Jean Grant was raised in Montreal, Canada, attending both English and French schools. After graduation from the University of British Columbia, she had her first expatriate experience as she spent a year studying in Bordeaux. There she fell in love with everything French, especially the cheeses and the desserts. Since then she has traveled to more than sixty countries.

She taught in Cairo, Egypt, and then in Lebanon at the American University of Beirut until the Civil War. When her seven-year old sauntered into “Sniper Land” to collect bullets for his collection, she left for France. A year later, she set off for Saudi Arabia where she reported for Arab News, the major English daily. She interviewed women, who were “off-limits” to her male colleagues. She specialized in profiles of ordinary people: merchants, camel drivers, beauticians, oilmen, artists, and educators.

Q & A with Jean Grant

What led you to write The Burning Veil?

In Saudi Arabia, I taught at Dhahran Academy, an international school. Every morning at 7:15 a.m. we teachers were bussed to the school. One day, I noticed a fellow teacher weeping. She was an American married to a Saudi, and the marriage was going poorly. A few weeks later, she left the kingdom. I met several women like her, who came to the kingdom very much in love. I hoped for a better outcome for my heroine, Sarah.

What was it like being a reporter in Saudi Arabia?

Fun! I got to interview camel drivers, tycoons, merchants, shepherds, cabinet ministers, nannies, and artists. The Saudis are wonderfully hospitable and tolerant of those who speak clumsy Arabic.

Has life improved for Saudi women since you wrote The Burning Veil?

Immensely. In May 2017, King Salman limited the power of a woman’s male guardian. She no longer needs his consent to obtain a passport, work outside the home, and receive medical care. Women are still not allowed to drive, but the rise of Uber has made it fast, easy, and more acceptable for women to get transport. These changes may seem puny to Westerners, but to Saudis, they are radical.

How did you come to have a home in France?

My husband bought the house, then a ruin, from a friend who dabbled in property in foreign countries. The villagers said it should be torn down, but it proved a refuge for me and my children after the civil war in Lebanon.

What was that part of France like?

When we arrived in 1976, the men wore berets and the village women made jams, preserved fruits, and hunted for mushrooms. I love the relaxed pace of life and the pealing of the church bells at noon and seven p.m. to call the farmers in from the fields to eat, drink, and make merry.

What led you to fiction? And what are its special joys and challenges?

Writing fiction gave me the chance to play around with ideas rather than sticking to the cold truth.

Are any of your fictional characters based on real people?

In The Burning Veil, the Saudi characters are composites of people I met, while the main character, Sarah, reacts to things as I do. In Flight, I tried to show how war corrupts all, even Mo, the idealistic war photographer. I have journalist friends and I admire them immensely as they manage to be devoted to both their families and their craft.

You dedicate The Burning Veil to schoolgirls who died in a fire. What happened?

March 11, 2002, there was a fire in a girls’ school in Mecca, Saudi Arabia’s most holy city. Fourteen girls died in a stampede as they tried to escape. It’s impossible to know exactly what happened, but it has been alleged that the religious police sent some girls back inside to get their veils.

Did you wear the veil while in Saudi Arabia?

Only once when I stayed with a Saudi family. The eldest brother worried that not covering my face would hurt both my reputation and theirs. Usually, I just covered my arms, legs, and hair, wearing a scarf, long sleeves, and ankle-length skirt. Surprisingly, covering up in scorching weather can leave you cooler.

What are some intriguing novels set in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon?

Here are some wonderful ones:

For Saudi Arabia:

  • Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris
  • Women of Sand and Myrrh Hanan al Shaikh
  • Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel
  • Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif

For Lebanon

  • De Niro’s Game, by Rawi Hage
  • Sitt Marie Rose by Etel Adnan
  • Beirut in Shades of Grey by Dana Kamal Mills