Editor’s note: This piece is part of an ongoing series, “Dispatches from the Arab World,” in which a variety of perspectives will examine topics such as servant culture in Saudi Arabia, feminism in Islam, and journalism in the Middle East. 


Just at the time my book Driving The Saudis came out at the end of 2012, Karen Elliott House’s extraordinary On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future was featured in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. The review featured a beautiful spread for an important and fascinating read. I immediately thought: “Wow! I would love to meet the writer, she’s the real deal!”

Indeed, House is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and Publisher of The Wall Street Journal who traveled the world and reported on international affairs for more than thirty years. She spent five years interviewing hundreds of people in Saudi Arabia for her thoroughly researched book. Now a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, House lives in Princeton nearby where I grew up; as it happens, happily, she also answered my email. After a few clumsy moments on Skype, we talked for almost two hours.

JAL: I’m curious how someone like you from the small Texas town of Matador ends up traveling the world and then so thoroughly, the Middle East working for the Wall Street Journal.

KEH: Matador is truly a tiny place—900 people—and I had worked at the town weekly. Mr. Meador, the Tribune’s owner, had left Matador and made it all the way to California. My father was in Germany during the war, so between those two, I could actually dream about making it overseas. I used to walk from my house to the Tribune, which was like 5 minutes, and thought if I just kept walking and walking I could end up somewhere interesting. When I got out of high school, I went to the University of Texas and was so happy there were all these people I didn’t know. In Matador obviously all 900 people knew me and I knew all 900. At UT there were 25,000 students when I arrived and 35,000 when I left. Everyday you saw people you knew and people you didn’t, so that really opened up the world for me. When I graduated, I got a job at the Dallas Morning News and then they sent me to Washington. Then the Wall Street Journal decided in the 70s to hire women and hired me in their Washington bureau. I was the second woman hired in that bureau. I covered regulatory agencies then energy then was offered the diplomat job. I took it and spent the rest of my 32-year career at the Wall Street Journal; 28 of it running around the world.

JAL: I understand from friends in journalism that it’s very much a man’s world—as you said, you were only the second woman hired by the Wall Street Journal when you started out. How has that changed? Or has it not?

KEH: It’s changed totally. When I became the diplomatic correspondent in 1978, we traveled on the Secretary of State’s plane and it was basically twelve men and me. I was not the first woman because in the Kissinger days Marilyn Berger from the Washington Post had been the only woman. All these guys on the plane with me sitting right there would make fun of Marilyn Berger because she worked too hard and they wanted people to relax at night, and she would be chasing Kissinger around trying to get information. It was an advantage to be a woman because when you traveled with 12 men you stuck out. So, 13 people get off the plane and I’m the one most visible because I’m the one who looks different. It was easy to call somebody up and say: ‘I’m that woman with Secretary Vance and I’d like to come and see you.’ And you just ignore the fact that the men ignore you. I mean it honestly never bothered me. I didn’t want to play liar’s poker or whatever that game is they play with the dollar bill all the time. Never understood it, never was interested.

JAL: So you used it to your advantage then?

KEH: Yes. And again, in the 70s when the Secretary of State is in a big hotel at the end of the hall and there’s security people and secretaries all up and down the hall, and you head for his door and you get halfway before anybody thinks you’re anything other than a secretary. ‘I’m going to see Secretary Vance,’ I would say. And people would initially think she must be a new secretary and then some state department security guys would stop you somewhere and say: ‘Well I’ll sit here and wait’ and then sometimes they let you in and most of the time they didn’t. It was again and all over again—90% of life is showing up and trying. I didn’t know Marilyn Berger when she did this but I think I must have been a lot like her. I was happy to work hard all the time. I was in pursuit of information.

JAL: And of course I’m sure it didn’t hurt that you’re a tall drink of water, a beautiful woman from Texas?

KEH: My accent was also distinctive and memorable, that’s for sure.

