Review: Girls of Riyadh

There have been many so-called Muslim/Arab-related memoirs and non-fiction narratives over the years and rarely do they seem authentic. Conversely, in Girls of Riyadh we have a fiction book that appears really to be a collection of the author Rajaa Alsanea’s personal experiences and anecdotes, so thoroughly crammed is it with just about every event that could happen to a Saudi girl of privilege. For a book that wishes to illuminate a hidden world, it’s not highly unique nor greatly important; but we do gain some insight into just how similar women are regardless of culture and circumstances, and we also get an overall idea of how Alsanea perceives Saudi Arabia’s class system and demography.

Perhaps Alsanea’s story is loaded with truth, or maybe I’m just reading too much into it. I suppose I should have prefaced all of this with an admission that I am fairly unfamiliar with how Saudi men and women live and conduct themselves. My knowledge and understanding of the area is limited to what I read in various media as well as stories of foreign compounds told to me by friends who lived in Saudi for several years (and, I should add, completely loved it). But then of course, being of Arab heritage myself, I can certainly recognise similarities across the Middle East in ideas, traditions, culture, and of course, religion.

I was curious, and that last element of religion attracted me to Girls, since there isn’t much out there for Muslim women who want to read stories to which they can relate (particularly one penned by a bona fide Muslim who likes her religion). Certainly, I enjoyed aspects of this book; some of the storylines were highly engaging and it has a cheekiness to it that works in the lighter moments. Moreover, I think there lies good intention behind it: Alsanea is sympathetic to her country, rather than dismissive. Clearly she advocates change for women, but she does so by balancing different approaches and ideas, rather than drenching the reader with feminist polemic.

However, it was an effort to get through the book, mainly because of the hackneyed storytelling: it’s clunky, and overall a victim of poor translation and a frustrating narrative style in which events and relationships are recounted with detailed explanation, with few actual moments being played out.

It works in some ways, since the premise of the story is a weekly email sent by an anonymous Saudi girl, who tells her readers the stories of four of her friends (whose names she’s changed to protect their privacy). There’s Lamees, Michelle, Gamrah and Sadeem, all university friends, whose lives take fairly divergent paths, but who nevertheless share similar experiences. Their stories burst with heartbreak and betrayal. Saudi men don’t emerge unscathed.

Every Friday after midday prayer, the “narrator” sends out an email recounting the trials and tribulations of her four friends, to which she receives an inordinate number of responses, some praising and thanking her for the weekly dose of drama, others chastising and cursing her: she’s considered a source of corruption and evil for talking about what happens behind closed doors — see no evil, hear no evil. Funnily enough, she notes, her fiercest critics don’t stop reading the emails despite their disapproval.

We soon learn that these girls live in a world filled with rules and game-playing, and are dominated by the men in their lives (often by choice). They go to university, but they constantly talk about marriage and obsess over their latest love interests. (The Saudi telephone lines run hot after midnight apparently). Every chapter begins with a quotation of some sort: Alsanea includes verses from the Qu’ran in some, while in others the syrup levels rise with excerpts from famous Arabic poems and love songs.

“Those who want us, our souls resent them
And those whom we want, fate refuses to give to us.” (Norah Al-Hawshan)

“If only I had known my very own ending, I wouldn’t have begun.” (Nizar Qabbani)

It’s all very poetic, but the quotations jar against the narrative. This is where I truly feel Alsanea’s book suffers: this isn’t literature, nor is it a funky sort of chick-lit. It hovers between bargain basement and something much worthier, and I suspect that the weak translation is primarily at fault. Further, stylistically, what probably works very well in Arabic completely fails the English version.

In any case, Girls isn’t as exotic and “taboo-breaking” as it’s billed to be. Forget the open discussion of sex and homosexuality that earlier reviews have promised you. It’s really just an average story that for the most part could be transported into another setting. I’m guessing that’s partly why some are so excited by it: Arab women actually experience what non-Arabs do and want to be “free”. It’s really all about wanting what we can’t have, not wanting what we can, humanity’s general inability to decipher their true needs as opposed to their desires, and naturally, it’s about love and whether or not it means very much in the real world.

The “ABC” of heartbreak and human folly. It’s not visceral. This is a “Saudi women and their lifestyles” primer.

If Muslims wish to be humanised more in fiction, I suppose Alsanea succeeds on this point. While her characterisations aren’t terribly strong, the girls’ experiences aren’t singular. Certainly their circumstances are different, and this is what will attract the non-Muslim reader particularly. But in all parts of the world there are men and women who experience what these girls have. I am sure we all know of couples, for example, who don’t make it to marriage because of elements beyond their control: expectations of family, differences in religion or ethnicity, and even differences in locale.

Alsanea says in her “Author’s note” that due to the success of her book in the Arab world, she is now considered “a member of Arab intellectual society”, and she takes this responsibility seriously. She will no doubt be subject to fierce criticism. In fact, when the anonymous email writer of her story asks her readers (following severe rebukes for her tales), “I only ask for a small space on the World Wide Web to tell my stories through. Is that too much to ask?”, you suspect Alsanea is the one really asking the question. It can be a preachy story, but she makes her case again and again as to why she has the right, and the need, to tell it.


#1 Yakoub on 11.19.07 at 8:02 pm

There are quite a few Muslims claiming to be Saudis, including Saudi women, on Second Life, but of course, they could be Tony Blair’s aunty for all I know – although generally there are enough Arabs about to prevent non-Arabic speakers pretending to be Arabs! ANYWAY, I’ve chatted to two alleged Saudi women on there, and without being asked, they mentioned this book by title – and one said it was true to life, the other said not. Allah knows better.

#2 Review: Girls of Riyadh « think other side on 11.19.07 at 9:11 pm

[...] article was originally published here. [...]

#3 Peter on 11.21.07 at 10:15 pm

Every review I’ve read of this book made it seem like it was incredibly groundbreaking on account of the sex stuff in it. Are you saying that this isn’t true?

#4 Amir on 11.21.07 at 10:37 pm

Peter, it’s certainly interesting how many reviews mention that stuff. Maybe it says a lot about the reviewers?

#5 Abdur Rahman on 11.21.07 at 11:25 pm

Nice review.

How about some books for Muslim men though?

#6 null on 11.22.07 at 1:39 am

Where does Yakoub’s blog keep going?!

#7 Baybers on 11.23.07 at 2:26 pm

once again a superb review

You are a real asset

#8 Zainab on 09.18.08 at 4:43 pm

I liked your review. I especially liked your comment wherin you said that this book isn’t as taboo as it is made out to be. When i read the back cover synopsis, I prepared myself for the usual trashy novel. instead I found that it was absolutely easy to read as well as interesting and was the type of book i would feel comfortable having my mother read it with her knowing that i read it- not like some of the other books which i read. I really enjoyed this book!

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