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Girls of Riyadh

posted Dec 20, 2011, 12:47 PM by Almohajer Aljadeed   [ updated Dec 20, 2011, 1:04 PM ]
By: Rajaa Alsanea -


This novel has been feted by noted individuals, magazines etc. including Time Magazine, the Washington Post and The Independent (London). Rajaa Alsanea’s first novel created quite a stir through the Arab world.

The book begins with a statement from "seerehwenfatahet” with, the allegation that "I shall write of my friends." She quotes Nizar Qabbani who said that: I shall write of my girlfriends / for in each one’s tale/I see my story and self-prevail,/a tragedy of my own life speaks/ I shall write of my girlfriends/of inmates lives sucked dry by jail/and magazine pages that consume women’s time,/ and of the doors that fail to open/... She goes on to disclose "the "first scandal/" It dealt with problems surrounding a wedding. An interesting quote is from the bride, Gamrah’s mother, who said, “woman is to man as butter is to sun." She, the mother, believed that “girls should be utterly naive and guys be experienced?

In another message we are told by the author (or another) “Many e-mails have asked me to reveal my true identity. Am I one of the four girls that I am writing about in these emails. So far, most of the guesses have veered between Gamrah and Sadeem.

In yet another message the writer says that "many people have accused me of imitating the way certain writers write, though they say I put all of them together in one big pot and end up writing in an eclectic and strange way." The writer considers this evaluation "an honour." Here we have a social statement with the writer stating that, "Our Saudi society resembles a fruit cocktail of social classes in which no class mixes with another unless absolutely necessary, and then only with the help of a blender!" The author reveals an understanding of class societies. Social class is very much a reality. The writer goes on to tell us of` “the girls’ (presumably the girls of` Riyadh)on entering university meeting girls from places that they knew little about. This is in itself is a learning experience for students - female and male.

The author asks an interesting question. She asks if` there is an inverse relationship between one’s social and economic status, on the one hand, and good humor and a merry personality on the other. This is an insightful question. It does seem to some that people of power and wealth are somewhat dour. The writer accuses the rich of being, "disagreeable, dull...insufferable and odious."

Our author writes about "those who do not marvel at the marvelous? She tells us about Gamrah, one of the girls of Riyadh. She says that Gamrah got used to her married life. She appeared really to be unfulfilled. The relationship between her and her husband, Rashid,by the following: “On one of those rare days when they were both at home, Gamrah kept after her husband to take her to a movie, and he finally relented. She surprised him by taking off her coat and hijab before sitting down. She gave him a shy smile, trying to read his thoughts at this crucial moment ... he said "Taking them off doesn’t make you look any better. So put them on again.”

Latter she wondered. "So why would he marry me if he didn’t want me?"
This was an arranged marriage. Gamrah had seen her husband only once before the wedding. Arranged weddings were common at one time. Actually, they tended to work out quite well even though they may now be "unthinkable

The author discusses, "When Grief becomes pleasure." She quotes the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates who said, "He said to her one day, all a man wants from a woman is that she understands him. And so the woman snapped loudly into his ear, and all that a woman wants from a man is that she loves him."

The author asks some cogent questions. She asked why none of her relatives have gotten involved in a political cause, supporting it "with their very soul." She also asked why her contemporaries (young people) seem to have no interest in foreign politics aside from the sensational (e.g. the Bill Clinton - Monica Lewinsky situation). She speaks of feeling somewhat alienated. This situation is certainly true in Canada and the United States where only a small percentage of young people take the trouble to vote.

Rajaa Alsanea quotes a "prayer to release worry, trouble and grief" She mentions Sigmund Freud and quickly finds him wanting. Sadeem, another character in her book, says that “Freud , with all his totems,   was not going to be much help in the solving of her problems."

She speaks of Um Nuwayyir. She prefers his classification of people. She speaks of the strong (logical and may want his own way), the Weak (easily manipulated by his family and swayed by his friends), the secure (sensible and with few conflicts and the overconfident). Other types are the moderate, the wild or escapee type, the extremely religious and the moderate.