JAL: In your book On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines–and Future (Knopf: New York 2012) you write that being a woman was an advantage there as well because you had unusual access in Saudi Arabia. Is that true?

KEH: Yes, very much. It’s counterintuitive I know. People would think ‘oh my goodness’ what can a woman do in Saudi Arabia? But a western woman is generally treated with great respect by men there. I thought it would be a disadvantage in trying to see the senior religious scholars because some of them obviously perpetuate the view that you must not talk to a woman you’re not related to, or even meet with one, and therefore they wouldn’t do it. But I managed to see three of those 20 major people. I think a man wouldn’t have had any easier access because they’re just people who don’t want to see western infidels. But {Saudi} women will talk to you. Women are actually eager to meet with western women, partly out of curiosity. So if they’re very religious and conservative they want to meet with you to save you. If they’re more western themselves, they want to meet with you to compare notes and to see what life is like on the outside. Or if they’ve been outside, which many Saudi women have, they just enjoy being able to have a western kind of conversation.

JAL: And with the woman whom you stayed with in Saudi Arabia, Lulu, how did that transpire? How did you get access to her?

KEH: I went to see an Imam in 2006 and he sat me down and said, “I will speak and you will listen and when I am through you can ask questions.” And he spoke for two hours and then I asked questions. He was very conservative and talked about how much he enjoyed seeing Americans die on TV in Iraq. Then he said, “You need to see my mother and sister…You’re old, so you’re not listening to your father or husband so I want to offer you Islam.” He was the first to really do that. I said I’d love to see your mother and wife and six sisters. He organized a dinner and this woman showed up to translate—that woman was Lulu. When I arrived she got out a notebook and she started to read to me. I asked her what she was doing and she said ‘I’m giving you answers.’ I said, ‘But I haven’t asked any questions yet.’ Then I said to her, ‘Let me explain how this is going to work. I’m going to ask these seven women questions and you’re going to tell them what I’m asking and you’re going to tell me the answers.’ She became so flustered she couldn’t do it. She took out her cell phone and called her brother who is an English teacher, and for three hours he translated me to them and them to me on a cell phone speaker. I kept meeting this group of women and Lulu did translate for me in the future. They all calmed down. They had this idea I was some street-walking whore who had never seen my mother. When I was asking them questions, they started asking me hostile questions like, “Do you ever go visit your mother?” So the whole meeting was good, but quite confrontational. Everybody asked me whatever they wanted. I mean they probably weren’t used to anybody asking questions, so they asked as bluntly as they thought I asked. Then in the future these meetings became very friendly and all the daughters brought their children. One of these daughters pointed out that their mother, who is my age, sat there with her head completely covered in front of only women, but the other women didn’t. They were all bare headed but wore long skirts. They made the point that their mother was the first wife and there were two other wives. So Lulu said she was his second wife and I asked the daughters, ‘Do any of your husbands have other wives?’ And they all said no, but then they said, ‘It wouldn’t be up to us. If the husband wants, he will.’ I came to know the women in this way. I decided it’s one thing to hear about religious conservative life, it’s another to try to witness it up close.

I was trying to find somebody I could live with and because I don’t speak Arabic, the person needed to speak English, but most English-speaking people are too western—I thought Lulu would be perfect. So I arranged another dinner with the Imam’s family and she did not come. There was another translator. I was heartbroken but at the end of the dinner Lulu showed up. I asked her if I could live with her. She had her daughter with her who spoke great English and I asked her, ‘How did you learn such good English?’ She said at the university and then she said—and this was a line you couldn’t pay for—‘My English teacher was British and she lived with us for a while.’ And I said, oh I would love to do that! The perfect opening. So I lived with her and I still go see Lulu. She’s very sincere and admirable.

JAL: I remember reading that when Lulu’s husband, whom you only saw twice, was around you would have to go to your room, and there was nothing to do but read the Quran. In experiences like that were you lonely? Did you feel closed in?

