Driving by Starlight

Driving by Starlight

by Anat Deracine


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In this debut YA friendship story by Anat Deracine, set in Saudi Arabia, two girls navigate typical teen issues—crushes, college, family expectations, future hopes, and dreams.

Sixteen-year-olds Leena and Mishie are best friends. They delight in small rebellions against the Saudi cultural police—secret Western clothing, forbidden music, flirtations. But Leena wants college, independence—she wants a different life. Though her story is specific to her world (a world where it's illegal for women to drive, where a ten-year-old boy is the natural choice as guardian of a fatherless woman), ultimately it's a story about friendship, family, and freedom that transcends cultural differences.


Praise for Driving by Starlight:

"Leena’s commanding voice conveys her desperation, courage, and intellect in a riveting, ultimately exhilarating page-turner." —Publishers Weekly, starred review

"The fast-paced narrative and unexpected twists make for an engaging yet educational novel with a powerful message about the complexities of being a woman in a man's world." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250308955
Publisher: Square Fish
Publication date: 05/21/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 1,244,183
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

About the Author

Anat Deracine is the pseudonym of a professional wanderer, whose passports include stamps from Iraq, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Turkey. She grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where she watched scud missiles fall from the sky during the Gulf War. She studied engineering and philosophy at Cornell University, and political science at Oxford University. Today, she lives in San Francisco but travels to discover new cultures and perspectives. Anat is the author of Driving by Starlight.

Read an Excerpt



"Do you ever think about leaving?" I asked Mishail, careful to keep my tone casual.

"Lean back, or you'll get shaving cream on the carpet," Mishail said.

"Serves you right for having a carpet in the bathroom," I said, not sure whether I was disappointed or relieved that Mishail hadn't answered my question. I thought about adding a clarification. I mean, someday. If it were even possible.

"I can't believe you've never done this before," Mishail said. "Do I have to teach you everything?"

"Yes," I said, hoping she could hear my gratitude.

"You're so ridiculous. Anything involving real life and you're as useless as a six-year-old."

I scowled. I could fix electrical appliances, manage household finances, and carry home bleeding chickens from the butcher, but as far as Mishail was concerned, if you didn't have your own personal style, wear makeup, or dance, you had no practical life skills.

"Just watch what you're doing, or I'll throw you down the stairs."

"You won't hurt me," Mishail said, sounding so smug. I felt a prick of annoyance. Mishail was far too trusting. Last week, when we ditched school to get ice cream, I read the street signs, avoided SUVs that might have been religious police, and navigated crossing the four-lane highway to get to the store across the street. Mishail twirled sunflowers and stopped to pet stray cats, completely oblivious to the men who turned to look at her.

The ice-cream store had the usual sign that all restaurants did when they didn't have a family section — WOMEN AND ANIMALS NOT ALLOWED. Mishail didn't even see it, didn't notice that the guy gave us free ice cream to get us out before any police saw us inside. And on the way back to school, while I plotted excuses in case we were caught, she giggled madly because her mouth was frozen and she was high on sugar. At some point, she laughed so hard she collapsed in a heap, leaving me to practically carry her back.

As if we weren't conspicuous enough, two girls loitering unescorted on the streets of Riyadh in the middle of the day. It was a miracle we hadn't been arrested.

"No, I don't think about leaving," Mishail said, concentrating on the razor's path. "We're not going to get scholarships. No sense in getting our hopes up. Besides, my father won't even let me stay over at your house, and yours ..."

I bit my lip, wondering why I'd asked the question when I knew what the answer would be. Sometimes we fed each other's madness. Sometimes Mishail said, "Sabiha Madam is coming back after her baby, let's surprise her with balloons," and I said, "What if there were so many balloons in the classroom that she had to burst them even to get in?"

But sometimes we had to burst each other's bubbles. Mishail's jaw clenched. I knew she didn't want to finish her sentence.

Say it, I prayed silently. Say it so I won't have to. Say it, and I won't hope anymore.

"Insh'allah," Mishail said, instead, and my stomach did a somersault. If God wills. "Maybe your father will come home by the time we graduate."

"Insh'allah," I agreed. "Maybe by then the law will change, and we won't need their permission."

Our eyes met. We'd been doing this for years now, stoking the fires of each other's hopes even though all reasonable people knew there was no way out. The sane thing to do was to keep your head down and do what you were told, so the muttaween, the religious police from Al-Hai'a, the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, wouldn't take away what little freedom you still had.

"The olive dress is going to look incredible on you," Mishail said. "Lift up."

I raised my arms so Mishail could reach my armpits with the razor. Her breath huffed against my face, soft like everything about her. Someday, I promised myself, I'd understand what it was about Mishail that made us love her with the kind of devotion that started and ended wars. Of course she was beautiful, but not in the movie-star way, and that wasn't it at all. Mishail's gift was that her every word felt like a hug. She smiled at strangers with the innocence of never having had to bargain down vendors at the souq.

I was different.

"You walk as if you're angry with the world, as if you've got a knife hidden in your shoes," Mishail had said once. My mother had said it differently, and she'd used that word, the one that always made me so angry I couldn't even think.

