Girls of Riyadh

This review appeared here

The narrator of Girls of Riyadh (Banat al-Riyadh in the original Arabic) sends out anonymous emails about the clandestine romances of four of her friends. The narrator soon acquires fans who wait eagerly for their weekly dose of scandal and suggest that her emails be made into a television series. Newspapers editorialise, literary critics theorise and pundits sermonise about her. She maintains her anonymity even when she becomes the hottest object of speculation in the bored and rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia. After a few episodes, the narrator also posts responses to her readers’ emails. Most of the amusement to be gained from this book lies in the narrator’s arch and spirited responses to sanctimonious Saudis. Was Rajaa Alsanea, the 23-year-old author of Banat predicting the reception of her own book, when imagining the reactions to the fictional emails?

The controversy around Banat is a reminder that our knowledge of Arab culture is sketchy. One may have guessed that the book would be banned for Alsanea’s discussion of sex, infidelity and homosexuality. But who imagined that the Saudi Minister of Labour, Ghazi al-Gosaibi, a novelist and poet, would write the introduction to the Arabic edition? Despite conservatives predictably foaming at the mouth, the minister defended his stance and the ban was lifted. The book sold merrily in the black market, and just as well in the Arab countries where it was sold legally. As in Alsanea’s narrative, the novel was hotly debated in the press. Lawsuits have been filed against Alsanea even as the book inspired imitators, and literary critics praised it for its style.

Recent bestsellers set in the Middle East possess titles that juxtapose an element of transgression with our hopeless stereotypes. Hence: Kabul Beauty School, Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Bookseller of Kabul. Since Alsanea wrote for Arab readers the book is happily devoid of exotic description. Instead, the flat narrative reveals small but illuminating details of Saudi women’s lives.

Banat ought to have been little more than tepidly pleasant chicklit, but Saudi Arabia is the real home of our most common stereotypes about Arab women. Even schoolgirls must be veiled. Women are not allowed to drive. Many women are not allowed to work or study. There are no legitimate spaces where men and women are allowed to mix. All romance, even the tamest and most chaste affairs (as conducted in Banat), are hence daring. Only very rich Saudi girls, like Alsanea’s characters, can use cellphones, the Internet, chauffeured cars and their expeditions abroad to break the rules.

In the book’s most interesting episode the girls throw a bridal shower. One of them dresses as a man so that she can drive them unchaperoned. They go to a cafĂ© and a mall. They return home to smoke sheeshas and dance to loud music. Few readers would immediately share their sense of daring, but to a Saudi girl all those acts (except being a decadent shopper) are forbidden. What is fascinating is the unintentionally eerie description of the hordes of boys who follow the girls around and find ways of exchanging telephone numbers. The book seems far more important as an act of courage by the young author than as a literary event. If transgressions in Islamic societies are what you are hunting for in the bookshops, then Marjane Satrapi’s Embroideries has much wittier notes on far seamier scandals.


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