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.

Book Review: “Understanding Arabs” by Margaret K. Nydell

As I continue to work my way through my recommended reading materials in preparation for the move to Saudi Arabia, I bring you another review.

ua_5This is a simple and easy to read book. The writing style is not overly academic, and the pictures Nydel paints of the Arabic people and culture are quite vivid in the imagination. However, the depth of understanding of Arabic culture and history leaves something to be desired.

The first 10 chapters are almost like a step by step guide on how to understand, communicate with and even integrate into Arab culture. Behaviors and customs are explained clearly, and a solid list of do’s and don’t’s is presented. Nydel is clearly enamored of the Arabic cultures, and it shows in the unapologetic positivity of these chapters.

Chapter 11 addresses the differences between Islamism (extreme fundamentalists) and mainstream Islam, leading into  chapters 12-13 where Nydel takes up the task of explaining the anger and violence between Arabs and the West from both sides. She relies heavily on quotes from media outlets and statistics to demonstrate the points in as non-emotional a way as possible. While this is a stark contrast to the joy of the first 10 chapters, and did make this section more difficult to read, I can understand why she would handle such a delicate matter this way.

Chapters 14-16 are a breakdown of Arabic culture by region, and country. Wikipedia articles can tell you more about these countries history and current economic, social and political climate than the brief 1-2 page whitewashed versions presented by Nydell. I was really disappointed in the elementary school social studies approach to the region, especially after the first ten chapters of beautiful cultural presentation.

She finishes off with an Appendix on the Arabic Language, but again, much like her country by country analysis, the linguistic introduction does not tell you much that would be useful if you do not intend to study the language, and doesn’t tell you anything that a first year language book would not cover. Her information does not appear to be incorrect, merely superfluous.

Overall, the first ten chapters are great for anyone seeking to better understand the (pan-)Arabic culture in a positive light. I really enjoyed reading about the cultures and customs from the perspective of someone so clearly in love with them. If made a nice contrast to the negativity so often presented in Western media. However, the remainder of the book is really only useful to those who are complete newcomers to the study and understanding of the Middle East.

I especially do not understand why this book was recommended to me as a preparation to go to Saudi Arabia, as Nydell routinely reminds the reader that her descriptions of delightful Arabic culture exclude Saudi Arabia without being able to say what the culture is like there instead, and moreover that the brief section on Saudi Arabia in Chapter 16 demonstrates further her lack of knowledge, experience and enthusiasm for that country.

So, enjoy the book for what it is; give it to someone you know who needs a little mind opening about the region, but I wouldn’t rely on it for a guide to Saudi life, or deep political understanding of the current conflicts.

Book Review: “Saudi Arabia Exposed” by John R. Bradley

As a part of my preparation to move to Saudi Arabia this August, I have a reading list. I thought I might share my thoughts on these books as I finish them.

8466c060ada0d12b0946a110.LJohn R. Bradley’s Saudi Arabia Exposed has a very “expose” feel. There is a lot of focus on what goes on beneath the surface, both good and bad. You may feel like you need a map and a genealogical chart to make sense of some of what he says, but it is definitely a unique perspective, combining personal experience with historical/political journalism. Bradley himself is a journalist, and was the first Western journalist to be offered a residency in Saudi Arabia (instead of just a visitor’s visa).

I found myself on an emotional roller coaster of hope and despair as I read about improvements in education and minority rights, while at the same time seeing the violence, drug use, and oppression present; learning about the presence of gay clubs alongside the absolute absence of heterosexual dating opportunities; and observing the pure schizophrenia of the Saudi desire for fundamentalist Islam to provide meaning to their lives along side the prolific use of “western” vices such as alcohol and pornography.

One striking thing to bear in mind while reading this book is that it was researched, written and published in the years just after the September 11 attacks. Many of the events, policies, and social climates described are a decade old. This may not seem like much time, but consider how much has changed in these last 10 years. The book is still well worth reading for the recent history and the first hand stories of life in the Kingdom, one must simply bear in mind that the current state of KSA may be different from the “current” shown by Bradley.

Part One is primarily a background and introduction to the social and political landscape of modern day Saudi Arabia. Chapter one covers mainly Jeddah and the history of the Hijaz. Chapter two focuses mainly on Al-Jouf. Chapter three on Asir and fringe social groups/customs. Chapter four is dedicated mainly to the Shia minority. Chapter five focuses on the younger generation, and the issues of being raised by foreign servants, taught Wahhabism in school, and Western consumerism at home.

In each chapter there is a reasonable balance of the depiction of hope and violence as he examines the turbulent history of the Al-Saud/Wahabi regime. The liberal Saudis who wish to depart from Wahhabi religious rule into a more moderate and modern form of Islam are not made to seem like heroes, nor are those more conservative factions painted as villains, but rather Bradley shows the (recent) historical and political motivations behind the factions in KSA in such a way that make their actions comprehensible to outsiders.

There is even an analysis of the history of the bin-Laden family, and the impact of the September 11 attacks on the socio-cultural landscape of Saudi Arabia, which I found really nice, because American media tends to be very mono-focused about this incident, forgetting that the kinsmen and countrymen of the perpetrators were also devastated by what occurred.

Part One finishes off with a more bleak examination of the younger generation, exposing the contradictions in Wahabist teaching and Western indulgence present in the wealthy, as well as the general lack of preparedness by the youth for a global society. Bradley fears that such internal contradictions, paired with a lack of education in how to deal with them are leading the Saudi youth toward renewed fundamentalism, rather than liberty.

Part Two is a bit more of what is going on “right now”, being the early 2000’s. Chapter six is a stark look at the expat situation, including violence against Westerners and the exploitation of Asian and other “third world” blue collar workers. Chapter seven is an even darker look at the crime statistics including public beheadings, corruption, drug use and violent crimes. Chapter eight discusses the gender divide, delving into homosexual culture among men, and the struggle for women’s rights. Chapter nine is mainly about the media and journalism’s fight for free reporting. And chapter ten is a wrap up and forward look.

As I mentioned before, the immediacy of Part Two is somewhat diminished by the passage of the years since it’s publication, but still an interesting, albeit disturbing insight into the evolving Saudi landscape. Part Two is not for the faint of heart. Where Part One offered a fair balance of hope and cynicism, Part Two is exceptionally dark. I found myself turning to the internet frequently to see what if any changes for the better might have occurred since the 2005 publication, such as last year (2013)’s passage of the anti-domestic violence laws in Saudi, offering some relief to battered women where none had existed before. It is important not to overlook the problems within any society; however it is equally necessary to look at the progress, so don’t be afraid to scour the news or go to an expat forum and ask the people living there now how these things are playing out in the Kingdom today.