Book Review: “Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea

I know there’s a lot of book reviews in a row, and I promise this isn’t a book review blog, it really is a travel blog. But right now, since I’m only getting ready to travel to Saudi Arabia, I’m sharing my preparations, which include reading a lot of books, watching a lot of films and documentaries, and filing a tremendous amount of official paperwork.

I finished this book in a single day because I could not put it down. I read it in my office between phone calls, at my regular Tuesday karaoke outing between songs (don’t judge). Only skipping reading while at the gym because I couldn’t hold the book steady while working out, I finished the last few chapters in bed.

This book is hailed by many reviewers as being “Sex in the City” in Riyadh, but I’ve never watched that show, so I have no idea how accurate that comparison is. All in all, I think I’m grateful for that, because I may have missed the deeper messages in the book if I was just looking for a sordid tale of Saudi sex life.

I am a little bit confused as to why my Saudi employers recommended this book to me as preparation for my move to the Kingdom a) because the book is banned in Saudi Arabia, and b) because it shows parts of life there that Saudis do not (as a rule) like to admit exists in public. The girls in the book are all upper class, and quite well off, so this isn’t necessarily a reflection of all economic strata of Saudi life. So I wonder, will my students be like these girls?

I found myself having imaginary conversations with Saudi women (and men) about my own values for love, dating, and marriage. I am a spinster in their eyes, an anathema or at very least an enigma. Yet, we are not so very different, for all that women’s lib has brought me. Perhaps this book can be a launch point for many real discussions once I settle in and make some Saudi friends.

On to the book.

downloadI’d like to recommend that anyone who wants to read this book get a good and thorough (mis) conception of Saudi life. Many things discussed in the book are only titillating in the context of a society that entirely bans the social interaction of men and women who are not family. In America, these kinds of romantic stories are common enough among middle school girls: texting or talking on the phone until dawn, showing off gifts from an admirer, even a timid first kiss!

The girls may be catty, shallow, brainless and hopelessly in love, but they are loyal to one another in a way rarely seen in the West. What does this say about the way we compete for men? Is it that cultivating male friends makes women in the West less trusting of one another? Or is the Arabic language so ill equipped to express jealousy? I certainly do not know the answer, but if there’s a way to restore strong female bonds, cooperation, and genuinely being happy for each other when fortune comes our way without sacrificing our hard earned civil rights, I’m all for it.

In the beginning of the story, I found myself marveling at the daring and audacity of these young people, the way that they cleverly pursued romance in the face of their cultural restrictions. Then I became disgusted with the school girl crushes being described (not the least because they reminded me a bit of my own adolescence). And finally I came to see the beautiful subtlety that Alsanea used to create four (or 5 if you count the narrator) stunning avatars of women’s love.

They are Lamees: a model of blissful marriage to a first love, Gamrah: a cheating husband, and a tragic divorce resulting in single motherhood, Sadeem: who loves a man more than he loves her, and settles in the end for something safe, and Mashael (who I personally most identify with) who upon finding her first love not strong enough to fight his family to be with her, determines that she will not settle at all, and instead lives her life for herself.

I may be biased, after all, I am a “liberated Western woman”. Divorce is common in my family, and dependence on men has never been. I sometimes feel that the amount of time and effort women put into the pursuit of a husband is insane. However, I don’t think it is unique to Saudi culture. They are reflections of women everywhere, and I think women of any cultural background would find themselves and their friends echoed in the Girls of Riyadh.

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