Sunday, July 29, 2007

Girls of Riyadh بنات الرياض (Banat al-riyadh) by Rajaa AlSanea and a "Blogging Tips Meme"

Hardback | 304 pages | ISBN 9781594201219 | 12 Jul 2007 | The Penguin Press Canada

Genre: Fiction/

Rajaa Alsanea and Marilyn Booth

Additional reading:
Sex and the Saudi Girl from The Sunday Times

Saudi Arabia Women from The National Geographic

Let me introduce you to four young women, Gamrah, Lamees, Michelle and Sadeem. All four well-to-do women are from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and I was delighted to make their acquaintance through Rajaa Alsanea's book "Girls of Riyadh" بنات الرياض, because Saudi society being as conservative and closed as it is, it is unlikely I would have been able to make friends with them through any other avenue.

"Girls of Riyadh" follows the lives, tribulations and loves of these four girls as they go through life in Saudi Arabia.

Gamrah Al-Qusmanji , is married off by her conservative family to Rashid who was emotionally cruel to her because he was in love with the family's Filipino maid. Shortly after Gamrah becomes pregnant Rashid divorces her and she is forced to return to her parents' home in Riyadh where it is not at all fun to be a divorced woman. She learns to take refuge in the internet where she gets to chatting with various men under a cloak of anonymity (because the society is such a prohibitive one, many Saudi women have turned to the internet for relationships)

Mashael Al-Abdulrahman , better known as Michelle, is the daughter of a Saudi father and an American mother. She spends her formative years in the US and cannot adjust to the conservative thinking that pervades Saudi Arabia. She is a rebel through and through and is only able to come into her own when she leaves Riyadh for Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Lamees Jeddawi is a young and brilliant student of medicine, but one who learns from her friends' mistakes and is determine not to fail at relationships as they have done. Does she succeed?

Sadeem Al-Horaimli is my favorite character. She was betrothed to Waleed, a young man she grew very attached to, so attached that she agreed to sleep with him before their wedding (something that is not usually done in Saudi arranged marriages). However, Waleed, being a conservative Saudi man, branded her a loose character and broke the engagement off immediately. She had no better luck with Firas who loved her but couldn't marry her because his parents could not reconcile themselves to having a daughter-in-law with a terminated engagement.

The story of these girls and and their very different outlooks on life is told to us by an anonymous narrator through a series of e-mail postings, sent to her online chat site. It is through these e-mails that the reader is introduced to Saudi society and its conservative views on gender roles, marriage, divorce, sex, class, race and so on.

Having lived in the Middle East for many years I had always heard that Saudi society was conservative and that their women, even though they are swimming in wealth, were nothing more than chattels for their men, but I had always hoped it was an urban myth. However, to see it all confirmed by this Saudi writer makes me feel truly happy for the freedom I experience as a woman. Not for all the gold and BMW's in this world would I want to exchange places with any one of those women in the book. And yet again, they are so much luckier than some of the women elsewhere in the Muslim world who are equally put down by their men but don't have the money to act as a balm.

I commend Rajaa Alsanea for writing this remarkable book, although it is no literary masterpiece, it is ground breaking in that this is probably the first time a Saudi woman has dared to write about all the difficulties her gender experiences in the Kingdom. A group of Saudi citizens have filed a lawsuit against Al-Sania for slandering Saudi society and although the book hasn't been banned officially in Saudi Arabia many of the book stores refuse to carry it.

According to Reuters, the success of "Girls of Riyadh" has spurred on the publication of many other Saudi Arabian novels:

Critics have noted that sexual relationships dominate in the output of the new writers, with sensational titles such as "al-Hobb fil Saudiyya", Arabic for "Love in Saudi" and "Fosouq", which means "Debauchery".

One example is "al-Akharun" ("The Others") by a woman using the pen name Siba al-Harz. It has attracted attention because of its dark treatment of lesbianism, guilt and marginalization among Saudi Arabia's minority Shi'ite Muslims, as well as its sophisticated use of classical Arabic.

It's easy to see why sex would dominate the work of these novelists. Women in Saudi Arabia grow up cocooned and segregated. They are never allowed to mix with men unless they are related, they aren't allowed to drive or work (unless it's as a teacher or a doctor), they can hardly go anywhere unchaperoned. They are not allowed to pick their own husbands, they are not even allowed to pick their own girlfriends... so their private worlds and thoughts are fertile ground for literature.

This book is an engaging and entertaining read, it is chick lit, but the enlightening kind. Pick it up and read it this summer, you'll enjoy the read.


