I went to the Broad Street Waterstone bookstore in Reading at the weekend of 6 June, writer Kate Mosse (author of Labyrinth and Sepulchre) recommended her 40 favourite books that sits at a pile, and her selections are good and there were quite a few that I put into my TBR, for e.g. Bird without wings by Louis de Bernieres, Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif, and this book. It is by coincidence that I popped into the library on the same day and found this book on the shelf. So I grabbed it, read a few pages and I was hooked.
It’s a story about a girl, the administrator of a subscriber group, decides to narrate the stories of her friends. She is like a modern Scheherazade that narrates these stories every weekend, every Friday in Saudi Arabia. Her motivation is to inform. Each chapter in the novel starts with a piece of poetry, a verse from the Quran, or lyrics from a famous song that captured the crux of the chapter, followed by her views about hate mails and compliments she received from her subscribers, occasionally offers for TV shows or a book publishing contract. The friends involved are:
Gamrah is married to Rashid. Her faith in her new husband is not returned, as Rashid is lukewarm towards his new bride. It was found that Rashid had an extra-marital affair well before they got married. Gamrah returned home, dismay that she is divorced and pregnant. A disgrace in the family for being a divorcee, her uncle arranged her to meet an obnoxious marriage prospect. Gamrah tried online chatting, with little success. Gamrah remains one of the saddest character in the story.
Sadeem is a little too willing to please her fiancé, because of that Waleed filed for divorce before the wedding ceremony. While mourning for her loss she met Fisa who is to be her soulmate in London. But Fisa never broach the subject of marriage during their long courtship. Fisa hailed from an elite family in the political circle and he has to marry a girl of his family’s choice, although he aches for Sadeem. Sadeem eventually wed her cousin Tariq who loves her since young. Another common phenomenon of marriage between cousins often practice in the Muslim households. Sadeem occupies the most air-time in the book.
Michelle (Marshael) is half-American and the wrong class for her boyfriend’s family, Faisal. Fortunate to value her dignity and self-respect, she cut short a dead-end relationship with Faisal and went off to overseas to study Communication. Her family soon migrated to Dubai and Michelle found job in a TV station.
Lamees grew up with a twin sister Tamadur, which is different from her. Lamees is the most sensible one of all, works hard with little time for love, working towards being a doctor. She fell for a classmate, Nisra, adhere to her own personal principle list of Don’ts (page 218 e.g. I will stay vague and mysterious (an open-book girl is no challenge!), I will NEVER be first to get in touch and I will not answer too many of his phone calls, I will not shut my eyes or ears to any signs of danger, I will not live in a hopeless fantasy, if he doesn’t tell me outright that he loves me within 3 months, and give clear indication of future our relationsip, I will end the relationship myself! etc. etc. ) and eventually married to her chosen one. The only one who did not have her love experience sullied by cruelty of weak men. One of her pastimes is studying astrology and advising her friends of their compatibility with possible men. She had to severe her friendship with Fatimah, because Fatimah is a Shiite; while Lamees is a Sunnite.
There was one more character that is connected to the four girls: Um Nowayer. Um Nowayer was a Kuwaiti lady that was married to a Saudi who left her and her son after 15 years of marriage. She is a neighbour and offers a recluse to the girls to air their grievances and her house to the girls to meet when they could not find a place to meet. Her son is Nouri is gay and that brought tremendous shame to her. Yet Um Nowayer put up a bold front and faced the challenge.
Although I am well versed with Arab culture, there are still shocking discoveries about the Saudi Arabian society. The novel is illuminating, it tells us of the reality of Saudi Arabian society. In Saudi Arabia, single young men are not allowed to enter certain famous shopping malls to avoid the harassment and flirting they initiate towards women. Valentine’s day is banned because it is a Christian event that ignited unvirtuous feelings between boys and girls. Faisal, Obaid, Duyahhim is considered Najdi Bedouin names, Al-Hai’ah is the name for the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of vice, a.k.a. religious police. Taiba and Owais is the biggest outdoor flea market in Riyadh. Saudi societies are split into 2 easily classified sects, tribal whose ancestry is traceable, and non-tribal whose ancestry is not traceable, and there is no inter-tribal marriage between these two sect. And there is a deadline for courtship period. 🙂 Men can sign their marriage declaration, while women had to print their thumb. Women are not allowed to deal in legal affairs, so when Sadeem set up her own party planning business she had to request the service of man to do the running for legal matters. And the list goes on and on.
I also found a lengthy Saudi Arabian social classification of men and women categories, and it’s quite interesting to find myself fitting into something called The moderate type B, which says:
B. Not religious, but not liberated, either. This woman is less strict than the extremely religious woman but more observant than the extremely religious woman but more observant than the more liberal one. A woman from this group tends to resist sinning because of her morals and principles rather than her actual religious belief. She often has a strong personality, so she might mistakenly be listed as a liberal because she doesn’t submit to all the rules of the more zealous groups.
This chic list is heralded as the Saudi Arabian’s Sex in the City, except that these four ladies’ destinies are not in their own hands, which often results in tragic consequences. They live in a society where their closest ones conspire against them, dictating them who to marry, where to go, what not to do etc. In my view, rigid, stifling social prohibitions only encourages perversion and narrow-mindedness. It prevents people from having healthy relationships, from being creative, or stop oneself from a simple wish of being an individual. For a woman who defended and valued equal opportunities, such as I am, stories of hopeless women is too close to home and always left me feeling sinking and doomed.
“As for love, it still might struggle to come out into the light of day in Saudi Arabia. You can sense that in the sighs of bored men sitting alone at cafes, on the shining eyes of veiled women walking down the streets, in the phone lines that spring to life after midnight, and in the heartbroken songs and poems, too numerous to count, written by victims of love unsanctioned by family, by tradition, by the city: Riyadh.”
I can’t help but feel sorry for them.
What I like most about the book: seldom have I come across a chic list that evokes such fun, introduce such cultural awareness, such humour and such impending doom. I thought it is a commendable attempt in making light of a grim hopeless situation of Saudi Arabian girls.
What I like least about the book: it’s still a chic list. The book is full of silly, immature antics, love struck girls who fail to use their heads, which made me cringed.
About the writer:
Rajaa Alsanea grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the daughter of a family of doctors. She currently lives in Chicago where she is a graduate dental student. She is 25 years old and this is her debut novel. Originally released in Arabic in 2005, Girls of Riyadh was immediately banned in Saudi Arabia due to controversial and inflammatory content. Black-market copies of the novel circulated and the daring originality of Girls of Riyadh continues to create a firestorm all over the Arab world and has been a bestseller across much of the Middle East. I personally don’t see anything in her novel that is worth banning!
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