KEH: The irony is that it was exactly like being in Matador again on a Sunday afternoon. You got back from church and there was nothing to do. Except in the summer it was hot as Hades and we had no air conditioning, so you lied on your bed and read books. We weren’t allowed to go riding around with other kids or anything like that.

JAL: Your interest in that world is perhaps in many ways related to your upbringing?

KEH: I think so. I find it absolutely intriguing because of the devotion to religion and in a sense, the rigidity. At home in Matador, we were allowed to wear normal length dresses and sleeveless dresses, but no jewelry. My father had read us the story of the Golden Calf as kids, and jewelry was a bad thing because you might take it off and melt it down. So there was a real, as I wrote in my book, rigidity about the way my father approached religion. As a result, none of that offended me about Saudi Arabia. What interests me is that they have gone so much further than fundamentalism. My family was fundamentalist: no shorts, no pants, no jewelry, mild makeup was okay, no TV, no music. We had a record player and listened to the Beach Boys on 45 records but no dancing, no alcohol, no loud frivolity—all very similar in that sense to the Saudis. But the Saudis go so much further. The bible says that after the second or third admonition to someone then you can let them go and go deal with someone else. It doesn’t say kill the people who don’t agree with you. There is a live and let live mentality. God will punish the non-believers is the Christian view. You have an obligation to try to bring the word to people but if they don’t accept then it’s not your job to vengeance the Lord. He will deal with it, not you. I’m intrigued that in the Wahhabi brand of Islam it goes so much further than just live a righteous life yourself.

JAL: I’m sure Lulu became fond of you so it would be her duty to try to convert you to prevent you from burning in hell eternally?

KEH: Absolutely. When I saw her in June of 2014, she’d had a tough time. Her son had gone to join ISIS in Syria, her husband took a third wife, and she’d had a miscarriage. Her focus when I was there was ‘…it’s not me, Miss Karen, who says this, it is Allah. What’s the hesitancy? If you do not become a Muslim, then yes you are going to….’ The Quran talks endlessly about hell and she’s definitely looking after me. She really wants to.

JAL: The nature of your work over the past 35 years has changed because of the internet—consider even the fact you and I are meeting each other by talking remotely with a whole country between us. What I thought was so valuable about your book was the hands-on experience in Saudi homes with hundreds of interviews.

KEH: But that’s what real journalism is. It’s not pontificating, it’s describing and taking someone along with you because the journalist has the opportunity, or used to have the opportunity, when someone or something like the Wall Street Journal paid for you to travel to go places to see things. You’re supposed to be the public’s eyes and ears.

What we were taught at the Journal was to be critical to the expert and accessible to the non-expert. So for me as a diplomatic correspondent, I wasn’t writing to impress the Secretary of State, I was writing to engage five million readers of the Wall Street Journal who were lawyers, housewives, teachers and professors, and my goal was to capture the greatest number of them. To do that you have to be accessible, you have to make people feel that they are coming along with you. The best way to do that is show your readers the people who you talk to, let them be heard. So if you just sit in a hotel room you can’t describe or make people feel Saudi Arabia nearly as much as if you really make an effort. And it is a huge effort to see people in Saudi Arabia. It’s a country where people are private; they are not eager to interact with strangers, so you have to get someone to open the door for you. Every time, somebody has to introduce you. You don’t do on-the-street, cold call interviews. And that’s why it takes so long—you have to really persist.

JAL: When you traveled there recently you weren’t working with the WSJ. How did you get access?

KEH: I knew people. I started going there for the WSJ in 1978 and continued through 2006 when I retired. So I went and I had two business cards; one that read the “retired publisher of the WSJ,” and one that said I was a “fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard.” Harvard is actually a better business card in Saudi Arabia, but I never hid from anybody that I was writing a book and was a WSJ reporter. I think you have to be honest because everybody in Saudi Arabia is owned by somebody.