The wonderful Gentle Reader from Shelflife tagged me with a meme which is both, helpful and fun, the Blogging Tips Meme. This is what you have to do:

When this is passed on to you, copy the whole thing, skim the list and put a * star beside those that you like. (Check out especially the * starred ones.)

Add the next number (1. 2. 3. 4. 5., etc.) and write your own blogging tip for other bloggers. Try to make your tip general.

After that, tag 10 other people. Link love some friends!

Just think- if 10 people start this, the 10 people pass it onto another 10 people, you have 100 links already!

1. Look, read, and learn. -

2. Be, EXCELLENT to each other. -

3. Don’t let money change ya! -

4. Always reply to your comments. *****-

5. Link liberally — it keeps you and your friends afloat in the Sea of Technorati. **-

6. Don’t give up - persistence is fertile. -

7. Give link credit where credit is due. ***-

8. Pictures say a thousand words and can usually add to any post.**-

9. Visit all the bloggers that leave comments for you - it's nice to know who is reading! **-

10. When commenting on others’ blogs, a few kind words go a long way. *–

11. Whenever possible try engaging your reader friends/bloggers with a question or a little survey,nothing like a little interaction. *-

Quite a few people have been tagged already, so I won't tag anyone specific, but please feel free to pick up the tag or else it dies here :(

Thank you Gentle Reader, this was fun to do!

Bonnie at Bonnie's Books is doing a great job of keeping the meme updated. You can check it out here


Asha said...

Life in Saudi Arabia for women is fascinating!!I must say what a waste of talent and beauty for these women who are suppressed to the core.It's really sad.
Remember a Saudi royalty girl Khalifa ran away with US soldier and had death threats few yrs ago? She got her green card,went to live with him in Vagas after the wedding and about 3 yrs she divorced bcos her husband says she parties too much in Vegas!!WOW!!
I love love the tips in that MeMe.I agree with each one of them!:))

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Asha!

Good Sunday morning to ya! Yes, I remember the girl Khalifa, I saw the couple on "Oprah", they were very lovey-dovey just like any newlyweds. So sad to hear they are divorced now, I guess their families are saying to them, "We told you so"!

Bonnie Jacobs said...

Thanks for visiting my blog and for mentioning it here.

Grace, who started the Blogging Tips Meme said we can see all the blogging tips by going here:

I think she is tracking ALL of the tips as they spread out from her to her ten, to the next ten-times-ten, etc.

Lotus Reads said...

Bonnie, you're welcome and thank you for the heads-up, I will be checking out Grace's blog soon.

Sanjay said...

Lotus, Can you tell us how you find these books about the most amazing topics and then distill them down for us so we come away informed and illuminated? Thank you for a wonderful post.
I loved reading about your take about this fascinating book. I did read some reviews about it and they have described it as chick lit as well. But I think there is a message here that goes well beyond that.

The story of Saudi women is alas not an urban myth, but it is also true that some women do function within this structure, but we probably truly don’t know what they think, but they have provided us a glimpse. Besides working as doctors and teachers, Saudi women also work as reporters, I say this based on an article in magazines like the New Yorker (Lawrence Wright) that did describe the experience of an American working at a Saudi newspaper (and he worked with 3 women reporters), but they were from the American writers perspective and it touched upon this issue although that was not the thrust of the article. link

The author as you said has to be commended in bringing this book and the stories of these women to the fore. I am amazed, gratified and also saddened that within that repressive regime these women have found a way to express themselves, but this is hardly a life that anyone should have to live. On a side note the US did go after the wrong country to bring “freedom” no? Also the notion that a western style democracy is a one size fits all solution is also very myopic. Sorry to digress there.

As Asha mentioned the case of the Saudi princess and the American is indeed sad.

On an unrelated note, the Saudi religious police (Muttawa) are recently being scrutinized for their harsh tactics. They were responsible for the beating deaths of two men in custody (This bit was on NPR, link here.
), and there was this horrific incident when they stopped firefighters from entering a girls school that was on fire because of religious reasons! But there is ways to go and I am not holding my breath on much happening.

Loved the tag and the points made are all valid. I loved #11 that is something you do really well. I can think of a few other bloggers who don’t respond to their readers and although they write about interesting things they just don’t get a bigger audience simply because they don’t interact. Well each one to their own I guess.
If it is ok, I will pass on the tag as I am afraid I may not have much to add to this fine list.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

Honestly, I can't remember where I first heard of this particular book, but I think it might have been in the British newspapers...and it is my pleasure to review them for everyone that reads this blog. I can't tell you how many recommendations, movie and books, I have borrowed from your blog and from others on my blogroll, the bogosphere contains a wealth of information and we are all so lucky to belong to this community.

