“A controversial novel written by a young Saudi woman is breaking taboos in the Kingdom s conservative society. ‘Banat Al-Riyadh,’ or ‘The Girls of Riyadh’, speaks openly of sex, lesbianism and young women s desire to lead freer lives, read the opening lines of an article on BBC.
Let’s face it, sex sells. Similar headlines and statements in the press – both English and Arabic – in the region has ensured that there’s an audience of English readers anticipating the release of the translation.
The novel does live up to expectations. However, the sensation it caused in the press does not do it justice. Yes, the novel is provocative. Yes, it openly discusses social taboos in Saudi society. But that’s just scratching the surface.
The young writer, Rajaa Al-Sanea, is witty, insightful and audacious. She addresses the social restrictions on Saudi women by reflecting on their desires (not necessarily sexual), their aspirations, and their frustrations through the stories of four young women. Like any other university-age students, they want to fall in love and hopefully live happily ever after. They want careers. They want to be appreciated. But as Saudi women, they have to achieve this within the confines of their strict social conventions.
Al-Sanea breaks Western – and sometimes even regional – stereotypes about Saudi women. We finally see them in a different light. They are no longer victims of their society, but fighters working within their restrictions.
At the heart of her novel, she exposes the covert relationships between young men and women striving to fall in love.
Sadeem, a young university student, meets a Saudi while on holiday in London. Back in Saudi, they have a three-year relationship over the phone – though once she snuck a peak at him (trying to make sure her father didn’t notice) when he drove up next to her car as they were both traveling to Khobar. The high level of interaction and involvement in each other s lives is astonishing given that they never actually meet. Lamees is arrested by the religious police for studying with a male medical student who was not related to her.
Mashael falls in love with a young man she meets in a mall, and they meet in coffee shops and at a friend s house to spend time together.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way, as Al-Sanea wrote in a recent New York Times article about Valentine’s Day in Saudi.
“Some daredevils do meet in coffee shops or restaurants that have partitions to separate the tables so nobody can see the illicit couples. After all, being a Saudi means knowing what the rules are – and how to sidestep them without getting in trouble. But most young women prefer to get to know the guy through accepted channels like the internet, friends, family or the phone.
While young men and women are finding a way around the obstacles set up to prevent them from interacting, it’s not always safe. Only last week, according to a report by AFP, Saudi religious police arrested 57 youths for “flirting in a mall.
“The young men were detained on Thursday evening by regular police officers following a request from the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Saudi Gazette reported. They were accused of wearing “indecent clothing and playing loud music and dancing to attract the women’s attention.
Al-Sanea’s novel makes for an interesting read. She unfolds the soap-opera style stories of each woman through a series of mails she issues on a weekly basis. But what is more enlightening than the stories themselves, is the banter the narrator has with her internet audience who wait for the story each week. She addresses her supporters, her critics, and the speculation about her true identity. The novel keeps you wondering how much of it is fiction, how much is based on reality, and where the two realms are blurred.
Al-Sanea has been accused by her critics of highlighting the aberrations of Saudi society: the drinking, the sex, etc. They may have a point. But who wants to read a novel about a young man and women whose marriage is arranged by their parents, who meet once before they are legally wed, and grow to love each other over the course of their marriage? That’s not the making of a page-turning bestseller.
As testament to the novels success, an American film director – according to a recent report by Al-Arabiya online – plans to adapt the story to the big screen. He’s currently looking for sources of funding from Saudi production companies. Given the amount of controversy the book has caused, it might take him a while.
Until then, the book is available at local bookstores. And it’s definitely worth a read.
Girls of Riyadh
By Rajaa Al-Sanea
Translated by Marilyn Booth
Penguin Press, Hardcover
Available at Diwan bookstores.