The author continues with her philosophical bent by quoting from Al- Bukhari, "I asked Aisha, Prophet Mohammed’s wife. "What did the Prophet - peace be upon him - do in his home? She said he was occupied in the vocation and the service of his family." Many religions stress the importance of family.

Another topic dealt with in the book is love. A long quotation from Jassem Al—Mutawa is cited. In this quotation Al-Matawa offers his conception of this most important topic. He calls love. "A matter of the heart’ and tells us that a person has no control over it. He adds that we must distinguish love as a practice and love as a behavior." The topic of love has been widely discussed by not only novelists but by poets, essayists, ministers, etc.

Our writer tells us that she is widely condemned not for just what she says in her writing but for writing at all, as if it is an objectionable act. She has done the unthinkable; she has discussed taboo topics. In all societies some topics are considered taboo. In Canada and the United States, for example, sex historically has been a taboo topic. It wasn’t until biologist Alfred Kinsey surveyed American sexual behavior several decades ago that the topic was brought from the darkness of ignorance to the light of scientific examination. The author makes a very mature statement by saying, "But isn’t there a starting point for every drastic social change? One can think of many "firsts". Recently I read of the epochal work of Margaret Sanger who was a champion of birth control.

The author says at one point that she loves the beautiful music of Abdulmajeed Abdullah. She quotes from one of her favourite Saudi songs,

"Among the stars up here
above the clouds serene
I wash blues with hues of joy
all the anguish I wash clean.

The author speaks of "an adventure not to be forgotten? She expresses her love of the Quar’an verses and religious quotations. She calls them," inspirational and enlightening? She asks a question, "Am I not a real Muslim because I don’t devote myself to reading only religious books and because I don’t shut my ears to music and I don’t consider anything romantic to be rubbish? I am a religious balanced Saudi Muslim and I can say that there are a lot of people just like me." This is the voice of a young woman who is very much intellectually alive.

Rajaa Alsanea begins her 26th     chapter with a quotation. It is as follows:
And to Allah belongs the unseen of the heavens and the earth, and to Him return all Affairs (for decision). So worship Him and put your trust in Him. Your Lord is not unaware of what you do.
(Qur’an from Surat Hud)

The author tells us that "everybody" everywhere is talking about her. Her popularity and/or notoriety is one an outsider can only guess at. She had, however, created quite a stir in some circles. She goes on to tell us that she thrives on being noticed. Then the author injects yet another quotation. lt is from Mahmoud Al- Melegi who says that “if you aren’t up to lovin’, don’t do it." Again, this young writer seems to have learned a great deal from her predecessors. She appears to be one who reads incessantly.

Rajaa  Alsanea continues to ask questions about accepted social mores and folkways. She asks if divorce is a "major crime.” She continues by asking why society singles out women for censure in this regard. She feels that men should also be criticized for their part in divorce, if indeed censure is at all desirable. She says that “women...don’t deserve to be looked down on by society, which only condescends from time to time to throw them a few bones and expects them to be happy with that. Meanwhile, divorced men go on to live fulfilling lives without any suffering or blame." Obviously, our author resents living in a paternalistic society. She obviously follows feminist thinking. The author answers her critics who allege that she does not represent the girls of Saudi Arabia. She says that, "l am not writing anything incredible or bizarre or so weird that you people absolutely do not relate to it or can say it’s not true. She continues by telling us that, "Every week, every single one of them reads my e—mails and exclaims, ‘This is me.’ "
ln this provocative and most arresting novel the author, a young Saudi Arabian woman, in the form of a novel mounts a frontal attack upon the traditions of a nation. This in the minds of many is unthinkable, especially if the critic is a young woman like our author. This book, termed ‘*taboo-breaking” by the Washington Post and "...one of those rare books with the power to shake up an entrenched society" by the Los Angeles Times is thoughtful and deserves to be read widely.
Reviewed by: Reda Mansour
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