A young novelist’s condemnation of tradition becomes an underground bestseller in Saudi Arabia
Marco Visscher | June 2006 issue
In chapter one, a woman discovers on her honeymoon that her husband has been unfaithful. She forgives him and becomes pregnant, but he later hits her and sends her away. A print version of “Desperate Housewives”? Not exactly. The setting of this novel is the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh. The main characters, all from well-to-do backgrounds, are called Qamrah, Sadeem, Lamees and Mashael. This is the world captured by Saudi Arabian dental student Rajaa Al-Sanea in her debut novel, and it is hardly surprising that it has sparked a heated debate in the Arab world.
Banat Al-Riyadh (“The Girls of Riyadh”) is the story of an anonymous young woman who runs an email list that keeps readers posted on her friends’ love lives. The book sketches a portrait of a society in which female students drink champagne at parties (though the Koran forbids alcohol), drive cars (though the women must disguise themselves as men to avoid arrest) and openly flirt with men (though it’s against the law).
The novel has become a bestseller. As this issue of Ode went to press, the authorities had not yet approved distribution in Saudi Arabia, nor officially banned the book either. But Banat Al-Riyadh is being passed from hand to hand throughout Saudi Arabia, and according to some news reports, digital versions are circulating. In a country regarded as a stronghold of strict morality, a smuggled copy of the book reportedly sells on the black market for 10 times the normal price. Meanwhile, English and French translations are expected later this year.
The 319-page novel is packed with drama and intrigue. The marriage between Qamrah and the adulterous, abusive Rashid is arranged, planned after a single meeting. When Qamrah takes off her hijab on their honeymoon, Rashid tells her she’s ugly and orders her to cover her face back up. Qamrah hopes he’ll eventually change and stops taking birth-control pills. When Rashid finds out she’s pregnant, he becomes violent and sends her home, followed by divorce papers, whereupon her family keeps her confined to the house out of shame.
Lamees, who shows Qamrah how to use the Internet to escape her isolation, is luckier. Although the vice squad catches her in the bar with a date while she is courting, she succeeds in marrying the man she loves and moving to Canada to go to medical school.
Finally, there is Sadeem, who falls in love with Firas during a stay in London. Though Firas feels the same way, his upper-class background prevents him from marrying Sadeem, who, as a divorced woman, has a tarnished reputation. Firas marries a cousin, but keeps phoning Sadeem to seduce her into continuing their relationship secretly. Sadeem refuses, becomes despondent, tries to forget him, and—ironically enough—starts a matchmaking agency.
Rajaa Al-Sanea’s critics accuse the 25-year-old of painting a one-sided picture of debauchery in the devout kingdom. In addition, they say, it is disrespectful of both women and Saudi Arabia. She herself says she based the book on stories she heard while studying dentistry.
Her critics don’t stop there. They call her use of language insufficiently literary (the book is written in the informal tongue employed in chat rooms and on blogs). They attribute all the media attention to her looks and the complimentary words Ghazi Al-Gosaibi—a prominent poet and the Saudi labour minister—wrote in his preface to the novel.
But these attacks have not curbed many people’s enthusiasm about the novel. In chat rooms, they confess they recognize something of themselves in Al-Sanea’s characters and agree with her criticism of the society’s heavy-handed traditions. Samar Al-Zayer, 18, expresses her appreciation in The Saudi Gazette (Jan. 15, 2006): “I personally believe that we have finally come to see a courageous woman from our own generation, with such talent and daring to step up and address an issue that is considered forbidden, though this issue is discussed by each and every one each and every day.”
Al-Sanea had expected criticism when she submitted her manuscript to the publisher. The book’s narrator writes that her weekly digital newsletter will surely stir up a national debate and that she could be interviewed on Al-Arabiya TV by the well-known Turki Al-Dakheel. (Both predictions came true for Al-Sanea.) “Any creative act usually leads to controversy,” the author told Arab News (March 11, 2006), “but what is important is the end result—positive progress, I hope.”
All the indications are that Al-Sanea is a committed feminist who wants to use her work to improve the position of women in a society dominated by patriarchal norms. But Egypt Today (March 2006) sees the book in a broader context. Al-Sanea’s sympathy doesn’t only go out to women, the reviewer asserts. Her book is an indictment of deep-rooted traditions that victimize both women and men. Saudi society’s rules thwart the course of love—and everyone who trips over them gets hurt.
The book should also be read as a criticism of sharia, or Islamic law. In the Egyptian magazine, Al-Sanea emphasizes that she is a proud Muslim. “What the novel speaks about are traditions that are not part of our sharia and have simply hampered our way of life to the point that they have resulted in the misery and suffering of people in our society. … [The novel] has shed light on an important aspect of the society and created an important dialogue that hopefully will result in a fruitful outcome.”
Rajaa Al-Sanea: Banat Al-Riyadh
Available only in Arabic; an English translation will follow this year.
www.rajaa.net (Arabic only)