books, Debut Novel, People of Color, Reading, Women Writers, Works in Translation

“Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea

          “We all live in this world but do not really experience it, seeing only what we can tolerate and ignoring the rest.”

IMG_0391When “Girls of Riyadh” was first published (in Lebanon in 2005), Rajaa Alsanea (رجاء الصانع‎) faced immediate fame and rancor in her home country of Saudi Arabia and throughout the Arab world. In this debut work, Alsanea tells the story of four young women – Gamrah, Michelle, Sadeem, and Lamees – exposing the inner world of young upper-class Saudi women as they come of age, navigate tradition, and try to forge their own romantic and professional lives. The narrative is framed as serially-released, anonymous emails (this is pre-blog, nascent-internet territory) which share the inner struggles and outward foibles of four well-educated, privileged women in a society where education and privilege only allow women to rise so far. 

“All Michelle wanted was to hear that she had been accepted in one of the schools [in California] so that she could bundle up her belongings and turn her back on a country where people were governed – or herded – like animals, as she said to herself over and over. She would not allow anyone to tell her what she could and could not do! Otherwise, what was the point of life? It was her life, only hers, and she was going to live it the way she wanted, for herself and herself only.”

“The Girls of Riyadh” contained frequent reference to Saudi Arabia being culturally and politically unique even within the Arab sphere, but included neither explanation nor instance of how this was so. Perhaps the writer assumed a familiarity with Saudi culture, though given the book’s presentation as an exposé, as a damning airing of family business, a more thorough explication of the nuances and key characteristics which distinguish Saudi society would have made this story more engaging and meaningful, particularly to foreign readers allowed this rare glimpse at a veiled world.

“The Girls of Riyadh”, at least in English translation, was not particularly exceptional on the merits of its writing alone. Similarly, in a western culture where boundaries are constantly called into question, where popular culture in all media continuously test the limits of social mores, the stories contained in “The Girls of Riyadh” can seem mild-mannered, even quaint. It is important to recognize that what may seem to a westerner to be benign and slightly banal anecdotes were considered shocking, rebellious, and incendiary to many in Alsanea’s home country. Where this work excels is as a barrier-breaking act, as a courageous effort to give voice to the voiceless. As a window into this world for outsiders and as a platform to the world for insiders, “The Girls of Riyadh” has political and cultural import that outshines it’s composition and makes it an important work of art.

 

 

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2 thoughts on ““Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea”

  1. I was interested in the author’s life after reading your post, and whether she had written anything else. She’s a dentist now! Apparently in Saudi Arabia, from what I could tell from a Google search. What an interesting juxtaposition, that she has this medical training and degree and yet she can’t drive herself around. You make a good point about the book (which I haven’t read) that things that seem shocking to someone from her country perhaps wouldn’t seem like a big deal to people from the US. Nice review!

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