The true story of Zana Muhsen’s years as an enforced child bride in the Yemen. France’s biggest non-fiction seller in 1992, it has sold threemillion copies in Europe. Condensed by Reader’s Digest and dramatised for Radio 4, the British paperback edition reprints regularly.
Zana Muhsen was a Birmingham girl who, along with her younger sister,
Nadia, was sold by her father as a child bride when she was fifteen. The
girls accepted their father’s offer of “a holiday of a lifetime”
in Yemen, only discovering the truth once they got there.
When Zana first escaped from the Yemen, the news was on front pages all
over the world. The media were queuing up to buy her story, but Zana wasn’t
ready to talk. She needed time to reflect and to put her ordeal into perspective.
After a year, when the media attention had calmed down, she decided it
was time to tell her story and she looked for a writer to help her. She
approached me and together we relived the painful, eight year nightmare,
to produce a true picture of Zana’s story.
When we got back from the shops Abdul Khada and I were sitting outside
on the platform, talking to the old couple and the children, when Mohammed’s
younger brother Abdullah arrived up the same path that we had first climbed.
I knew there was another boy and I’d been told that he was in another
village about two hours’ drive away called Campais. Abdul Khada owned
a restaurant in Campais, which was next to the main road out to Sana’a.
Abdullah had been helping his father to fix it up in preparation for opening.
I’d been shown pictures of the boy before I came out, but I hadn’t taken
much notice. I knew he was fourteen, but he looked more like ten to me.
He was a weak, sickly looking little boy, very thin and pale. The whole
family came out of the house to greet him, and his mother took his bag
in for him. Ward seemed particularly fond of her second son. Later I was
to find out that he had been sickly ever since he was born and that made
her specially protective towards him.
‘This is my son, Abdullah.’ Abdul Khada introduced us, we shook hands,
very formally, just as I had with everyone else two days earlier. His
handshake seemed weak, and his hand was smaller than mine. We all sat
down again outside, and I went on talking to Abdul Khada and the others
and took no more notice of Abdullah, apart from being polite. He didn’t
seem very interesting to me, but I wanted to get on with everyone in the
family if possible, and to get to know them. I wanted it to be a good
As the sun began to go down behind the mountains and the air cooled,
we all went inside and sat in my room, still talking. After a while the
rest of the family left the room. Abdul Khada sat on the blanket-covered
platform, between me and the boy. I was in my favourite place next to
the window, which was the coolest spot in the room. The boy was staring
at the floor, saying nothing.
Abdul Khada spoke softly and casually to me. ‘This is your husband.’
I thought it was a joke. I just looked at him, not sure whether to laugh
or not. ‘What?’ I asked.
‘Abdullah is your husband,’ he repeated, and I tried to concentrate on
the words he was saying, unable to believe that I was hearing them right.
My heart was crashing so loudly inside my ribs that I couldn’t be sure
what I was hearing. I felt short of breath and panic-stricken.
A follow-up book to Sold, telling of the continued fight to save Zana’s sister Nadia.
The following is an extract from “A Promise to Nadia”, which
I wrote with Zana ten years after we wrote “Sold”, by which
time “Sold” had notched up sales of over three million copies
I still wake up in the middle of the night, bathed in sweat and shaking
with fear, having dreamed that, having gone back to Yemen to see Nadia
ten years later, I am trapped once more.
It all seems so real. I can feel the smallness of the room we’re sitting
in and the prying eyes of the villagers as they watch us. Some of them
are silently suspicious and hostile. Others are shouting abuse at me for
all the trouble I’ve caused them, all the shame that I’ve brought down
upon them in the eyes of the world.
In my dreams they know how much we hate them and that we will do anything
to escape. They know that we see them as our enemies and they are afraid
of us, though they are the ones with all the power. They are able to dictate
what will happen in our lives whilst we seem able to do no more than embarrass
and temporarily inconvenience them.
But I’m no longer completely powerless as I was in the eight years that
I lived there, either in my nightmares or in my waking life. I know now
that I can fight and that I can win some battles. But no matter what I
do, the Yemeni men are still in control. They are still able to threaten
and abuse us and make us fear for our lives and the lives of our children.
They can still do whatever they want to Nadia and there seems to be nothing
we can do to stop them. They can sell our children, or make them work,
or send them away.
Sometimes in the dreams I have taken my car with me – that treasured
symbol of the freedom which I hold so dear – and I’ve managed to get Nadia
and the children into it, along with some of my friends and relatives
from England. It’s a small car and we’re all crushed in like sardines.
We are so close our thunderous heartbeats are as one as we struggle to
start the engine and make the machine move forward. The men are getting
closer and I know that the car will be no protection unless I can get
it to move quickly. They will overwhelm us, tip the car over and shake
us out, like emptying coins from a child’s money-box. We have to get away
but there are too many of us for the little car and we’re weighing it