I don’t know much about life in Saudi Arabia. It’s not very often that I have come across a novel, or indeed any other literary production from Saudi Arabia. The few times that I have, they are more often than not written by women, whom I invariably 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. My friend, who has read a lot more on the region than I have, informs me the cliches rarely live up to the true horrors these women suffer.
Even in the western imagination, as Rajaa Alsanea correctly says in her novel Girls of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is made up of oil wells, terrorists and “women dressed in black from head to toe“. Giving the problematic first two a wide berth, she sets out to redress this injustice by proving that “women here fall deeply in and out of love just like women everywhere else“. More specifically, Girls of Riyadh is a self-confessed Saudi Sex and the City, tracing the lives of four twentysomethings from the capital’s wealthy “velvet class” – clever Sadeem, dumpy Gamrah, sassy Lamees and the rebellious half-American Michelle – in a series of weekly emails sent out by a sharp-tongued and “shamelessly” red-lipsticked narrator, reminding me of Gossip Girl.
Her fictional disclosures – illicit drinking, women posing as men in order to drive cars, homosexuality, premarital sex and clandestine dating – made Girls of Riyadh an instant bestseller in Arabic. It was banned by the Saudi authorities, who, with Alice in Wonderland logic, guaranteed Alsanea a rare book deal in the West. But while the girls’ love of shopping, makeup and checking their boyfriends’ star signs is instantly familiar, I found the English edition heavily edited and footnoted. This is not just chick-lit, Alsanea hints, but a primer to an alien society “riddled with hypocrisy, drugged with contradictions“.
And the trials faced by her alternately designer- and burqa-clad heroines are gruesome. Forbidden by law from driving or meeting unrelated men in public, the girls are denied a free choice in education, career or marriage by either overbearing parents or the baroque Saudi obsession with tribe and tradition. “Is her blood pure?” croaks an evil mother-in-law, about to scupper Michelle’s chances of marrying her aristocratic sweetheart Faisal. Gamrah is married off to, then divorced by, an abusive businessman; Sadeem’s fiance dumps her for “giving herself” to him before their official wedding day. But the proscriptions that fence their lives provide the novel’s rare moments of satire. In online chatrooms, Saudi men use one of two stock pictures: “a guy sitting behind his desk in a nice office with a Saudi flag behind him” or “a guy making himself out to be a big strutting Bedouin” – and of poignancy – marriage, the unhappy Gamrah’s family warns her, is like “the watermelon on the knife“: either “extra-sweet” or a “dried-out, empty gourd“.
Like the youthful majority of Saudi Arabia’s population, the girls are squeezed between homegrown tradition and global modernity. Alsanea’s prose pieces together classical Koranic Arabic with slangy, roman-script “internet language“, colloquial Lebanese and Emirati, song lyrics and scraps of English – a patchwork that enraged Saudi proprieties almost as much as the “racy” content. Though many of the nuances are lost to non-Arabic readers like me, the off-key Americanisms of her own translation are equally revealing. Between syrupy meditations on men or makeup (“light pink blush, a little mascara and a swipe of lip gloss“), the girls exchange lines such as “you’ll never pass Gossip 101” and, my favourite, “I’ll be giving myself the best closure ever“.
The clumsiness is significant: despite its American borrowings, it is obvious that Girls of Riyadh deals with a profoundly different world. The love affairs provide occasions for some inimitably Saudi kitsch: Sadeem’s boyfriend tenderly chauffeurs over “her favourite Burger King double meal” on Valentine’s Day, Faisal presents Michelle with a Barry Manilow musical teddy bear doused in “his elegant Bulgari scent” and wearing giant diamond earrings; after her divorce, Gamrah’s family send her to Lebanon for a restorative nose job.
But the details of day-to-day life in Riyadh are weirder, and more fascinating, still. Men still wear the traditional shimagh (headcloth) and thobe (robe), but they are now designed by Gucci, Christian Dior, Givenchy and Valentino. Boys “number” girls in shopping malls and on the highways, throwing business cards or scraps of paper into car windows. On international flights, people queue for the bathrooms to change into or out of prescribed Saudi dress.
I wouldn’t recommend this novel for its style of writing. Some of the sentences are extremely clunky (eg, “Is there an inverse relationship between one’s social and economic status, on the one hand, and good humour and a merry personality, on the other?“). There’s also an uneasy tension between the breathless narration and some of the unhappier plot twists. Girls of Riyadh is unromantic – bad things happen to its heroines – but Alsanea is clearly on the side of romance, and her exploration of whether it can exist in Saudi Arabia is brave and surprisingly informative.
Despite official paranoia, Girls of Riyadh is more conservative than crusading. Alsanea, like her heroines, barely touches on the fraught context of their reversals in love. “Why was it that young people had no interest in politics?” muses broken-hearted Sadeem.”If only she had a particular cause to defend or one to oppose! Then she would have something to keep her occupied and to turn her away from thinking about Waleed the beast … ” The girls’ final, rousing gesture of defiance is to set up a party-planning business importing Belgian chocolates. After Alsanea’s promises, the novel’s collapse into the frothiness of its TV blueprint is telling – in the end, Girls of Riyadh is more a love letter to America than a poison pen to the Saudi establishment.