Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Reviewed: Girls of Riyadh

When Rajaa Al-sanea's "Girls of Riyadh" came out in Arabic in 2005, it was immediately banned in its namesake city, as well as everywhere else in Saudi Arabia.

After all this time, it's hard to believe that Saudi authorities don't know that the best way to ratchet up a book's publicity is to ban it. Or maybe they do know, and this is their clever attempt to start a backdoor revolution in Saudi Arabia.

Al-sanea's book is the best of chick lit: it's funny and engaging, and presents just enough of a view into restrictive Saudi society to be informative but not oppressive. This balance is Al-sanea's own revolution. For all that most people in the West support Saudi women's rights, most of us haven't befriended flesh-and-blood Saudi women. There's a prevailing attitude among Americans, at least, that young Muslim women behind the veil are naive, exploited and even ignorant.

This stereotype might be true of poor young women from the backwoods of Saudi Arabia (much as its true for poor young women from the backwoods of Appalachia) but the reader will never know, because Al-sanea's young women are the cream of the elite. Their families can afford pricey educations, designer clothes, fancy cars and vacations abroad. They enjoy an affluence most Americans and Saudis don't.

But enough about culture, lets "read about the things we should be reading about," as Al-sanea's narrator would put it. The book consists of emails sent anonymously by a salacious young gossip whom we're given to assume is another girl of Riyadh. The emails, one a week, tell the story of the narrators' friends' love lives. Even though they're not allowed to meet unmarried men in person, most of the girls manage to fall in love and even date. One of them has a three and a half year relationship that only ends when her politician boyfriend marries another woman (talk about a downer!)

The standard sleazy male types make their appearance: a commitment phobe who wants to "talk on the phone" for years but can't commit to a wedding date, a husband who cheats on his wife with his beautiful Japanese girlfriend from grad school, a weak-willed mama's boy who walks away from his beloved because his family disapproves of her, etc.

Among this rough, the girls find a few diamonds. But to say more would be to ruin the ending, which Al-sanea builds up with a storyteller's florid expertise. There are happy endings and sad, but the novel's overall tone is one of optimism. The girls of Riyadh believe in love - enduring, beautiful, novelesque, all-consuming, passionate love - with a whole heartedness that's both funny and honest.

You'll like it if you like: a good time
Skip it if you prefer: a sociological examination of the inherent class inequalities of Saudi society

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