Review: “Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea

Girls of Riyadh 2

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.

Review: “The Innocents” by Francesca Segal

The Innocents

The novels of Edith Wharton vacillate between snide gossip and heart-wrenching insight, between the affirmation of a social hierarchy and a lament that this very hierarchy crushes the spirits of those that adhere to it. A natural consequence of this is the wide range in the contemporary heirs of her oeuvre. On one end, we have the beginning of Gossip Girl, based on Wharton’s Age of Innocenceportraying an insular and elitist world. On the other end, we have Francesca Segal’s (daughter of Erich Segal) critical success The Innocents, also based on the same book, draws attention to Wharton as a chronicler of individual yearning versus group convention. The book has already been optioned for a miniseries and is being called the “Jewish Downton Abbey“, emphasis on the Jewish. Segal has incredibly transposed Wharton’s, a notorious anti-Semite, tale of stiff WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) and their subjugated women to a world of cosmopolitan Jews who have premarital sex and go on teen coed tours to Israel. The Innocents succeeds to an extent that will make you proud–but in doing so, results in a very different end, one that provides a tender take on family, loss and growing into adulthood. What we get is surprisingly far removed from Wharton’s sweeping and unflinching dissection of an earlier era.

Courtesy: The CW

The Innocents’ very first tableau exemplifies how effective her concept is. Wharton’s iconic opening scene has the protagonist Newland Archer training his opera glasses on Countess Olenska, the women who will upend his life–sitting in the family box beside his future wife, May Welland.  Segal deftly shifts this moment from the concert hall to the synagogue gallery during Yom Kippur. Our innocent hero, Adam, looks up from his prayers to scan the women’s balcony and gaze with “certainty” upon his fiancée, Rachel; beyond Rachel, he sees Ellie, Rachel’s American cousin, the family disgrace, “exposing skin from clavicle to navel“. He is repelled yet intrigued; I was simply the latter. The certainty had ended for Adam; for the reader, the story has just begun.

More than setting up the novel’s central conflict, this opening scene acknowledged the synagogue as a social as well as spiritual place, affording the chance to show off one’s engagement ring, judge one’s neighbours even while atoning, and introduce one’s unsavoury relatives into polite company. We can see from the scrutiny given to Ellie, the notorious interloper with the rather pedestrian name, that this set of London Jews is cloistered in their own ways: doctrinaire on matters of propriety more than piety, well-off but not as fully worldly as they could be.

Segal sets her story’s confrontations and reconciliations at holidays, parties and other life events in the North London community she knows. She recasts the smug, sheltered May Welland and her prominent clan as Rachel Gilbert and her intrusive, loving, and ultimately steely family. That they, like many of the neighbours, are descendants of Holocaust survivors–Rachel’s grandmother Ziva lived through Bergen-Belsen–gives context to the entire community’s unyielding traditionalism. To Rachel’s father, Lawrence, who has taken the fatherless Adam in as his own son, “there was only ever one thing that was important, and that thing was family“.

The claustrophobia that tempers the younger generation’s freedom sets up Adam to be torn up between worship for his fiancée and infatuation with her cousin. Not unlike the men of Old New York, men of Adam’s ilk sow their wild oats in university but then come home to wed their high-school classmates, or, in his case, Israel summer sweethearts, and take their rightful place in the offices where their fathers worked, synagogue committees their uncles run, and neighbourhoods where they themselves grew up.  Obviously, Adam is indeed tempted to reject such comforting but boxed-in parameters, and yes, he finds kinship with Ellie. They are both half-orphans and her history of dating dubious men and semi-pornographic modelling and acting,  rendering her the opposite of a nice Jewish girl, certainly gives her the requisite transgressive attraction.

It’s hard not to find the success of Segal’s choice subversively delicious because, well, Wharton loathed Jews–she was an anti-Semite along with many of her literary peers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. In this sense, Segal’s world is an inversion of her predecessor’s: while Wharton’s stodgy Americans looked down at Jews and European characters, the European Jewish characters of The Innocents look askance at the goyim (non-Jews or non-observant Jews), and even their Americanised cousins.

Wharton’s anti-Semitism is a facet of what’s both maddening and marvellous about her: just like her creation Newland Archer, she is through and through a product of the universe she critiques. But for a Wharton fan like myself, that complexity is an added fascination. Newland, in his weakness, implicates, but also humanizes his author and all of us when we remain bystanders, aware of the evils of our way of life but succumbing to its comforts.

Segal’s world is less evil than claustrophobic or occasionally petty. Thus, even as her social repositioning of her novel and her dialogue-rich and fluid prose lives up to her source material, important distinctions remain. Some relate to gender politics. Both of Wharton’s female characters remain incredibly strong in the face of limited roles: May as the icy torch bearer for the “way things are“; Countess Olenska as an exile who forged her own moral code after suffering hardship. Neither of Segal’s heroines quite lives up. Rachel’s naive, unquestioning attitude isn’t unrealistic–wilfully shallow people exist in droves–but it verges on too irritating to be redeemable. Her retrograde focus on domesticity, prioritizing cooking Adam dinner above all else, grates in particular. I mean, no matter how conservative her upbringing, she would have been exposed to some form of faux-feminism in this day and age. Meanwhile, her cousin and rival, Ellie, is a child of violence–her mother died in a bombing in Israel–and this is meant to account for her alienation, her obliviousness to mores. But unlike the Countess Olenska, whose primary social sin is divorcing a husband rumoured to have mistreated her, Ellie has taken no strong steps to ward off her own exploitation besides coming to London. Her impassivity is her grand statement about the world.  She is at her most finely drawn when she finally lashes out in anger. Would that Ellie, in addition to being a wounded sexpot, had been a staunch atheist, a Palestinian solidarity activist, a deliberate eccentric–something. Both Segal and Adam’s compassion for her reads as genuine, but she never truly holds up as a convincing escape route for him. The maze of connections binding Adam to his world seems too thick for Ellie’s long legs to lead him out.

Yes, it can’t be helped: Segal’s ultimate affection for her characters’ milieu just doesn’t burn up the page the same way as Wharton’s tortured ambivalence–she was writing from France, decades later–does. That ambivalence is so memorably encapsulated by The Age of Innocence‘s final moments, as Newland Archer sits in the courtyard beneath the apartment of his former great love, decades after their romance, unwilling to go upstairs and face the life he has chosen to miss, to let go of his season of memories. Needless to say, there is no such haunting coda in The Innocents, and there doesn’t need to be.

Although much of its elements are the same as its predecessor, the novel at its heart tells the story of a community forged not by the exclusion of others but by having once been excluded. So who needs to be haunted by the road not taken, when the road one is on involves the whole clan, in all its close-knit complexity?