The pages of change
LAYLA HAROON (Contributor)
28 January 2008
Rajaa Alsanea's controversial book,'The Girls of Riyadh', had members of the Abu Dhabi Book Club sharing interesting insights
A YOUNG author in Saudi Arabia has brewed a cultural storm after her book received strong criticism from readers.
In her book titled: 'Banat Al-Riyadh' (The Girls of Riyadh), Rajaa Alsanea narrates a story about her friends while using language that would be considered unsavoury in her country.
'The Girls of Riyadh' book is of course not a mediocre delineation of social life of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi-born writer's insight into the closed world of Saudi women has, on one hand, made waves; and on the other received mixed reactions. Local Press observers have asked the young Saudi to disown the book for besmirching women in the conservative kingdom and interviewers on Saudi-owned satellite channels have accused her of portraying its men as boorish bores.
On the other hand, many extol her for the subjects the book has tackled, such as gender issues, and class and regional differences. Prominent authors have applauded the writer's courage in challenging the social taboos of Saudi society.
The book was published in English for the first time in August, although its Arabic version came through in 2005 after railing through blog entries.
The reaction in America - where Alsanea moved last summer to attend the University of Illinois - has been to label the book with apathetic term 'Middle Eastern chick lit'... comparing it to 'Sex And The City'.
"Before translating the book into English, I used to tell Saudis that we shouldn't be afraid or embarrassed of who we are, that every culture has its good and bad, and that all people make mistakes, but if we don't discuss it, we won't find solutions for these matters," the writer said in an earlier interview with the media.
"But nowadays I see their point in being afraid of translating the book and of the attention I get from the media," she added. But, still she is solid in her approach. "I am proud of Banat Al Riyadh. I wrote the book to highlight issues that society denies. I did not distort the country's reputation. I wrote about humanity here," she said. "I wanted to show that both men and women are victims of society."
Such diverse opinions came up at a book reading session held recently at the Abu Dhabi Book Club by the club members.
Priya Madhu, a media consultant, views the composition as 'a not-to-be ignored book'. "As a woman," she says. "Rajaa Alsanea felt the time had come to tell the world the story of the secret lives of Saudi Arabian girls - that's a gold mine. And I think she is right on her path."
"But, I feel the girls, their secret lives and criticism do not surprise me. The girls of Riyadh are basically the same as girls anywhere. The secrets we keep, the lies we tell, the kind of men we love, the things that make us laugh and cry are actually similar - the only difference is how openly or secretly we do what we do. To a woman in Saudi Arabia the lives of the characters might be inspirational and to a New Yorker it is relatable.
But at some level, the insight in each episode is same."
Citing an example of an all-female creative renaissance in Iran, she enthuses, "Marjane Satrapic's animated film Persopolis is a very, very funny coming of age film. It is about a frank young Iranian girl.
Another book reader, Charmaine Choy, an Australian, Production Manager (Engineering background) says that the book received a lot of interest only because of its controversial nature. 'The Girls of Riyadh', she believes, is of importance only from the perspective that it encourages other Saudi writers to write about their culture in an open way.
"In my opinion the subject matter is somewhat shallow and naive. Coming from a Western culture, where artists and writers are free to discuss everyday life openly, I did find the characters difficult to relate to as the culture is so foreign to me, but at the same time it was interesting to peek inside a different culture."
Danielle, a Czechoslovakian, who works as an Equity Analyst for past four years and is the organiser of Abu Dhabi Book Club, agrees with Charmaine. "The Girls of Riyadh' is certainly important for the Arab world. Most importantly, it opens the door for female writers to explore the full range of topics in their work. The stories of the girls do not hold your attention; I believe it is really the scandalous nature of the book that has weight.
SAUDI ARABIA follows the austere Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam.
Women must be fully covered and accompanied by a male relative in public. Mixing of unmarried men and women is forbidden and women are banned from driving. At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise from The Girls of Riyadh.
The book centres on four women from affluent homes, who are studying at a university in Riyadh, the Capital of Saudi Arabia. Sadeem, Qamrah, Lamees and Mashael must navigate a minefield of rules and taboos on sex, marriage and social caste to get and keep their men.
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