Sex and the Arab city: Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea

1594201218.jpgI 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:





(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.


19 thoughts on “Sex and the Arab city: Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea

  1. A good book in itself written from a privleged Saudi girl who never faced the harsh realities of her own country. Most books about Saudi are banned in that country. This is what you said “Chic Lit” If you want to read a new book about Saudi Arabia that is also banned but has not recieved as much press it is “Paramedic to the Prince” written by an American Paramedic that was on the medical staff of King Abdullah. This book takes you inside Saudi Arabia like no other book ever written. Given a five star rating by Amazon and and another five stars from Ghostwriter Reviews. This book is a must read for anyone wanting an inside look into the desert Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

  2. Niranjana, so glad you decided to read this book after all. I think you summed it up perfectly when you said “…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.” I tend to agree, the writing could have definitely been better but where she scores is in providing us a peek into Saudi society,a place not too many of us get to visit, with an authentic Saudi guide.

  3. Patrick: Thanks for visiting! I plan to read the book you suggested soon–it sounds very interesting.

    Lotus: I would have regretted passing this one up…glad to have seen it on your blog!

  4. Pingback: Sex and the Arab city | DesiPundit

  5. Im a filipino and thinking why girls in riyadh dont have freedom?
    When I go the hospital for a medical of my iqama i seen a girl wearing abaya and watching at me at the hallway.
    I watch the eye of the girl and she looked me in the eye like saying a words or asking something on me.
    she look at me more than a minute. then i found out that her dad smiling while looking at at me also.
    So I turned my eye down to the floor. then they walk and pass at my side she drop 1 piece of chocolate.
    Im afraid to get the chocolate due to some other reasons. I dont know whats the meaning of that in riyadh. But for me as a filipino
    It means that many girls in riyadh would like to do a simple conversation or making friends. But they cant due to saudi law or religous law.
    And this book written by Ms Alsanea is an eye opening in this country. And I think many girls in riyadh are not happy.

    • I don’t have much to say about the situation in Saudi Arabia, spically in Riyadh
      althought I found what you are saying about the girl’s in Riyadh and there freedom impressive.
      However, I really admire your thoughts about the fact how girl’s in Riyadh living.

      it is not about the low, it is not about the religion
      it the Customs and traditions matter which is very solid in this society.

      I believe thing’s will never change becouse the girl’s in Riyadh find the change is really hard that’s why they abandoned the idea of freedom , of course accept the minority of them.

      Good luck and have great day

  6. Alex: That sounds like an intersting experience! And while the book is indeed a rare peek into Saudi Arabia, I think the author looks at a very small section of society, making us wonder how the less-privileged manage to circumvent some of the harsher laws.

  7. A good book in itself written from a privleged Saudi girl who never faced the harsh realities of her own country. Most books about Saudi are banned in that country.

  8. you are best of best rajaa…!!! and great women…!! becuse our women.s in our cantry we are need freedom,our women,s there are best of best women in all the wolrd…!!! and i wish you success and happiness in your life…!!!

    • It is exists sister but the main issue that every one is afried to begin the frist step
      and they do know if they started they will be consequences.

      Because of there Individual action.

      In my humble opinion, I really suggest that
      if there is an Organization support the voice of the female in Riyadh running by you sister Niranjana I believe it will be progress before even you knew it.

      I do believe forum or website could be helpful.
      Either way you know better than me

      Good day and have a pleasant tomorrow.

  9. I am a Filipino. I happened to read the book after borrowing it in a public library in Australia. I would just like to react on the part of the story when Rashid confronted Gharam and told her to ask an apology to Kari (Japanese-American). Gharam said that she wouldnt ask an apology to that “Filipina”! She used the term Filipina and then she meant it as an “asian maid”. Filipinas are not maids, Filipina means a Filipino women, women from the Philippines. I just found it offensive.

  10. @ Jennie: I agree–stereotyping an ethnic group in such a fashion is incredibly offensive. However, I think Al Sanea herself does not hold such beliefs–she uses those words to show the reader how ignorant and misguided Gamrah is.

  11. Thank you for your reply. That is really a good book and it is such an eye opener of how lucky we are of the freedom that we experience not living in Saudi Arabia.

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