Sunni Love, take one
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 18, 2009
I should be calling this post “Lives of the Rich and Famous: 1953” – but “Sunni Love” was too much fun. While poking around in Time‘s online archives, I found this December 1953 gem about the non-marriage between a son of Ibn Saud and a daughter of Riad al Solh. Its a bit overwrought in parts (“with dark eyes that pierced like a Bedouin’s”, not to mention “he paled and muttered to himself” – seriously?), and a bit stereotyped in its views of Muslim Arab women (after all, the piece is titled SAUDI ARABIA: Western Woman) but its a good story, and Mlle. al Solh certainly sounds like someone I would have wanted to be friends with. Enjoy!
The bullet that killed Lebanon’s first and greatest Premier, brilliant, little Riad el Solh (TIME, July 30, 1951), distressed the generous heart of old Ibn Saud, autocrat of Saudi Arabia. The old lion of the desert could always count on an ally when El Solh was representing Lebanon. Ibn Saud wept and vowed to look after his old friend’s widow and four daughters. Tragically in the patriarchal Arab world, El Solh died without leaving a son.
So in the summer of 1953, when 29-year-old Sultan Al-Saud arrived in Lebanon, he bore his father’s sympathy to the bereaved family and an offer of $79,000 to the widow so that she might finance the mansion her husband had begun. Then Emir Sultan’s eye lighted upon 22-year-old Alia Solh. She was slender and bright, with dark eyes that pierced like a Bedouin’s when she was talking and crinkled when she smiled. She was also the big girl on campus at the American University of Beirut, where she studied political science and practiced it by leading demonstrations for women’s rights, daring hapless cops to shoot her down.
The Spark. Though Sultan was Ibn Saud’s 16th son, he was one of his favorites. Unlike some of the other 43 sons, he was able and hard working. As mayor of the capital city of Riyadh, he had done a first-rate job, and in negotiations with Aramco he had amazed the American oilmen with his quick mind. Matchmakers suggested that Alia and Sultan would make a good couple; Ibn Saud and El Solh’s widow agreed. Sultan heeded his father and in traditional Arabic style delicately indicated his wish to Mme. Solh through go-betweens. Unaware of all this, Alia went off to England, then to Paris for a holiday. Quite by chance, Sultan appeared in Paris, too, and inquired around about his bride-to-be. What he heard alarmed him. He hired detectives, who reported that Alia was indeed no strict Moslem maiden but was gadding about the Left Bank with a young crowd, behaving herself like a thoroughly emancipated, Western-style 22-year-old.
The Flame. When Alia returned to Beirut this fall and learned of the marriage negotiations, she laid down conditions. She would marry Sultan if he would join the foreign service and live in Washington, Paris, London, Beirut or any other civilized place. She would not live in Saudi Arabia, where women stay in seclusion. She would never wear a veil. Sultan must marry no other woman and must agree to live his entire life with her. Sultan must put a large sum in escrow just in case he should decide to leave her.
When Sultan heard these terms, he paled and muttered to himself. Added to what he had learned about Alia in Paris, this was too much. Though he wished to honor his dying father’s dynastic wish, he wanted a traditional Moslem wife, not a Western woman. Meanwhile, in Beirut, Alia did some fast research on her own and discovered that Sultan already had at least one wife, as well as two sons and four daughters.
Last week it was all over. The matchmakers bowed out. Alia was back in her political science classes at the American University of Beirut. Sultan tended to his job of governing Riyadh and seemed a good bet to become Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Agriculture. Both heaved great sighs of relief. Their families were disappointed, but also aware that times have changed in the Middle East.