Rajaa Alsanea's Girls of Riyadh (Banat Al-Riyadh translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth) is both an interesting and illuminating novel. My first impression of this gossipy story with its breezily constructed prose was that it would make a good beach book or novel to pass the time on a long flight, but I think to relegate it to mere entertainment is to not give it its due for the boundaries it has pushed and the light it has shed on an otherwise closed culture. What it lacks in inspired prose it makes up for with its look into a society and culture that is historically very conservative, particularly so for women--a lifting of the veil so to speak.
It was first published in Lebanon in 2005 and was immediately banned in the author's native Saudi Arabia where most of the story takes place. It caused quite a stir and ignited something of a firestorm. Alsanea even received death threats for her portrayal of contemporary young Saudi women, the idea being that something so private written about for so many prying eyes to read was perhaps blasphemous. But you have to admire such a young woman for starting a dialogue and questioning women's roles in contemporary Saudi society.
Girls of Riyadh has been compared to Sex in the City, though with its own Saudi slant, and it does follow the love lives and misadventures of four modern twenty-something young women who try and make their way independently in a culture that is anything but modern. Alsanea is writing about a particular segment of the population, however. These women are part of the "velvet class", or elite wealthy families whose behavior is normally kept hidden. They have traveled and are mostly college-educated, but are expected to be pious and abide by their families' wishes particularly when it comes to relationships and marriage.
The set up of the story reflects the youthful culture of which the girls are a part and maybe the breezy prose is not so out of place and actually better represents the characters. The story takes place over the course of a year and is told through a series of emails that are sent out on an listserv by an anonymous narrator. The stories she shares, however, are of her friends and their lives covering the previous six years. Each email begins with a poem or excerpt of a song or prayer or other literary quote as a teaser for each Friday instalment of her story, which readers anxiously await. And she has an ongoing conversation with her readers who have emailed her with either praise or indignation, though the reader only gets her responses.
The story follows the four friends through their last year of school and into their college years and thereafter focusing primarily on the successes (few) and failures (many) they have with the opposite sex. Sadeem Al-Horaimli is beautiful and elegant and makes the mistake of sleeping with her fiancé before the actual ceremony takes place. In Saudi Arabia (and perhaps this is the rule for Muslims in general?) a couple signs a contract first where they are essentially married but the ceremony hasn't actually taken place yet. During this interim time the couple can spend more time alone together, but Sadeem's betrothed calls the marriage off and divorces her after this indiscretion. She eventually goes to London to work and get over the relationship where she meets another man, seemingly more suited, and the two fall deeply in love. But family pressures on his side to marry another woman (and one who is not divorced) cause all sorts of problems for Sadeem.
Gamrah Al-Qusmanji marries the man selected by her family only to discover after the wedding that he has no interest in her. She finds out when they are living in Chicago, where he is studying, that he is already in a relationship, one that he has no intention of ending. She thinks that if she can have a baby it will bring the two together, but it only angers him. He puts her back on a plane for Saudi, where she must have the child on her own with only her family to help her. If it's bad being a divorced woman it is even worse to be a divorced woman with a child.
Lamees Jeddawi is the more even-tempered and practical of the young women. She is a serious student who plans on becoming a doctor though doesn't preclude trying to find love as well. Only she doesn't go into her relationships with blinders on. And Michelle Al-Abdulrahman is Saudi Arabian by birth but was raised in the US and thus the most westernized of the young women. She balks at the conservative manner in which women must live. Despite years of living in America when her family returns to Saudi she finds they fall in easily with the attitudes, so she is stuck between two very different cultures. Her parents put an end to her relationship with an American man and the family of a Saudi man she falls for won't have her either, not being conservative enough. Each woman finds herself in an unhappy predicament
Not having read any other book about Saudi Arabia (well, with the exception years ago of Nine Parts Desire by Geraldine Brooks years ago--it's been too long, however, to remember any details), it's hard to say how accurate Alsanea's portrayal of Saudi women is. Even if she is writing only about a small segment of society, there have to be nuggets of truth in her story. Men and women are generally separated unless they are close family members, so it is unsurprising that forming a good, strong relationship is a challenge.
It was interesting to read how young Saudi men try to press on the women their cell phone numbers when they do meet in public places. In the book, it was common that a man would give his betrothed a cell phone as an engagement present so they could get to know each other better through phone conversations. Along with telephone conversations, the internet is another way of the sexes of interacting with each other, and one of the characters has an online romance with another young man.
A few other interesting bits--in Saudi Arabia the weekend is Thursday and Friday rather than Saturday and Sunday. It isn't uncommon for the 'religious police' to separate young people who happen to be meeting unchaperoned in public. And while a Muslim man can marry outside his faith, it is much harder for a Muslim woman to do the same. She is expected to marry within her religion, and religion is an integral part of their lives and even their language reflects their piety. Women are expected to cover their hair and neck in public, but in their own homes and outside of the country they can take the head scarf off (though some women choose to remain covered). In the book when women were flying home there would be lines at the bathrooms as everyone hurried to change into proper clothing before landing.
Just one more note on the translation. Alsanea never expected her book to be of interest to anyone outside of her own region. There are all sorts of subtleties within her use of Arabic--she wrote in various Saudi dialects as well as used Lebanese- and even English-Arabic, which can't be translated smoothly into English. It sounds as though there was a certain amount of rewriting and explaining with a use of notes that was necessary to convey all the meaning to western readers. Although Marilyn Booth is credited with collaborating with the author on the translation, I read that much of what Booth did was discarded by the author and Penguin, her publisher, resulting in a less nuanced story. You can read the article here, which I found fascinating in regard to this book and translations in general.
This was definitely an interesting read. I came across an interview with the author, who studied here in the US to become a dentist but also plans to continue writing. She's a very articulate and well spoken young woman. I'm not sure where she lives now, but it was her intention to return to Saudi Arabia to work in her profession. Her book is no longer banned in Saudi Arabia. And this is only the first of (hopefully) many books I hope to read translated from Arabic. I'd be curious to read more books written by Saudi Arabian authors if anyone has any suggestions.