Girls of Riyadh (Review)

August 15, 2010

Book cover for "Girls of Riyadh" by Rajaa Alsanea.Title: Girls of Riyadh

Author: Rajaa Alsanea

Narrator: Kate Reading

Publication Year: 2007

Pages: 304 (audio length: 8 hours 38 minutes)

Genre: Fiction

Source: Audiobook purchased from Audible.com

From the cover:

When Rajaa Alsanea boldly chose to open up the hidden world of Saudi women – their private lives and their conflicts with the traditions of their culture – she caused a sensation across the Arab world. Now in English, Alsanea’s tale of the personal struggles of four young upper-class women offers Westerners an unprecedented glimpse into a society often veiled from view. Living in restrictive Riyadh but traveling all over the globe, these modern Saudi women literally and figuratively shed traditional garb as they search for love, fulfillment, and their place somewhere in between Western society and their Islamic home.

This novel is the first in a newer form of epistolary fiction that I haven’t yet encountered – the email rather than the letter. I mean, I’ve read books that had a few emails sprinkled throughout them, but Girls of Riyadh is written entirely in the form of emails from a mysterious, unnamed narrator to a listserv that contains as many Saudi email addresses as she could find. For this reason alone, I probably should have picked up a written copy of the book rather than the audio version – it sometimes made it hard to follow, and it’s not as easy to flip back and forth to remind yourself of details.

The unknown narrator of Girls of Riyadh sends out these emails weekly, on Fridays, but takes a break during the month of Ramadan. Through her short introductions to the emails, before starting in on the “meat” of the stories, we learn that these emails have become quite a sensation in Saudi Arabia, becoming the focus of workplace conversations, online forum discussions, and even mainstream news articles.

Most of the novel, however, is focused on the lives of four girls – Lamees, Michelle, Gamrah, and Sadeem – who are friends of the narrator. All of these girls are part of what is called the “velvet class”, a sort of upper-middle class in the city. The story focuses mainly on the love lives of the girls, through the trials and tribulations of arranged marriages, divorce, pregnancy, unrequited love, parental refusal of their child’s choice of partner (male and female), all while revealing the difficulties that are present for men and women of marriageable age in Saudi Arabia.

Alsanea takes a point of view that is more realistic and anthropological than fairy tale-esque, allowing the reader to take a peak into an Islamic society that is often misunderstood and completely foreign to outsiders. One of the parts that really struck me was when the narrator responded to some of her critics who claimed that the religious sayings she mentioned were at odds with the immoral message she was spreading:

The Qur’an verses, hadith of the Prophet (peace be upon him), and religious quotations that I include in my emails are, to me, inspirational and enlightening, and so are the poems and love songs that I include. Are these things opposite to each other, and so, is this a contradiction? I don’t think so. 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 religious, a balanced Saudi Muslim, and I can say that there are a lot of people just like me. My only difference is that I don’t conceal what others would call contradictions within myself or pretend perfection like some do. We all have our spiritual sides as well as our not so spiritual sides.

This was definitely one of the key ideas of Girls of Riyadh – that women (and men) in Saudi Arabia are not the conservative Islamic monolith that most people believe they are. Rather, there are two sides to each coin, and the narrator is revealing the intimate details of the lives of a few typical women in the Kingdom. This novel was a really great look at the ways that culture, religion, and personal beliefs can be at odds, the ways that this can hurt people and cause discord, and also the methods that people can use to try to get around these barriers.

The narrator of this edition, Kate Reading, did a great job, including the pronunciation and inflection of the Arabic words that were interspersed throughout the novel. The only real complaint that I had about the audio production was the voices of the men – every time Reading changed her inflection to “be” one of the male characters, it just seemed fake and I wanted to laugh out loud. Once I got past that, though, the rest of the reading was fabulous.

In all honesty, Girls of Riyadh was a great read, but it was not all that high on my scale of literary prowess. The dialogue was sometimes wooden and often cliched, but the characters were interesting and flawed in just the right ways. It’s a great look into Saudi Arabian society, or at least a tiny sliver of it, and it gives just enough cultural detail to show those of us on the outside that there is a much larger, more complex world there waiting to be explored and understood. Definitely something you should pick up if the subject matter or area interests you.

Rating:

8 Comments

  • Nicole August 16, 2010 at 7:37 am

    This sounds like a great idea for a story. I am sorry that the writing was lacking a bit. Stilted dialogue must have been readily apparent on audio.

  • Amy August 16, 2010 at 7:57 am

    I saw a review of this book that termed it Arabic chick-lit and I thought that was kind of a fitting label. It is kind of fluffy, but not really as it gives some cultural insight into a country and culture which most of us don’t have a lot of experience with. I enjoyed it, but I can imagine audio would be more difficult!

  • zibilee August 16, 2010 at 9:53 am

    I tried this one a couple of years ago and didn’t get very far with it. For some reason, I felt it was just a little too fluffy for me.

  • Helen Murdoch August 16, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    I love that you are doing this month of reading about Islam! Making different viewpoints on this subject available is awesome!

  • Niranjana (Brown Paper) August 16, 2010 at 7:44 pm

    I reviewed this one back in 2007 for a lit. mag. I had a very similar take; I found this one more interesting from an anthropological than literary point.
    http://www.asianreviewofbooks.com/arb/article.php?article=820

  • Valerie August 16, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    I read and reviewed this one recently (about a month ago)– and I agree that the story itself is more interesting than the actual writing. I discovered that the supposed translator of this book ended up being pretty angry because the author decided to do most of the translating herself.

    Anyway, it is striking how, even though one can be wealthy, women (such as Saudi women) can still have very little choice of how to live.

    • Carina August 17, 2010 at 1:05 pm

      Yup, I saw a couple articles about the translation “problems”, too!

      I also found it very interesting that the men were also portrayed as having very little choice in who they married as well. Usually it’s all one-sided.

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