Thank you for reminding me that Saudi women work as reporters too and according to the "Arab News", they also work as call center receptionists, medical transcriptionists and as executive secretaries with some firms. I guess things are changing and it does appear they are changing for the better. Thank you for the link as well, I will be looking at it soon.

Also the notion that a western style democracy is a one size fits all solution is also very myopic. Sorry to digress there.

So,so true! We have to realize different cultures require different forms of government. Democracy is not always the answer to every political question.

The religious police can be quite cruel! I used to have friends that flew for Saudi Arabian Airlines and they always had stories of their run-ins with the Muttawa who seemed to enjoy beating them with canes around their ankles if their hijabs were not long enough!

and there was this horrific incident when they stopped firefighters from entering a girls school that was on fire because of religious reasons! But there is ways to go and I am not holding my breath on much happening.

Oh my, I think I remember this very sad can they be foolish enough to take religious guidelines so literally and to these extremes!?! In that case, why don't they have platoons of female firefighters???

*blush* thank you for your kind words on the meme. I will understand if you pass on it Thank you for your very interesting take on this book and the Saudi customs.

Visit again when you can!

Sanjay said...

@Lotus. Thank you for your response and your comment about the other numerous jobs that Saudi women can hold.

I do think democracy still is the best form of governance just not sure the Western form suites everyone across the world since cultures and customs are so different and if they have to adapt it is a slow process.

That Lawrence Wright piece from the New Yorker is truly fascinating. It was for me thru his eyes my first look at the inside workings of a Saudi newspaper. Wright incidentally won a Pulitzer for his book on Al Qaeda.

yes and the muttawa are well known for their cruelty as you friends told you.

Anonymous said...

hi Lotus. you do know that i am one of your most avid readers, and that includes the comments. thank you for this review. coming from our wonderful, liberal society as we are lucky enough to do, i can see thrust that most of the comments will take, which is to murmur [well-deserved] sympathy towards these poor oppressed women.

what i was thinking, mainly, as i was reading this was an incident in spring. two of my very best friends invited me and the kids to join them on a week-long trip to Italy. and i could not go, even though i very desperately wanted to. it was just not the done. so there are social and cultural boundaries - they may be flexed [and flouted] with the passing of time, but we all have our boundaries. even in liberal and liberated societies.

yes, the voices of dissent are interesting, but these are the voices that are given prominence and are heard. i am sure that there are many women in the Kingdom who find their space and fulfill their potential in the peculiar circumstances that they are born into, and perhaps not all of them are struggling any more than any other person, whose gender puts her in a perpetual quest for self-expression and self-fulfillment in a world that happens to be populated by two disparate genders. i guess what i'm trying to say is that hey, it's not THAT bad. and it's not just the Muslim world that is plagued by parochial narrow-mindedness.

i have not read the book - but i will if you will be kind enough to lend it to me.

Sugarlips said...

Lotus, I bought this book yesterday and your review, like always is superb, makes me wanna grab the book right away and start reading :)

My cousin lives in Saudi Arabia, she told me about this book, the uproar it caused and got banned in SA.

P.S:Have you read "Prisoner of Tehran" ?

Stay Beautiful...!!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay

I can't wait to read that piece by Lawrence Wright, thank you so much for pointing me to it. Wright wrote "The Looming Tower" right? I remember reading your brilliant review of the book on your blog a while back!

Lotus Reads said...

@Nocturne ~ Thank you for this incredibly insightful comment Nocturne. You are right about there being so many social and cultural boundaries and we must respect them all whether we agree with them or not.

As you know, I have spent many years in the Middle East, but because I lived in Dubai, which is not as conservative as Saudi Arabia, I didn't notice too many restrictions on the women folk, however, when I did see Saudi women, they seemed perfectly content with their lives and indeed, many of them also felt proud that they were so protected by their menfolk, but a lot of the younger Saudi women feel that their society is stifling and suffocating and it for these young women that I feel so much sympathy.

And finally, it's true, it's not just the Muslim world...take the Hindu widows of Varanasi or the fact that suicides of Chinese women now make up half the world total of female readers we have the responsibility to discuss women's issues that we read about, no matter which country they take place in, and I am so glad you gave me your viewpoint.

You are so welcome to borrow the book. If you are going to be my side of town anytime soon, I'll pass it on to you, Let me know, ok?

Lotus Reads said...

@Sugarlips ~

Hi! So glad you have the book, would be great to discuss it with you after you're done reading it. No, I haven't read "Prisoner of Tehran" but my mom did and she enjoyed it, although I hesitate to use the word "enjoyed", but you know what I mean!

