Book of the month: “Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea

Girls of Riyadh CoverSaudi Arabia’s Sex and the City, as critics like to call “Girls of Riyadh”, has been voted book of the month by our colleagues in Sofia, Bulgaria, where the Friedrich Naumann Foundation has its regional office for Central East and Southeast Europe. 26-year-old debut novelist Rajaa Alsanea has written a courageaus and deeply political book about freedom, says Ellen Madeker in her book review.

“Girls of Riyadh” was immediately banned in Saudi Arabia when released in 2005 in Arabic. Only two years later it was published in English and sparked a fierce debate in the media and countless online forums. At the time 26-year-old debut novelist Rajaa Alsanea literally shook up the Arab world with her book, in which she exposes the hidden lives of young upper-class women in Riyadh. In her taboo-breaking novel, she offers unprecedented and realistic insights into the ordinary lives of young Saudi women.

Rajaa Alsanea`s book takes the form of emails which she would send out every week to a yahoogroup with an increasing number of subscribers. The author tells the stories of four fictional Saudi women Sadeem, Gamrah, Michelle, and Lamees. She reveals their dating habits, their secret hopes, dreams and desires, as they navigate everyday life in pursuit of love in the ultraconservative, Islamic society of Riyadh.

In Saudi Arabia, it is not only illegal for women to drive, meet unrelated men in public or leave the country without a male relative`s consent. Women are also very often denied to choose freely who they want to marry and have children with. When the narrator depicts the inevitable and heartfelt frustrations of the four protagonists, her emails often resonate bittersweet. But the novel also displays a good sense of humour and is occasionally downright comical, even though the subject is no laughing matter at all. The book is not a literary masterpiece, buts its fresh colloquial language makes it an enjoyable read.

Rajaa Alsanea has written a courageous and deeply political book about freedom – and the lack thereof. She shows that ultimately, the “Girls of Riyadh” share exactly the same hopes and dreams as their European counterparts. Behind the veils, however, they are segregated and oppressed by a patriarch society with a pious façade. Portraying her four fictional friends with all their sorrows and delights, she exposes the hypocrisy of a traditional society where women endure blatant injustice, double standards and restricted freedoms throughout their lives. At the end of the novel, all four women seem to have found their place in society. However, all of them, in one way or other, submit to the cultural standards imposed on them.

“The story has almost reached its end. But my friends are still candles that life sets aflame. I took you by the hands, my dear readers, to lead you on a weekly tour of these scented candles, flickering desperately. […] I plant a kiss, now, on every candle that has been lit and melted away but in so doing has lighted a way for others – making for them a path that is a little less dark, contains a few less obstacles and is filled with a little more freedom.”

Ellen Madeker