I almost didn’t review Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh, for the Amazon ratings were consistently negative. But I changed my mind because I learnt the book had been banned in the author’s homeland of Saudi Arabia–how can one resist a banned book?
Here’s a picture of the 25-year old author, who is studying to be a dentist.
Read more about Alsanea at: http://www.rajaa.net/v2/english.htm
(This review appears in the current issue of the Asian Review of Books. )
The adventures of four young women looking for love, GIRLS OF RIYADH is a “Sex and the City” for the Arab world. Well, almost, for the pursuit of romance is probably more fraught in Riyadh than any other city on the planet, thanks to a stringently enforced separation of the sexes in the Islamic nation of Saudi Arabia. Carrie would swap her Manolos for Nikes and run from this city as soon as she could.
The women portrayed in Girls of Riyadh belong to the “velvet class”, as Saudi Arabia’s elite is known. Other than wealth and social status, they also have in common a dream of romance, hoping to marry the first love of their lives. But the men they meet foil these plans, taking advantage all too often of the privileges accorded to them in this society to behave in the most dishonorable of ways. There is, for instance, the man who declines to marry his fiancee on the grounds that she went “too-far” with him — thus condemning her to a half-life in Saudi society. The man who dumps his girlfriend because his mother tells him to do so. The one who has a mistress back home, whom he intends to continue seeing even after his marriage. And so on.
Depressing stuff, but the novel is lifted up by Alsanea’s lively, knowledgeable descriptions of life in modern Saudi Arabia. (The novel admittedly deals with a very small section the country; yet, this glimpse is as close to this society as most of us will ever be.) Particularly intriguing is the detail on the societal separation of men and women — and the myriad ways in which these separations are circumvented. Alsanea, as an insider, is able to capture the subtleties that would be invisible to the rest of us; thus, she tells us that tinted windows on a car signal that women occupy the vehicle, and that such cars are followed by young men, who hang their phone numbers on placards so the girls can copy them down…
Alsanea also provides us with a keenly-calibrated account of the divisions and contrasts within the Arab world — between Sunnis and Shiites, between a “sophisticated west coast Hijazi accent” and the dialects of the country’s interior, between the “Bedouin” girls of Riyadh and the liberal girls of Jeddah. Anyone who views the Arab world as a monolith will find this book eye-opening; for those already in the know, there are fascinating nuggets of cultural information. We learn, for instance, that Salman is a fashionable name in Saudi Arabia while Obaid isn’t, and that abayas (the black robes worn by women when outdoors) can be tailored to cling seductively, rather than envelop the wearer in an all-concealing tepee.
There are indeed many reasons to read Girls of Riyadh — but the prose isn’t one of them. The writing is often strained; samples include: “Some of the talk was as soft as the granules in my daily facial soap…”, and “Hers was a joy whose brittle edges had become curled from cruelty”. There’s also some seriously bad poetry: “To my best friend, most cherished of mine, / To the star that one day fell into my palms, / You were so near yet so far…”
It’s chick-lit, yes, but written from a place where chick-lit can be a dangerous thing; Girls of Riyadh was banned in Saudi Arabia. While the latter reason alone would suffice to buy this book, ultimately, it is Alsanea’s engaging voice and vivid observations about Saudi society that move this work from duty-read to pleasure — albeit of an anthropological than literary kind.