She was brutally beaten, almost to the point of death. She was isolated, wrenched away from her family in Athens. She practically disappeared into the Saudi desert, unable to seek refuge from the constant physical and emotional abuse inflicted on her by her husband. She risked the death penalty by escaping her house without her husband’s permission. How does an educated, modern, beautiful Greek woman with advanced degrees from Paris universities find herself in bondage and abuse in the middle of the Saudi desert without any recourse to law or family?
This is the harrowing tale of Nightmare in the Saudi Desert, the true-life account of Alexandra Symeonidou. Even though it took place close to 30 years ago, her wrenching story still spine tingles. In fact, the story is part of a three-part trilogy and spans a decade of events. The book has become an international bestseller, published first in Greece and then republished by an English publisher. The second publishing run of the book was published last November in Greek.
Symeonidou spoke candidly to greekamericangirl.com about her experiences and the larger issues at work in women’s lives that lead to a near escape from a life she describes as “pure hell.”
Symeonidiou, a young, beautiful flight attendant with Saudia Airlines, found it surprisingly flattering that the charming, debonair pilot lavished so much attention on her. He would even feign sitting in first-class as one of the passengers so she could wait on him in an effort to woo her.
Magazino Life segment showcasing Symenidou’s ordeal
She was swept off her feet. He pursued her with the intensity of a missile launcher. He was educated, from a wealthy, upper-class family with ties to the royalty. He provided her with a luxurious lifestyle to be envied by her friends back in Greece.
Her family expressed concerns at first, especially her older brother and her mother. However as supportive Greek families often do, “They couldn’t stop me from being happy even if they didn’t agree,” she explains.
The honeymoon period rivaled scenes of bliss you encounter in the tabloids. But after the honeymoon ended, things changed for Symeonidou. He kept her from working; she had to conform to the expectations of Saudi society but not be allowed to fraternize with them. Saudi Arabia is very conservatively right-wing, one of the states with most fundamental interpretation of Shari’a law. The fundamentalist version of Islam so pervades Saudi society there is no way to separate the religious ideology from Within one year, she found herself wearing a hijab, pandering to her husband’s every whim. She had become a servant, not a spouse. “It’s incredible how much I changed as a woman,” she confesses, “I changed from A to zed. I forgot who I was. From a strong, independent woman, I became someone with no initiative, and no opinion, who would second guess my most honest truths.”
The slow mind control that warped her essential identity advanced to a second level—physical abuse. But what Symeonidou describes in her memoir is more akin to torture. Daily beatings, whippings even first-degree burns with dousing of acid.
With no support network around her, in a society pervaded by a thick veil of fear whose only utterance was silence, Symeonidou was pushed to what she describes as the “zenith of abuse.” “I was alone with my destiny,” she relates. It was then that she made a desperate call to her mother in Athens.
Symeonidou’s mother became her savior. With the proddings of her mother, she escaped from her house outside the outskirts of Jeddah. Like a scene out of a movie, the two women walked into the desert for miles until they begged for refuge from an Egyptian man who ran a grocery store. They contracted a cab that took them directly to the Greek embassy. However, the Embassy did not want to interfere as she was more a Saudi man’s wife more than a Greek citizen. Again, it was her mother, a revolutionary the likes of the freedom fighters from Crete, who saved her. Her 54-year-old mother demanded her daughter receive protection under her aegis as a Greek national.
To make matters more complicated, Symeonidou was three months pregnant and concerned about the life of her unborn child. Bruised and beaten, she sought medical attention at the same Saudi hospital that her mother had been admitted to a week before. (Her mother so emotionally distraught by her daughter’s condition had suffered from physical ailments that necessitated her own hospitalization.) The reality was that she used the hospital as a sanctuary. As usual, none of the staff wanted to take responsibility for treating her as they needed her husband’s signature.
Had it not been for a foreign doctor who took it upon himself to treat her, who knows if she would have lived to tell the story. It was during the one-week stay in the hospital that allowed mother and daughter to arrange for the necessary paperwork to fly them out of the country and to relative safety in Greece.
Ironically, even after her ex-husband pronounced the necessary statement three times to divorce her, Symeonidou is only now finishing the legal paperwork for her divorce. Her divorce registered in the Greek state will become effective next month—nearly 30 years later!
Symenidou has made it her life’s mission to educate women about her experiences. Besides appearing on countless TV shows in Greece, she has given talks as far away as Australia for the Greek Writers of Melbourne and for COSMOS FM here in New York City.
A recent segment on Epsilon TV
However, it is not enough just to tell the story anymore, Symeniodou contends. “We must take action for these issues.” Symeniodou has expressed “frustration” at the lack of follow up action that her harrowing tale has received in Greek society. She seeks to raise awareness of the cultural incongruities for women of European descent to forge marriages with men of the Gulf States. She categorically condemns any woman from marrying a Saudi on the grounds that their “phallocentric society” will render her a slave and a non-entity.
“There is no way there will not be trouble later on in the marriage,” she explains. “When you marry an Arab, you marry their entire society.”
Her final words of advice to young women:“You need to know. You need to be informed before you take a life decision that can alter your destiny.”
To purchase your copy of her life story, log onto Amazon Nightmares in the Saudi Arabian Desert
For resources that lend awareness to the topic of domestic violence in Greece: Check out “Hope for Life” the Organization for the Protection of Abused Women and Underaged Children”
The House with the Green Railing, another organization in central Athens that serves as a sanctuary for abused women
More articles in Greek about her story: