Beyond the Gilded Cage: Mouna Ayoub

Beyond the Gilded Cage: Mouna Ayoub

Mouna Ayoub is a couture-clad role model for women in the Arab world.

Lebanese-born, mega-millionaire divorcee Mouna Ayoub lives in Monaco and owns one of the biggest sailing yachts ever built and possibly the largest private haute couture collection in the world. She is known to be one of the richest women on the planet. So, to hear her say, “I’ve had a very sad life story. I had a miserable childhood in Beirut, a miserable marriage and a miserable divorce” you may not immediately find yourself awash in a flood of sympathetic tears. But once you get over your bitter lottery-loser mentality and listen to her story, that old clich; “Money doesn’t buy happiness” begins to ring true once again.

“Following my marriage, when I traveled to Europe, I wasn’t allowed to go to the movies or the hairdresser or parties or dinners or mingle with anybody”, Ayoub says of the eighteen year period that she was married to a Saudi Arabian billionaire believed to be the twelfth richest man in the world. “I was not allowed to go out at all. I would go to Paris, buy couture dresses, go home, eat and sleep. Whether I was with my husband or not, I had a bunch of bodyguards who were watching over me and making sure I was home by 7pm.”

Ayoub comes from a middle class Christian family, and grew up in a Catholic boarding school in Lebanon since the age of three. She suffered depression because of her early separation from her mother whom she adored. At school, she was a mischievous child, which prompted the nuns to inflict severe punishment on her such as beatings and deprivation of food. “It was a nightmare, all I felt was helplessness and sadness. I would cry every night and put myself to sleep out of exhaustion dreaming that I was being carried in a gilded cage and dropped in front of a big white house where I would escape from the cage. I would run and run inside this white house to hide. Then the dream would stop after I was awakened by the nuns to start another miserable day. It went on like this until I was seventeen when the war broke out in Lebanon and my mother sent me to Paris for my higher education. Again I was separated from her at a time when I needed her the most. My depression and sadness were accentuated with time, and during my life in Paris I had to work at night and go to school in the morning, crying for help and for my mother. But I couldn’t afford for that depression to take over me and I had to go on as an adolescent, alone and helpless.”

She met her husband in 1977 while she was working as a waitress in a Lebanese restaurant, and wed him in 1979. During her marriage to him in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Ayoub was kept alone, a prisoner in a palace specially built for her, while her husband traveled on his jet sometimes for as long as a month or two. She was not allowed to have friends that were not approved by her husband and was not allowed to leave the house unless she was covered from head-to-toe in an abaya; a loose-fitting robe worn by Muslim women. According to her controversial autobiography, La V´Õit (The Truth), her mother warned her about Saudi society. “I knew there were certain habits I had to change when I converted to Islam, but I never imagined it was going to be so strict”, says Ayoub. Once, when she put her hand out to touch a pair of shoes at a market in Taif during the holy month of Ramadan, a member of the muttawa; the Saudi religious police; hit her hard on the hand with a stick for exposing her arm in public. But there were much worse incidents than that.

In her book, Ayoub describes the harshness of some Muslim extremists, some of whom were living in Western cities such as Paris, where she converted to Islam. The very first time she set foot in a mosque “the Mosque de Paris” she was beaten because she looked Christian. She wasn’t wearing a galabieh, only a long skirt and a headscarf. Around her neck, she was wearing a chain with the Koran attached to it and one of the women snatched the chain and threw it on the floor because she thought a crucifix was attached to it. When someone saw it was the Koran, they thought she had thrown it down herself, and then everyone jumped on her and starting beating her. They stole her shoes, pulled her hair and bruised her badly.

So where does a woman who is locked in a nightmare world of powerful male religious fanatics turn to for solace? Family and charity, to begin with. “We all did our share of charity work but his was never appreciated by the men”, says Ayoub. And then of course there was fashion. “Fashion was an expression that was totally the opposite of what I was living because in some dresses you show your figure and sometimes your flesh so you can dream of being a seductress, an actress, dream of being loved and adored for who you are and not looked down upon and deprived of a feeling of self-worth. Because you tend to develop a low sense of self-worth when you are always covered from head-to-toe, and you really become a shadow of yourself, a puppet”, Ayoub says wistfully during a phone conversation while on holiday in Marrakech. “Even though I couldn’t really wear those dresses because they were too expressive of a certain liberalism, I did buy them and dreamed.” Ayoub was spending, and still spends around $500,000 USD a year on couture clothing. As a result, she probably has one of the most important private collections in the world, mainly due to her faithfulness to designs that were a “world of escape and somehow a restoration of self-esteem. Crazy as it sounds, I was young and lonely and fashion really did help me. When women from this part of the world buy couture dresses, they change everything on them, such as adding sleeves, length and a higher neckline”, explains Ayoub. “When my ex-husband was with me he changed everything, but when he wasn’t with me I never, ever changed a dress. I just bought it the way it was knowing that I was never going to wear it.” Today, she continues to buy couture as a way of keeping her figure in check. “I struggle with my body, like every woman my age, to stay in shape and be presentable. Women who have had five or more children or had difficult lives, after that life has taken its toll on you, you really start neglecting and ruining yourself out of desperation. Fashion has permitted me to stay disciplined and not go to that extreme.”

