"Since I am recording this for an American radio show, I feel like I should explain..."
For two years, a teenage girl named Majd Abdulghani carried around a little recording device and captured snippets of her life in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She tapes breakfast table conversations, with the sound of her brothers munching away on their Cornflakes filling the air. She records test tubes clinking and bubbling over at her lab at college. In the middle of the night, she turns on the recorder to tell us about the issues that worry her: Will she be unhappy in an arranged marriage? Will she be able to achieve her dream of becoming a scientist?
...over here, when you are young, you grow up with a lot of guy friends as a little kid. But then one day, you're supposed to start detaching yourself from them—not seeing them anymore because now you have to cover up from them... All of a sudden, you're not friends anymore. You only say, "Hi. How are you?" and that's as far as it goes. It was like: Game Over.
Producers Sarah Kramer and Joe Richman culled through 50 hours of tape to put together the story about Abdulghani's life for Radio Diaries. A brief glimpse into her world aired this evening on NPR's All Things Considered, and a longer podcast version is also available on the Radio Diaries website.
Kramer and Richman are well versed in finding stories in an ocean of audio recordings: Radio Diaries has spent the last 20 years putting tape recorders in the hands of people from many walks of life so that audiences can listen in on someone else's most intimate moments. The program has chronicled the lives of prison inmates, retirees at an old-folks home, coal miners, and cystic fibrosis survivors, and in the process won a Peabody Award, Edward R. Murrow Award, and Overseas Press Club award.
When Richman launched Radio Diaries in 1996, he was particularly interested in the lives of young people. The very first series was called Teenage Diaries and delved into the lives of teens going through particular challenges. A teenager from a conservative Catholic family struggles to come out as gay. One young man is about to get deported back to El Salvador. Another young woman talks through the nine months of her pregnancy.
"Teenagers are figuring out who they are; they are in the midst of transition," Richman says. "They also have this inherent sense that whatever they say is important. That's really useful because as adults we have a sense of filtering and editing and being modest when we speak. With teens, we get this raw portrait."
Three years ago, Richman set out to discover the next generation of teenage diarists. Technology, he realized, had changed the way that they communicated. Not only was it easier to gain access to teens from around the world, but with Twitter and Facebook they had become accustomed to sharing minute details of their lives. "Older folks have a different relationship not just to technology, but to the whole idea of talking about themselves," Richman says. "They feel like they need to be invited, or asked, to share their stories." Not so with today's generation of over-sharers.
So Richman and Kramer invited teenagers to post their stories on a storytelling website called Cowbird. Abdulghani was well versed with the platform, having spent several years documenting her life on the site even before the open call for stories began. She was eager to give the world an authentic glimpse into the world of women in a Muslim country. She was honest about her frustrations, but was also keen to dispel negative stereotypes. "I don’t want people to place me into this preconceived idea they have of Saudi Arabia, or Saudi Arabian people," Abdulghani says.
Out of the thousand teens who shared their stories, Kramer and Richman were particularly drawn to Abdulghani. "Her story was immediately compelling," Kramer says. "She had a voice that is rarely heard in the media, in the Western world."
Abdulghani was keen to take part, but it took several conversations to convince her family to let her tell her story in such a public way, since Saudi culture dictates that women should live quiet, secluded lives. "They were ultimately supportive," Kramer says. "But they chose to maintain their distance and not be main characters in the story."
At the time, Abdulghani was only 19 years old and attending an all-female university. During the taping she transfers to King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, the first mixed-gender university in Saudi Arabia. It's the everyday access to walking around campus with friends—what Richman calls the "on the scene" segments—that bring the podcast to life. "When the diarist records life as it happens and we just go along for the ride," says Richman.
She takes us around her house, for example, coming across a grumpy brother who is not interested in talking into his annoying little sister's recorder. She talks us through putting on her scarf, or niqab, as she leaves the house. She brings us to her all-women's karate class at the gym.
My dad seems to want me to stop taking karate classes... He probably thinks it is going to throw my femininity out the window or something. My parents, what they want me to do is sit in the kitchen and learn how to cook for a husband I don't even know if I am going to get married to...
Abdulghani's conflicted feelings about her culture are an ongoing theme. On the one hand, she wants to show the world that women in Saudi Arabia have rich lives, full of possibility. She points out that it is the norm for women to go to school; she herself spends many hours in the lab, hoping to one day get a PhD so she can become a professional scientist. But she must also abide by social norms that she feels impinge on her freedom, the biggest one being that she will soon have to face the real possibility of an arranged marriage. From the very start of her recordings, she begins to receive a stream of marriage proposals and she often contemplates what it will mean for her to become a traditional Saudi wife.
I want to love someone and have someone to love me back. But I don't want to be 20 years old and married. I'm too young for that.
We hear her turn down several prospective husbands. Her parents eventually convince her to meet with one suitor, a PhD student. The protocol is for the men in the family to begin the conversation before the meeting takes place. She asks her brother to leave his phone on during that time, so she can try to hear what this man sounds like. "Trust me, everyone does this," Abdulghani says, with a laugh. "It's not just us."
Eventually, despite all her objections, she acknowledges that one of the young men her parents send her way turns out to be interesting. He seems smart, open-minded, and excited about her career goals. After two meetings, she surprises herself by agreeing to marry him. The inner workings of arranged marriage might seem unfamiliar or even oppressive to Western audiences, at least until they hear Abdulghani's point of view.
"I think her notions of love are similar to ours," Richman says. "She wants and expects love."
Abdulghani ends up taking the path that her family expects of her, which is to get married and eventually have children of her own. She does, however, take pleasure in being able to tell her own story. "She doesn't try to prove that every impression that you have about Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabian women is wrong," Kramer says. "It's more complicated than that. There are parts of our stereotypes that are true and there are parts that aren't true."
And this is exactly what Richman set out to do when he launched Radio Diaries: He was always interested in exploding stereotypes and forcing people to question things they thought they understood. The program allows audiences to immerse themselves in another person's life and relate to them in an intimate way, so that they become real and three-dimensional. He wanted listeners to empathize with these characters and better understand their choices. "The kind of stories are so important to do in this way are of people that are misunderstood, stigmatized, politicized, or forgotten," he says.
At the same time, technology has allowed Radio Diaries to weave together stories that would have been impossible to tell in the past. Kramer and Richman never set foot in Saudi Arabia; Abdulghani was sent a digital recorder and asked to paint a picture of her life. When Richman first started the program, he would give subjects a clunky cassette player with enormous microphones that they would have to tote around—not something that could easily be hidden during services at a mosque. Abdulghani uploaded her audio files to Dropbox, and would chat with the producers on Skype and WhatsApp. "Technology has made our job easier in a lot of ways," Kramer says. "We could never have done a Saudi diary five years ago in the way that we are doing it today."
The Internet and social media allow the Radio Diaries team to tap into communities from around the world, without ever having to leave the desk—a huge advantage for a nonprofit organization with a small budget. Their subjects tape hours of recordings and send them overseas with the click of a button; a decade ago, costly tapes would have to be couriered back and forth by FedEx.
But while the logistics of putting together these stories has changed, Richman says that what goes into a compelling story stays the same. "The kind of stories that really move people and really stick are the ones that go deeper; it takes time, we see the world through their eyes. As much as technology has changed over the years, those real human stories haven't changed that much."