"Everything about you is so ... sharp. Your mind, your voice, your shoulders, even your walk. You remind me so much of your father."

"Stop that," Mishail said, slapping my cheek lightly as I frowned. "Why do you always worry so much? Why can't you just be excited about tomorrow?"

As far as our plots and pranks went, this one was going to be simple, but we were still going to give it everything we had. People who didn't really know Mishail, who saw only the minister's daughter and never the girl, thought she was the most perfectly mannered lady they'd ever met. That it was only my bad influence that got her in trouble.

They don't know, I thought. The girl wolfed down entire shawarmas in thirty seconds flat, invented naughty versions of Disney songs, and had lace lingerie smuggled in from an aunt in Paris hidden in the crevice of the air conditioner. The girl could tune out the world for hours only to return to it with the wisdom of a demented Moses, saying calmly, "Before we graduate, we should paint the school wall fuchsia."

Only I knew that Mishail.

A man's voice boomed below us. "HOW MANY TIMES do I have to —"

Mishail flinched, and the razor cut me.

Sorry, Mishail mouthed.

I shook my head. Not your fault. The minister had that effect on everyone.

"I'm so sorry," Mishail said. "He gets worse every —"

"Are you sure I won't look stupid?" I asked, deliberately changing the subject. There was one certain way to ruin an evening, and that was letting Mishail talk about her father. "I don't know how to carry myself in a dress, and I feel like a giraffe in heels."

"We'll practice," Mishail said. "If you're not going to care about what you wear, why complain about the abaya?"

Mishail had a point. I fought the flutter in my stomach. Sure, it was against school rules to wear anything but the uniform, but that wasn't what was bothering me. Leena Hadi did not wear dresses, had never worn dresses, and wanted to punch the color pink in the face.

A loud knocking at Mishail's bedroom door startled us. Mishail's mother said, "Girls, I want you both down for dinner in five minutes flat."

"It's not fair," Mishail said. "He yells at her, so she yells at us to feel better."

"Don't," I said, toweling off. My legs tingled. "Just think about tomorrow."

Mishail said nothing.

I squeezed her wrists. "Hey, we're not them. Nothing they do can touch us. Remember?"

"We'll have to smuggle the clothes in our schoolbags," Mishail said, relaxing with a sigh. "The park is walled, so there should be no religious police to worry about, only teachers. We'll change in the bathroom and cover up with the abayas."

We ate dinner in silence, three women huddled over the table in the kitchen. In the living room, the minister sat with Mishail's brothers. It hadn't always been this way, women in one room, men in the other, sharing dishes by passing them silently through the barely open doorway. All that happened after Mishail's father became part of the government. Before that —

There was no use thinking about the past.

Still, it was better than being at my house, with my mother running around the kitchen trying to cook five dishes at once for a delivery order that was already late, while Fatima Aunty gave apocalyptic sighs and made delicate comments about our "unfortunate situation."

"He's in jail," I said once, shutting her up momentarily. "Just say it. Do you know how many people's fathers are in jail in this country? It's practically normal. Just pack the hummus."

"So, Leena, are you excited about Al-Kharj tomorrow?" Mishail's mother asked.

"Yes, of course," I said. "It's the one day of the year we're allowed to be outside."

"Just be careful," Mrs. Quraysh said. "If you're out in the sun too long, you'll become dark. Don't sit on the grass. And no matter what you do, don't use the bathrooms. That's how you get MERS."

I choked on my laugh. Mishail's toes pinched my calf under the table, but her expression didn't change. How did Mishail stand this day after day? I had to pack my own lunches, but most days Mishail wasn't allowed to brush her own hair. I wondered which was worse.

No wonder she wants to let loose tomorrow, I thought, and my mind returned to the olive dress Mishail had picked out for me. My stomach settled. If it would make Mishail happy, I'd gladly dance around in a clown outfit in front of the headmistress herself.

We settled in beside each other on Mishail's bed. She wasn't allowed over to my house, not when there was "no male authority figure to keep the women in check," as the minister put it. But I could stay here, as long as I stayed out of the minister's way. There was never a night that I didn't want to stay in Mishail's coral-toned bedroom, with the magazine clippings of our favorite pop stars hidden under the mattress and Mishail's phone under the pillow playing music until we fell asleep.

The alternative was listening to the soft scratching of cockroaches and the clipped, drip-drip sounds of my mother's sobs through the wall. Once, I tried to comfort her, but she just screamed at me to go away. I understood. The last thing I wanted was anyone seeing how miserable I really was, either.

Mishail curled into my outstretched arm with a contented sigh, and I pushed the bangs out of her face. There was a saying that the strength of an Arab woman was that she slept through the scorpion's sting so her husband's rest was undisturbed. If my nightmares ever woke Mishail, she never let me know. And she never complained.

I fell asleep slowly, wondering if I'd have another of the dreams where I could fly.