The first thing anybody wants to know is who owns you. You had to say it, and I would say it because I knew it was in people’s minds. Some people would just ask outright. If they didn’t ask me outright I always said, ‘I am doing a book on Saudi Arabia, I have a contract with a big American publisher called Knopf. They give me money, it’s called an advance, and I use money to come here to pay for my transportation, my hotel, my food,’ because they want to know who’s paying for you. They assume someone, even perhaps some Saudi is paying for you, and thus you have an agenda.

So you have to get that out of the way.

JAL: Was there ever a time when you were traveling in the kingdom where you felt threatened or afraid?

KEH: I never felt afraid. I wore my black abaya all the time so I didn’t stick out. I did not cover my head, I kept a scarf around my neck, and if someone demanded, I covered my hair. I went to see a religious judge, a sharia judge in Qatif, in the Shia part, and he demanded I be completely covered, so I did. When I went to see the Ulema (Muslim scholar), I had to cover, although they allowed me to uncover my face, not my head. Similarly, the Minister of Justice allowed me to uncover my face but not my head. Most people preferred if you covered your head, not women obviously, and not some men, but any major religious officials you saw did not want to be seen with you with an uncovered head. All that aside, the traffic is the scariest thing in Saudi Arabia. I know foreigners have been captured and beheaded, but the only time I was really scared was coming from a very poor area on the Kuwait border called Hafar Al Batin, and driving with a Saudi man, whose car was very old and the lights kept going out. So we were driving between midnight and 2 AM which is obviously not a time, as my mother would say, that decent women are out. We had gone there to visit people and he told me it was a three hour drive, but it was much further than that from Dhahran. So to get back, we’re driving very late with the lights going out all the time and you’re literally on a highway where you could hit a camel, you could hit a car—that was frightening. He was also occasionally discussing that maybe he needed an American wife… so I was so happy to get back to Dhahran when we did. He was the perfect gentleman other than that discussion. Having the lights go out every 15 minutes––they’d just go out for a couple minutes—that’s the only time I was really scared in Saudi Arabia.

JAL: Do you have another dream project you’re thinking of?

KEH: The other thing I would like to do is not doable. When I was a publisher for the WSJ in Beijing, one of our reporters arranged what she called the ‘cool people dinner’ with the editor of Vogue and the head of Gallup Polling in China, and she arranged a foreign policy dinner, and she arranged for me to go to a church. We went to this big show church in Beijing where Bill Clinton had gone. It had four pastors, all of them women, interestingly, and another one of our reporters, when we were interviewing these female pastors and people at church, said, ‘You can walk across China, being passed from one Christian home to another,’ and I said, ‘If that’s true, you should do it.’

It would be really fascinating to talk to people about what it means when you say: ‘I’m a Christian in China.’ Why are you a Christian, and how did it happen? How does it affect the way you live and think? Because if it’s really true, and it’s Christianity in some real sense, not just ‘it makes me feel good,’ I think it’s a very important thing to be able to talk to people about what it means to them, how it affects them. Does it give us an insight into China? I could solve the problem that I don’t speak Chinese; I could take a male or female person with me. But it’s such a dangerous topic, you would endanger the people who passed you on. One of the great things about Saudi Arabia is when I went to see poor people, I covered up completely, and no one really knows you’re American. You can hide. You can surround yourself in black. In China you can’t surround yourself in black, so if someone like me walked into some village, the word that there’s a stranger there would be out in 15 seconds, and whoever you visited would have to answer for it—so I think it’s not doable. But I would love to walk across China being passed from one Christian home to another asking people how did that happen and what does that mean and how does it make you view your country. It’s a conversation that would have to take place in private, like a lot of the conversations in Saudi Arabia had to be in private so it could be honest and enlightening. But the fact is that the conversation in China can’t be had truly in private, because the person would have to answer for it in a way that didn’t happen in Saudi Arabia.

JAL: Can you recommend further reading for our Hippo readers?

KEH: As for books, I would suggest for those interested in gaining a deeper knowledge of Islam, which is a key force in today’s mideast, to read the following:

  • This is the most interesting piece I have read on Hippo Reads. I am in awe of this woman!