Sunday, December 23, 2012

Keija Parssinen's "The Ruins of Us"

Keija Parssinen (pronounced Kay-a) was born in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia in 1980. In 1951, her grandparents, Floyd and Willette Teel, arrived in Saudi Arabia aboard the Flying Camel to work for the fledgling oil company, ARAMCO (now Saudi ARAMCO), and so began the family's decades-long relationship with the country. For twelve years, Keija lived in the Kingdom's Eastern Province, first in Ras Tanura, then in Dhahran. Writing The Ruins of Us, which is set in the Eastern Province, enabled Keija to return to that home through imagination.

Here Parssinen dreamcasts an adaptation of The Ruins of Us:
Because he’s the character I started with when I began writing The Ruins of Us, sad-sack expat divorc√© Dan Coleman is who I’ll cast first. Though my mother-in-law called a few days after the book’s release to suggest Brad Pitt (!), nothing about Mr. Pitt seems very sad-sack, even when he tries his hand at hobo chic by sporting that Unibomber beard with beads braided into it. No, for the role of Dan, who spends the lonely hours on his one-horse residential compound in Saudi Arabia pining for his ex-wife, Carolyn, and getting drunk off contraband booze, I see Mr. Pitt’s good buddy, George Clooney, stepping in. Not the fast-talking alpha Clooney of Ocean’s 11, with his well-cut suits and million dollar face, but the rather more bearish Syriana iteration of him. And his performance as the downtrodden cuckold in The Descendents proved to me that he can mute his good looks and charisma enough to make him a believable Dan.

But Dan isn’t the book’s central character; that title belongs to Rosalie, the flame-haired American wife of Saudi billionaire Abdullah Baylani who discovers after 25 years of marriage that her husband has taken a second bride, beautiful Palestinian Isra. At first, I thought Nicole Kidman would make a stellar Rosalie—she’s got the hair and the experience with a frustrating, egotistical, controlling husband to draw on (ahem, Mr. Cruise). But when my husband suggested Connie Britton, who played Coach Eric Taylor’s smart, fiery wife, Tami, in both the movie and television versions of Friday Night Lights, I knew he’d nailed it. Transplanted Texan Rosalie must grapple not only with her conflicting feelings of love for and anger with her husband, but also with the frustrations of living in a patriarchal society that condones Abdullah’s behavior. In FNL, Britton does an excellent job conveying the struggles of a woman operating within an old boys’ network (the Texas football establishment), and she can talk Texan like a natural.

As for who would play Abdullah, Rosalie’s charming but arrogant husband, and Faisal, their son, that’s a bit trickier. There seems to be a paucity of Middle Eastern actors in Hollywood, leading studios to cast Brits Ben Kingsley (House of Sand and Fog) or Mark Strong (Syriana) in big roles requiring any amount of swarth. Antonio Banderas would be a sexy, if ethnically suspect, choice for dashing playboy Abdullah, but I also like the idea of Alexander Siddig, the Sudanese actor of Arab descent who played Saladin in Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. He’s just regal and just slippery enough for the tricky role of the conflicted husband. For the teenaged Faisal, who finds his bi-racial, bi-cultural identity troubling in the post-9/11 Kingdom, perhaps Reza Sixo Safai, who did a chillingly good job playing the louche-turned-zealot brother in the Iranian movie Circumstance. Safai would certainly be able to capture the nuances of the pure-hearted but misguided Faisal’s character as he searches for his place in the new world order, throwing himself passionately into his Quranic studies and growing increasingly distant from his family.

When I visit book clubs to discuss The Ruins of Us, someone inevitably mentions that the book would make a great movie. This always delights me because what that translates to is that the person has been engaged by the story and believes it to be entertaining enough for the silver screen. So Madam Director, whoever you might be, I’ll just be here by the phone if you need me.
Learn more about the book and author at Keija Parssinen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue