Review: Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea

Girls of Riyadh was released in Lebanon in Arabic in September 2005. The novel, recounting details about the private lives of four young women from Saudi Arabia’s upper classes, immediately became a sensation all over the Arab world. Hundreds of articles were written about it, politicians and pundits debated it publicly, online chat rooms were crowded with people hotly discussing it, and it sold more than a hundred thousand copies in the first several months – not including countless black-market editions…. In this bold debut, Rajaa Alsanea reveals the social, romantic, and sexual tribulations of four young women from the elite classes of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Every week after Friday prayers, an anonymous female narrator sends emails to the subscribers of her online list-serv. In fifty such emails, spanning more than a year, the Scheherazade-like narrator unfolds little by little the comic-tragic reality of a small group of girlfriends…as they negotiate their love lives, their professional successes, and their rebellions, large and small, against their cultural traditions.

When I saw the cover of this book and read the jacket, I added it, without a second thought, to my library book bag. I am fascinated with women’s issues and thought this would definitely be a must read for me. How had I not heard of it before? Once I flipped to the actual story, though, I understood. Much like Gossip Girl, some show with a horrible actress all my students love, the narrator of Girls of Riyadh is in the business of gossip. The gossip does not appear to be mean-spirited, but she does divulge all the secrets of four girls: Gamrah, Michelle, Sadeem, and Lamees. Each girl is privileged, coming from money and the upper tier of Riyadh. In a world of arranged marriages, where divorce is shameful, and women are chattel, the reader may think wealth can abate these problems. The girls certainly do have fun but although the girls and their antics could be entertaining, what follows is not great literature. BUT.

(And that’s a big “but.”)

I have thought quite a lot about this book. You’ve probably noticed from my 2010 reads, I don’t review everything I read. Some, to me, just don’t seem to be worth the time. Others, I need a little distance from in order to write a better review. Some just have to sit awhile. The thing about this book is, it affected me. It took me a couple of days to read, and after an afternoon of sitting with it, I ran to the grocery store. When I got home and walked toward the home that I own, as a single woman, having just stepped out of a car I bought without any help, I thought: I’m so lucky. These women cannot make a step without a. permission and b. judgment. They aren’t allowed to happily or foolishly fall in love without rules. Even when a couple of the girls broke out from their cookie-cutter roles, they were either punished, shunned, or made to feel guilty.

I know a lot of people just thought of this as a young girl’s (she was 24 when she wrote it) spoiled rant about not getting her way. And, yes, there certainly are spaces in the book where I thought the same. But it’s different. These girls may have wealth and beauty and status. The point is not that we should feel sorry for them. The fact is, in spite of their wealth and beauty, these women face obstacles to freedom. Big, huge, ugly ones. Give me all the wealth in the world, but if I cannot be in the presence of men, say, at a coffee shop or mall, without a chaperone or covering, I don’t want it.

Also, the book was full of small tidbits of Saudi culture. Having taught two Saudi students in my first summer session, I was eager to attain additional knowledge. My two male students had really opened my eyes to life in Saudi Arabia. Alsanea furthered that education. At one point, the four girls are going out to celebrate. The women arrive at a cafe in a car with tinted windows. In the late 90s, this was apparently standard for men who did not want their wives and daughters exposed to the eyes of men. Attracted to the car and what it holds,

[the men] jumped in their cars and surrounded the SUV on both sides. After the girls got the drinks they wanted from the drive-through, the entire parade started to move toward the big shopping mall in Al-Olayya Street, which was the girls’ second stop. Meanwhile, the girls were taking down as many phone numbers as they could. They did not have to work very hard, because these numbers were generously showered upon them by the guys. The girls could memorize those with catchy sequences and repeated digits as the guys stuck out their heads through their cars’ windows while driving and kept repeating them for the girls to write down. The girls also copied from placards the guys had hung on the windows of their cars so that girls in neighboring cars could see the numbers clearly. The truly bold knights among them held out personal business cards, passing them through the windows to be snatched up by the girls, who were every bit as brave as the aspiring Romeos. At the mall entrance the girls got out. Behind them appeared a rush of young men, but they all came to a stop uncertainly in front of the security guard. It was his job to keep all unmarried men from entering the mall after the call to Isha prayer that ushered in nightfall.

This sounds so utterly fantastical. Had I not learned so much from my Saudi students, I might have thought this an exaggeration. However, both told me it is common for people to meet this way. The traffic can be so bad, drivers can reach out and touch the person in the next car. One of my students said clandestine dates are often planned during traffic jams.

Overall, I would hold to my conviction about this book. It’s not great. The writing is poor; it is a translation. It reads much like a young girl’s diary. What elevated this book for me was the author’s bravery in publication and her desire to amplify the issues affecting young women in Saudi Arabia as well as the informative look at a culture so different from my own.


7 responses to “Review: Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea

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