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Rajaa al-Sanea's

Rajaa al-Sanea

reviewed by


Born in England and educated there and in Canada, John Butler is currently Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba. He has taught university in Nigeria, Japan and Canada, and has published extensively in the fields of Renaissance and Seventeenth-Century Studies, particularly travel-writing. His latest book, a scholarly edition of the Travels of Sir Thomas Herbert, will be published this spring by the Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies Series at the University of Arizona. Dr. Butler is also Co-Editor of The Quint, a humanities journal published by UCN.

It’s not very often that a novel, or indeed any other literary production from Saudi Arabia appears on the shelves of western bookshops. When they do appear they are more often than not written by women, whom we in the west assume are covered up to the eyebrows and confined in their houses by tyrannical husbands, traditional-minded fathers or miserable Islamic religious authorities of one kind or another. This novel, together with Soheir Khashoggi’s Mosaic (2004), constitutes the sum total of Saudi novels the reviewer has read. They are both by women and about women, and they explode many of the preconceived ideas that western readers may have about Arab women, just as the novels of Shahrnush Parsipur, particularly Women without Men (1979) did for Iranian women, and, like Parsipur, both novelists found their books banned, although unlike her they did not go to prison for them.

Rajaa al-Sanea (her name is variously spelled), whose family are mostly doctors, wrote Banat al-Riyadh in 2005 when she was twenty-four. It was first published in Lebanon, where the cultural milieu is far more liberal than in Saudi Arabia. When it came out in Arabic it was immediately banned in her home country, but, as with the novels mentioned in the previous paragraph, the black market stepped in and the book successfully popped up all over the Middle East. Curiously enough, even in Saudi Arabia things eventually became relaxed enough after the initial outcry that people could enjoy the book there by 2008, as long as they could read it in English. By that time, also, it apparently had some support from less-conservative elements in the Saudi intelligentsia, and the author has not, to date, been persecuted or attacked by anyone except some literary critics who find her book simplistic and poorly-written. The author does, however, currently reside in Chicago, where she is studying dentistry, but there are all indications that she will return home to Saudi Arabia and practice, if she has not already done so. In 2009 Girls of Riyadh was nominated for the Dublin Literary Award, but got no further than being long-listed. However, it is making a name for itself in the west, in spite of a translation which apparently gave Marilyn Booth, a distinguished Arabic scholar from Oxford now at the University of Toronto, some trouble and the author, who knows English, some frustrations.

The plot is constructed around a group of four school-friends from well-to-do families, Lamees, Gamrah, Sadeem and Michelle, who is actually Mikaela (she is half-American); all living in Riyadh, they are moving on to university, and they keep in touch via e-mail. The lives and loves of the girls are told through these e-mails, and there is a framing device which consists of an unnamed narrator who sends out e-mails about the girls’ lives and loves to random people in Saudi Arabia who have an e-mail address and reports some of their replies. The e-mails tell the stories of her friends, who are all looking for Mr. Right, but they are constrained from doing so in what westerners would consider the “normal” way, and have to do it through e-mails and clandestine meetings. The girls themselves sometimes meet at the house of an older woman who functions as a kind of adviser and match-maker, and she, significantly, is Lebanese. Actual contact between unmarried men and women is difficult at best, but in Saudi Arabia the men get the women to take down their cell-phone numbers, so that some verbal exchange is possible. Each of the girls meets a man, with correspondingly varying outcomes; taboo subjects such as sex are discussed, and it even happens, although anyone looking for graphic descriptions of Saudi sex-practices will be severely disappointed.

A glance at the plot and the narrative devices makes Girls of Riyadh look rather like just another chick-lit production whose appeal is to those who are tired of Hollywood settings or of people with those horribly familiar American names like Ashley, Jenna, Missy and Buffy. Unfortunately, a lot of al-Sanea’s novel is like that, but that seems to be the whole point. Lamees, Gamrah, Sadeem and Michelle are really much more like Ashley, Jenna, Missy and Buffy than they are like some exotic creatures straight out of The Thousand and One Nights. Their communication is mostly virtual (they don’t meet that often in the flesh) and they are completely in the thrall of their cellphones, e-mail and the Internet. Does this sound familiar? And the men? Well, they don’t measure up to all those dashing sheikhs and Lawrence of Arabia type of movie Arabs or even the real ones in Charles Doughty’s Arabia Deserta; they are mostly timid and cowardly or, conversely, abusive brutes, although there are a couple of “dull but decent” and not too Islamic males in the book. The characters in this book are barely ‘exotic’ at all; the girls, for all their Saudi trappings such as virginity and never mentioning Muhammad without adding “upon whom be peace,” are just like their western counterparts, all wrapped up in their electronic devices and western popular culture. They are just not very interesting as people, although a perceptive reader can understand their longing to be freer than they are. One amusing touch is a description of some women changing their clothes on planes going to Europe as soon as they leave Saudi soil; if they wait until the other end of the flight they will have to join a long queue of other women outside the women’s toilet waiting to shed their shapeless clothing and get into their designer dresses.

In the end, the girls (mostly) get either what they want or what they deserve. Al-Sanea’s message is that they are not unlike their western counterparts in their aspirations, but they come from a culture which is doing its best to control those aspirations. We also feel sorry for the young men in the novel, at least those who are constrained and forced to play roles which they do not want to play or cannot play unless they lose their humanity. The girls do not reject religion, which is something the reader might expect they would, and they do not become completely westernized, because they do not, in the end, understand western culture any more than westerners understand Saudi culture. For them, it’s the trappings that matter -- the phones, Internet, e-mail, movies, designer clothes and houses in Paris, but that’s about as far as they can get, because (with the possible exception of Michelle) they never really have to live western culture. For them, these things symbolize freedom, but in the end they are only things, and they have, in the end, no real meaning at all.

by John Butler
Critique of Edward Said



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