The Girls of Riyadh

By Signe

A couple of weeks ago I found myself at the bookstore. I’m often there, although I don’t always buy something I always browse around, look at frontpages and read blurbs. Sometimes I put the book back on its shelf, and other times I simply have to buy it. This was the case of Rajaa al-Sanea’s, “The Girls of Riyadh” (2007). My interest in this book began because it seemed like a forbidden glimpse into a world that I know nothing of, and I found that to be almost addictive, and I just had to turn another page (don’t you love that feeling as well?)

The book is about four Saudi girls. However, the form of the book suggests that the reader is not merely reading a story, but rather that this story is real. One unnamed narrator, starts an e-mail service in which she depicts the everyday life and struggles of her four friends. She talks about university, parents, clothes and men, but instead of falling victim to the ever-famous stereotypical female stories (we all now them), the writer manages to tell truly honest stories about life. I think what is important to emphasise here is that these stories are apparent in all societies, and I know that I can certainly identify myself with these women, but it’s also crucial to understand that we, and especially being western females, must not fall victims of universalism. Thus, the fours girls’ stories are very much part of Saudi society, and so they cannot be directly translated to a more western idea or notion.

al-Sanea also translated the book originally published in Arabic to English, which gives an indication of just how important it is to translate stories correctly. I also have a vested interest in this subject because I’m writing my bachelor thesis on Orientalism, and so for me personally, the book opened my eyes in quite different ways, I suppose. Have you guys ever read something for fun, and then realised how it could be applied in social theories? I love when that happens!

My favourite part of the book was the description of sex and relationships (and for the naughty, I don’t mean actual descriptions of sexual acts–I find that they’re often hard to translate on paper …). First of all, al-Sanea describes how because of technology, men almost track down women to get their phone numbers and how chatrooms are blooming, and so, for the Saudi girls it’s not only important to find a man, but it’s also important to flirt and to talk. It’s interesting how these technologies become such a huge part of finding a partner, and although everybody does it, it’s still presented as a secretive thing. As these relationships emerge, it’s apparent that many of the girls marry young, but none of them are particularly happy and they all struggle in these re-defined relationships. Arguably, because it’s so easy to pose as another through mediums of communication rather than meeting people in real life, and because of the structure of the society the latter is not an option unless there’s a clear intention of marriage. So, I find that al-Sanea does something rather amazing, as she touches upon these relationships and how they’re formed and how they turn out, as a response to the sex segregation. I also found the idea of sex interesting. One character (I will not name her) legally marries a man (there’s a tradition for a legal marriage, a period of waiting and then the official wedding) and has sex with him because she wants to and she can’t stop, and afterwards the ‘husband’ leaves her, divorces her, but more importantly enables her to overcome this divorce-taboo. Thus, she emerges as an incredibly strong woman, and I think this is a pattern that we can all identify with on one level or another as readers, and so, I found the following quote to be especially poignant:

“Apparently, all men were the same. It was like God had given them different faces just so that women would be able to tell them apart.”

* * * *

I give this book a four out of five stars. I loved the format, the stories, the mysteries, the relationships, the travels, the glimpse of an unknown world, but more importantly, I loved the characters and how they were described each with their own little flaws and characteristics, which made the book colourful and come alive in a different way than I’ve experienced before.

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