The dreams weren't complicated. They always began the same way, with my sneaking out of the school auditorium while everyone else was at an assembly, and stepping out onto the football field, where we weren't allowed to play because it was obscene for women to jump around. I'd start sprinting so fast that my feet would leave the ground, the folds of my black abaya no longer getting between my legs but spreading out like falcon wings. I'd fly over the ten-foot-tall school wall, past Al-Hai'a buzzing around in their tinted vans, and headed straight for Riyadh's Kingdom Tower. The dreams had gone on so long that the ups and downs of flying were now as familiar as the buoyancy of an elevator.

This high up, the pincers of the tower and the skybridge that connected them were lit, crackling and alive with electricity. All I had to do was go through, thread the needle, and I'd be free. Just then, I'd see Mishail's face, gazing up at me from below or reflected in a window, and I would plummet to the ground. I'd wake up with a gasp from the fall, heart racing until I saw Mishail fast asleep by my side.

Leaving meant leaving Mishail. It was never going to happen.



Al-Kharj! Even the name was as crisp as the city's lush orange orchards. The leaf-green minarets along the road were such a change from the flat red plateau of Riyadh. I ached to open the windows, but the train of school buses heading down the highway had dark contact paper on the locked windows so nobody could see the girls inside.

A white pickup truck rolled up beside our bus, young immigrant boys standing up on the flatbed to feel the breeze. They craned their necks to see us.

"So desperate! I think they're looking for Mishail!"

"Who isn't looking for Mishail? Look at how red she's become."

The boys wore tight jeans instead of the white thobes Saudi men were expected to wear. Modern guys, I thought with envy. My jealousy only increased when the boys turned up the radio and started dancing to a remix of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" with Ya Khadija. Their bright, checkered headscarves fluttered against their tasseled leather jackets.

"In September or in June, boys must have their jackets," Mishail said, hiding her face in my headscarf.

"Let them roast! Don't we have to burn in our abayas?" I said.

"You talk as if you don't think they look good in them," Mishail whispered to me. I blushed, and Mishail laughed softly against my burning ear.

"Shouldn't they be wearing seat belts?" Aisha asked, ever the practical one.

"Seat belts? First, they need to sit inside the car, and they're too cool to stop dancing," I said as harshly as I could so the other girls wouldn't think I liked boys. I knew that behind my back they sometimes called me Leena Adhaleena, which meant Leena who goes astray. But there was a big difference between breaking school rules and breaking the law. Colored clothes could get you sent to the headmistress's office. Boys got you beheaded.

I grinned at Aisha, who, along with Sofia and Bilquis, was part of today's conspiracy. I had drawn them maps from my memory of last year's trip. The maps marked the location of the bathrooms, the clearing where the teachers would collect for a break, and the uncharted area behind the hill, which would be our party location.

"It's just that it's our last year together," Mishail had said last week, her gaze low, as if she were confessing to a terminal illness. "I'm sick of the same old class photos. All of us in three rows, standing-sitting- kneeling, hands to our sides as if we're in the army, nothing but our eyes showing from a mountain of black abayas. That's just not us, is it?"

Mishail was brilliant. Ask the girls to break a stupid rule for their own fun, and they'd turn into religious nuts in five seconds flat. But cry to them about love and friendship and our last time together, and they'd follow in a heartbeat.

Aisha, Miss Practical, had, of course, been concerned about all the details. How were we going to coordinate, when would we do the switch, what was the signal, how were we going to get any photos taken? Aisha's anxiety was a new development. She used to show up to school wearing nothing but underwear under her abaya when the days got too hot for the full-sleeved, ankle-length uniform. Sabiha Madam had suspected something and asked her to take it off. I came to Aisha's rescue, saying, "But, ma'am, isn't it haraam to ask a woman to take off her abaya if she doesn't want to?"

Now Aisha cared about the details. Thankfully, she hadn't fully converted to being a good girl, and she owed me, at least a little. But she had a point about the photos. Even if it wasn't haraam, all women's cell phone cameras were smashed at the time of purchase. When it didn't make my blood boil, I thought it hilarious that the white- bearded imams of the Permanent Committee for Religious Research were so scandalized by the possibility of women taking indecent duck-faced selfies that they found the need to issue a fatwa against it. Mishail and I had even made up a song about it. These days, one of us had only to hum the tune to set the other one off in a fit of giggles.

Everything is haraam,
"I have a pocket camera," Mishail had said. "My brother got it from duty-free this summer. It's small enough that they'll never find it on me. We'll post the photos to a private account."

"You promise it'll be private?" Aisha asked.

"We promise," I said, looking at Mishail for confirmation; we'd been speaking in the first person plural for as long as I could remember. "This is just for us, not for outsiders."

"Will we be taking off our hijab?" Bilquis asked. "I mean, colored clothes are one thing, but showing your hair is serious."

"Actually, the idea of hijab never appears anywhere in the Quran," I said. "The jilbab does appear in the Hadith, but even then —"

"Oh, shut up already, Leena Lawyer," Sofia said. "We're not your freedom fighters. We'll do whatever we feel comfortable doing, okay? Stop showing off."

"I wasn't!" I said, embarrassed.

"That's all we want anyway, to be ourselves," Mishail said, making peace.


Excerpted from "Driving by Starlight"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Anat Deracine.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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