HUNTERSVILLE – Her desire to see and understand other parts of the world is where it all began for former Huntersville resident Carol Fleming.
She died of breast cancer at age 53 on May 27, 2013, after living a life of traveling to more than 100 countries, working as a CIA spy for the U.S. for 20 years and falling in love with a man from Saudi Arabia.
The Espyville, Pa. native came to the Huntersville area to be close to family as she struggled with metastatic breast cancer and received bi-weekly chemotherapy treatments.
Documentarian Mary Beth Ross began working on a film about Fleming’s life in November 2011 after learning her story was nothing close to ordinary.
The documentary consists of Fleming’s life as a spy, the countries she visited, her romantic involvement with Abdullah Al-Ajroush, her harsh struggle with breast cancer and her affection for the Middle East.
After reading a newspaper column about Fleming’s travels and emailing her, Ross and Fleming began to talk and decided to meet for breakfast. Ross learned Fleming not only suffered from cancer, but also worked in intelligence when she saw Fleming’s CIA badge in her wallet.
Filming the documentary
Carol was sick through the whole documentary but started out looking healthier and young.
“In 2012, we would not show her with cancer,” Ross said.
After the documentary was written and narrated in 2012, Fleming sent an early copy in early 2013 to the CIA for approval, considering she was a producer. The CIA requested certain parts be removed from the film, leaving Ross with a lot editing. Ross sent the finished film to the CIA in 2013 in case more material needed to be eliminated.
A producer from the TV show “America Now” read over the script at one point. Fleming also raised $2,100 through crowdsourcing to buy stock footage of the Iraq War, as well as Presidents Bush and Reagan’s terms.
The film's ending proves to be a real tear-jerker as it includes a eulogy with Fleming’s friends talking about her in the past tense.
“We didn’t know if she would get better,” Ross said. “Through the spring of 2013 before she died, we shot the part of her speaking in the present tense.”
Ross said the idea of a film about a young American girl as a spy in the Muslim country of Pakistan seemed controversial for many.
The film was shot for theatrical distribution so it could be played in festivals. Ross is entering the documentary into film festivals, some that require the film not be screened publicly beforehand. But she says it takes months to find out if the film has been accepted.
Ross considered the DVD route for the film, but says it is too costly and takes too much time to sell DVDs on her website, in addition to the fact DVDs require different formats.
Regardless of how sick Fleming became before she died, she was committed to the documentary.
“She would take great pains to see it through,” Ross said. “If she was still alive, she would have made it happen. She would have gotten the film in theaters.”
Getting into the CIA
Fleming traveled whenever the opportunity presented itself whether for work or the adventure.
“I enjoyed seeing the region I was in as much as possible,” Fleming said in the documentary.
She wanted to create a sense of peace and understanding among countries around the world.
“Her commitment to the CIA and marrying Abdullah symbolized her cross-cultural understanding for world peace,” Ross said.
Fleming won two awards based on her work with the CIA.
According to Fleming’s sister, she was always smart and had high standards in school.
Fleming inspiration to become a spy came from her father who loved war and history. He always counted on her to get a job where she can travel so he could visit her.
“Carol’s father was proud of her for working in the CIA,” said Sandy, Fleming’s sister.
She started her quest to become a spy in the early 1980s out of her ongoing desire to take on risky, yet interesting work for the good of the country. By chance, she overheard a recruiter from the CIA talking about travel at a casino.
Afterward, she applied to see if landing the career was even a possibility.
When Fleming received the notification she was qualified, she entered the world of intelligence and went to the CIA Headquarters in Virginia to undergo rigorous training.
After spending time learning surveillance techniques, Fleming felt she wanted to go out and be a part of the action.
“I would meet a CIA operative and I had to change my identity,” Fleming said in the documentary. “I memorized every single hotel that didn’t have a maid or security camera.”
Fleming often needed spy gear, wore traditional garb and recruited assets (anyone with valuable information). But it wasn’t always easy, especially in times of danger, when, for example, the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan was attacked.
After the 9/11 terrorist attack occurred in New York City, Fleming became even more inspired to build bridges between cultures and traditions as a way to promote peace, eliminate stereotypes and end extremism.
Falling in love
During her service as an American diplomat, she met her husband, Abdullah Al-Ajroush, in Pakistan on an assignment. They came to know each other over a plate of French fries. Fleming unintentionally ate Al-Ajroush’s fries as the two were in deep conversation. In response, Al-Ajroush told her she was responsible for her action. And this was the start of their love.
In 2006, they moved to Saudi Arabia to get married.
But both Fleming and Al-Ajroush kept a secret from each other.
Fleming struggled to tell her husband she was a spy, and her husband failed to mention he was still married to his first wife. When Fleming decided to tell her husband the truth, he was not upset, but when he told Fleming of his lie, she struggled to forgive him.
She went back and forth on whether to leave Al-Ajroush. But everything changed once Fleming learned why her husband did what he did. Al-Ajroush stayed married to his first wife out of honor. He did it out of respect and Fleming learned to deal with the issue, regardless of her disapproval of Islamic polygamy.
Fleming took on more than anyone could ever imagine. She not only kept a strong face battling breast cancer, but also dealing with her husband’s unexpected illness.
In 2008, Al-Ajroush was not so lucky. He was diagnosed with an aggressive case of leukemia, the same year Fleming found out about her cancer.
They both received treatment in Saudi Arabia and then later her husband went to Houston for treatment. But in 2010, Al-Ajroush lost the battle and from that point forward, Fleming spent the next three years battling cancer and undergoing treatment at Huntersville Medical Center.
Bridging cultural divides
Out of her passion for exploring different cultures and customs, Fleming became a popular American blogger in Saudi Arabia where she started a blog, “American Bedu,” when she moved to Saudi Arabia. People from all over Saudi Arabia and the United States followed her blog.
Her husband granted her the name “American Bedu” name after he experienced life in her rural hometown of Espvyille. Fleming wrote about the conservative society of Saudi Arabia and what it’s like in the eyes of outsiders. She also wrote about Saudi women issues and her fight with breast cancer.
Although she appreciated and understood the culture of Saudi Arabia, Fleming was fondest of Pakistan for its close-knit atmosphere. She loved the people and the culture and often compared the country to California with its seashores and mountains.
Wanna learn more? Visit www.americanbedu.com to read more about the life of Carol Fleming.