Monday, March 24, 2008

The Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea

The title of this book is taken from the famous Saudi singer, Abdul Majeed Abdullah’s song, ‘Girls of Riyadh, O girls of Riyadh’. The book is translated from the Arabic after the author, Rajaa Alsanea and her publishers realized that its content may have appeal to readers beyond the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The book takes the form of one email per chapter whereby after Friday prayers in Saudi Arabia the author sends the letter to her subscribers who form a growing and active online community. Over the course of a year the author writes these instalments that tell the story of four young women from Riyadh’s ‘velvet’ (upper class) community. The missives reveal a life of flirting, falling in and out of love and actions that fly in the face of the “prim and prying Saudi society.” (p199)

Initially the email and online community tactic appears to be a skilful idea because it creates the opportunity for the book to include readership response. The author begins each chapter with some readership responses that indicate how explosive the letters have been. Unfortunately this weekly roundup becomes repetitive and tedious as does the body of the book especially when the author engages in blowing her own trumpet.

According to the author the ‘Sex in the City’ style of the book is not intended to represent all girls in Riyadh but it is designed to draw back the veil and “reveal another side of Saudi life to the western world.” (pvii)

The lifestyle described may be explosive for the Saudi readership but it is a tame presentation for readers used to watching western television programmes and movies. The books main contribution largely consists in depicting features of Saudi life which may reflect in various degrees the life of young Islamic adults in other countries of the Middle East. These notable glimpses include:

* The process whereby boy/girl relationships are started and nurtured in a restrictive society, by the use of Bluetooth technology, SMS, telephones, email and online networks.

* The pain that is created in relationships when young men and women are prevented from meeting alone and are unable to nurture a friendship and develop their social skills before they are married.

* The pursuit of Saudi men in finding a woman who will advance their prospects by “giving them some standing, to help them with her family name, her looks, her genealogy, her social position, her wealth” and to have a woman “to blame for their own poor decisions.” (p196)

* Inter-family discussions (usually just by men) about the potential marriage of a daughter without consulting the person who has the biggest stake in the marriage.

* Saudi or Islamic wedding customs from the ‘shoufa’ (lawful viewing of a potential marriage partner) to the official engagement with the signing of the marriage contract signaling the ‘milkah period’ that concludes with the wedding ceremony.

* The role of weddings in providing a sphere for older women to scrutinize the young women who may be possible partners for their sons.

* The energetic but restrained way that young women deport themselves at weddings as they show their wares before prospective mother-in-laws.

* The macho society whereby males view women for their own satisfaction, and often act like “bulls and steeds unpenned”, feeling it as their prerogative to be the master of the bedroom.

* The ease and frequency of divorce by men when women assert their own desires or no longer appear attractive to their husbands.

* The perception of divorced women as “damaged goods”, regardless of the causes of the breakup. (p195)

* The tendency to blame infertility on the woman and use this excuse to trade her in for a new and younger wife.

* The reframing of traditional religious practices for personal convenience and consulting astrological signs, Ouija boards and the reading of tea and coffee cups, in the making of life decisions.

* The fixation with outward appearances (in a society of veils and burqas), including popularity of ‘reconstructive surgery’ which is not to be called ‘cosmetic surgery’, as this is against the laws of Islam. (p161)

* The prevailing view that a man showing signs of homosexuality is regarded as “an utter calamity, an illness, worse than a cancer.” (p132) Those displaying homosexual tendencies are usually ‘treated’ by medical intervention which may include a combination of “surgical operations, hormone treatment and psychological counseling.” (p133)

* The importance of education to enable women to break out from the rigid, social, religious and intellectual strictures.

This book provides some windows on four indulged women in a “uni-cultural, uni-ethnic and uni-religious” society who are seeking to forge their own way by revising their traditions while embracing an eclectic mix of international influences.

While this ‘scandal-sheet series’ is exciting as it breaches traditional practices and exposes corruption and hypocrisy in Saudi society, the relationships of the girls of Riyadh are fragile, fractured and filled with the deep pain of rejection, loss and grief.

Rajaa Alsanea, The Girls of Riyadh (London: Fig Tree, Penguin, 2007). This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 84.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Girls of Riyadh.