She received her BA in English Literature and works as a tutor for the Center for Training Kindergarten Teachers in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She is an active writer of prose and her style—a blend of modern style with traditional themes is unique among Saudi authors. Alem has published several plays, three novels, and a collection of short stories, Nahr al-Hayawan (The Animal River, 1994). She is the recipient of several prestigious international prizes.
Her short story "One Thousand Braids and a Governess" has been translated into English and published in "Voices of Change: short stories by Saudi Arabian women writers" edited by Abubaker Bagader, Ava M. Heinrichsdorff, Deborah Akers Her birth in Mecca and her family background is highly influential to her work and outlook. She has reflected on her relationship with the now overhauled and renovated city Mecca, saying "I belong to a stream of thinking rather than a piece of land, to a current that runs everywhere. My country is all over the globe...Now, in Mecca, I felt I belonged, not to the ceremonies performed by thousands of bodies but to a spirit that was reaching out to me alone. I somehow felt that I was seeing beyond things, past the glare of the full moon, feeling the elation you experience when you reach the power behind things. Or maybe it was about the way the moonlight mingled with the longings of the pilgrims." Some of her works in Arabic have been banned. Writing in English was a significant decision for Alem. She has said:
"The fact is that my people are drifting away from their own culture, and many of them no longer have a clue about what I’m writing about. So I find myself looking for new ways to communicate, for other languages, and English was the first one that came to hand...'Coming out' in another language is a way of shedding inhibitions. All the things that made me feel ashamed lost their morbid grip on me and became acceptable. I’ve never read any of my books published in Arabic; it makes me feel completely naked. Reading them in another language, though, I feel alive in a poetic way."