After three divorces and five children, Ayoub split from her husband and moved back to Lebanon in 1996. In 2000 she wrote La Verit, which lifted the veil of secrecy in Saudi society and detailed her oppressive life under Islamic extremism. Predictably, she has received death threats from Muslim extremists, and for nearly two years was the target of the Arab press which depicted her as a whore, a traitor and a fool. She was mocked, insulted, banned and humiliated. Despite all this hatred, she feels that “my book has had a positive effect on a lot of Arab women in different Arab and Western countries. It was a best seller for almost three months, was translated into Italian, Spanish, and Romanian but not in Arabic as it was banned in most Arab countries. But today you can find it in pocket size in these countries where it was translated”, says Ayoub. “Even though it was not officially published in Arab countries, I believe my book reached Arab women in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Jordan and of course, Lebanon. I get a lot of letters from Arab women saying that they admire my courage, that they wish they could do the same but they are oppressed, and they have no money or passport, or their passport has been confiscated by their husbands. Some of the more prominent women in the Arab world wanted to organize a seminar so that I could come and speak about my book and my experiences toward freedom to other Arab women but this never really happened because I was afraid for my life. Today, I can say that, like fashion, the book helped me a lot and gave me a sense of self-worth.”

Text: Glenn Belverio

Interview with Mouna Ayoub

Mouna, you are beautiful, rich and sexy. What is it that’s preventing you from being fully happy?

Lack of love, and affection…

Is that it? Well it’s true that’s already a lot…that’s even everything.

It is, it’s like asking for air to breath and life all over again.

But what about your beauty, your power, your riches, haven’t you got everything to be desired and loved?

Unfortunately, that is precisely my curse! Men fear me, there isn’t even one with the balls to come close. They’re so insecure, they lack any sensitivity to understand or love me. Iユm so afraid that will be my fate, it’s my biggest frustration.

Isn’t there a contradiction here, between your extremely strong image, that of a woman of power, which you know very well how to play, and the fact that in the end you remain a little girl, in need of love and affection? Isn’t that misleading for men?

Let me explain: Fragile women must hide their fragility, their vulnerability, with a determined, strong facade. On the other hand, those that play by the rules, those who act soft and submissive, are very often much more to be feared! So for us strong and fragile women, we are trying to protect ourselves; that’s where the contradiction lies.

You seem so strong, and yet you are in great need of affection. This side of you can’t be guessed right off, one needs time and subtlety to peek behind first impressions. Why not show it?

Those who deserve my love will know. They can discover by themselves, so I remain myself. The problem is that men are always distracted by the superficiality of things. While women walk head deep in thoughts, men’s eyes wander around, looking at girls, asses, legs…the history of infidelity comes from men’s serious attention deficit!

Aside from a few exceptions, such as yourself, the rich are generally terribly conventional, worrying about what people say, even though they don’t have to be accountable to anyone, they could very well live out their fantasies, their obsessions. They are terrified by what other people might think about them.

It’s because they are so complex. They don’t have the balls, the courage to live free of such fears. What they must realize is that it isn’t enough to be rich, you’ve got to know yourself first. There are different sorts of rich anyway: there are the inheritors, and those who have worked for their money, so there are exceptions. But it’s true that most rich are boring. Because money doesn’t beget security, contrary to popular beliefs. Most rich have it all upside down: you’ve got to build your personality first, get to know yourself better, before you can enjoy the fruits of riches. It’s more important to be able to exist first without money. That’s what I stand for. Even if I make mistakes, I always learn from them, and I will never refrain from voicing my opinion, that is everyoneユs freedom, fortunately. That is a strength I derive from my experience, not a rosy one at that, the road I have travelled to attain my current position. Even in my youth, without any money, when I would be treated unjustly, I would leave for the forest nearby all on my own where nobody could bother me. That is because nobody listens to children, or women as a matter of fact. I was not as afraid alone as with people. I would spend days all by myself.  I did not have to speak, my act voiced my opinion and that was enough. I still do that now by the way. One must never be afraid. Fear is our worst enemy, and money is useless if we won’t fight our fears. Money can’t buy love, freedom, or happiness. We must first educate ourselves, before living out our eccentricities, before fulfilling our desires. That’s why money allows me to live out my desires, without hurting anyone, or myself.

It seems that once we start, we never have enough money. The richer we get the more expenses there are. Isn’t money supposed to afford us freedom, but in the end it’s another form of prison?

We should know when to say stop, “basta”, what use is all this money? If expenses multiply, if I take on more lawyers, drivers, apartments, I end up burdening myself even more. There comes a time when you must free yourself, because money will make you its hostage. You must be strong and brave to resist its temptation, because greed will kill you as you get old. You must look for some sense in your life, instead of falling slave to money. That’s why I prefer to concentrate on what I like to do, rather than worrying about some castle, three Rolls Royces. Now I live by myself in a small flat in Monaco, without any staff, and Iユm so happy not to have to worry about them!

But isn’t the help supposed to make your life easier?

It becomes a problem. You must train them. And then two years later, they pack up and go, with all your references, your knowledge. So why bother? I’ve spent thirty years teaching other people to do things I can very well do by myself. To get rid of them was also a step toward my freedom.

Now what are your ambitions? What do you expect from the future?

I don’t expect anything at all. My ambitions haven’t changed since my childhood. To be strong, and now to be an example for my children, to be like a pillar. I want to prepare them for the difficulties of life. I also want to help refugees, not with checks, but on the field. There are more and more orphans of war, that to me is more important now. I’ve got so much love and affection to give.

Photography & interview: Ali Mahdavi    
Translation: Damien Brachet

Styling: Petra Bohne @ Angela de Bona
Make up: Topolino
Hair: Valerie Issman @ Alexandre de Paris
Photography Assistant: Patricia Schworer
Scanning, Processing & Retouch: Cathy @ Janvier
Special thanks to Le Bristol, Paris

Published in Issue 9 RICH, 2003