a niece in asimilar position.she just left her very abusive London reared former irani, Pakistani husband in may2014,with 2 sons.the baby was just 6months.she is south African ,capetown born and educated as aphysiotherapist.i can only have praise and admiration for women like you.we in our community do not know of abuse as such as we have had a normal upbringing in this country,even whith parants being from india.

  15. Maryam Khail, I finished reading the book four days ago. It was riveting and I could not stop myself from feeling the emotions you did, even shedding tears.
    Although I knew about some restrictions on women in countries like Afghanistan, I never had such a clear idea of what every girl goes through. Now I wish I could change it somehow, but tradition is hard to change in a sudden burst.
    The way you’ve battled all the odds is inspiring and fascinating. From the moment I closed the book at the end, I knew I had to contact you somehow.
    Maryam, the world needs fighters like you. You are an inspiration to me and so many others.

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