Anonymous said...

@Lotus: thanks, dear one. about those mutawwas - it's really a shame. personally, this i believe that repression always backfires, whether it is parental or societal. i wouldn't like my islam shoved down my throat.

Jyothsna said...

Lotus, how do you find such amazing books!! Staying in the ME has certainly changed my perspective of women here. Conservatism among women are certainly changing, atleast in Dubai. Many women want the veil off, which is a debated issue currently. Surprisingly, all this is confined to this region only, the moment they take a flight out of this place, they are in the fanciest of clothes - infact nobody would guess they are from the Arab world! Internet and bluetooth have certainly helped relationships!

hellomelissa said...

it's hard, as a woman who has spent her entire life in the liberal freedom of the US, to imagine a life filled with the restrictions placed on middle eastern women. it's just one more thing to be thankful for on a daily basis!

mookuthi said...

hi lotus, Thanks for the review. Completely agree with you that no BMW OR DIAMONDS will let me exchange my freedom for a life like that. Its sad and to some extent i realised what it was to be a saudi arabian woman when i was studying in canada. My friend from Saudi arabia who was then a phd student told me millions of stories. While she defended every single bit i just felt i would be suffocated to live like that.Your book review reminded of her and I am going to email her now. Thanks Lotus.

Lotus Reads said...

@nocturne ~ Hello again sweet one! Yes, the mutawwas really do go about their jobs with sometimes cruel and unecessary zealousness!

@Jyotsna ~ That's true! Many of them do seem to live double lives, don't they? I have been on flights from Dubai to London, and you're right, the hijab-clad women do seem to make an amazing transformation while enroute, they land in London looking as trendy as any woman who might have grown up in the western world. What I wonder however, is it just the clothes they change or do they also allow themselves to view the world a little differently on western soil? It would be interesting to ask them that question, don't you think?

Also, yes, the internet is bringing about huge changes. So many more Arab women are in the business of earning money through Internet-based companies where they only have to deal with men virtually.

kimananda said...

From back when I had a few Saudi students (teenage boys, and I wasn't in a position to ask them much about their culture), I have been fascinated by Saudi society, and especially by the role of women in it. Your review has got me ready to go out and get this one.

Lotus Reads said...

@Melissa ~ I agree, it is hard to imagine living without the freedoms we have, but many of those women simply cannot imagine a life that will allow them to make decisions for themselves, they are genuinely happy to have a man take care of the money, land and other important decisions and they are content to cook and look after house. It took me a while to understand that these women could actually experience genuine happiness to give their power away to a male member of the family, but such women do exist.

@mookuthi ~ Glad to have reminded you of your Saudi friend. I didn't know you studied in Canada, whereabouts were you? I noted you said your friend defended the way the system is....that in itself tells me that there are many women content with how things are at the moment in the Kingdom. Thanks for your input Mookuthi!

@Kimananda ~ So lovely to see you here! Yes, some day I would love to ask a Saudi man what he thinks of a culture that won't allow women to contribute to any of the decision-making. Does he not feel intimidated or burdened over by having to make all the big decisions himself? It's one thing to enjoy all the freedoms he does, but it's quite another to be so completely responsible for all the women folk in his family.

diyadear said...

i have heard abt how tough life for a woman is in soudi.. i hope this book brings some hope and help to the women there..

iliana said...

I also did the meme and didn't tag anyone - I think we are the last ones Lotus :)
Anyway, loved your review of this book. I hadn't heard of it but I'm interested now.

Gentle Reader said...

The Girls of Riyadh sounds really interesting! And thanks so much for doing the meme--love your suggestion, too :)

Radha said...

I did make friends with a girl living in Saudi while I was in Dubai (she had joined as an assistant in our Saudi office). Its wierd...the modern Saudi women are educated and travel abroad and see the lives of other women, and yet are content (or resigned) to their sheltered, protected & shackled life (and Riyadh is much worse than Jeddah).

Heather said...

A beautiful review! It really gave me a feel for the book, which I'm now tempted to read. :)

Lotus Reads said...

@Diya ~ Yes, I am glad the author shed light on this. Interestingly, she makes it quite clear that it is not the government that encourages the subordination of women, but the Saudi society itself.

@Iliana ~ Thank you! I always love finding out what goes on in other cultures and what we can learn from them.

@Radha ~ Yes, you would imagine that once they've been exposed to another world, be it through travel or education, that they would start to see that all is not well with the society they live in, but no, many women don't seem to even notice? Yes, and from reading the book you do get the impression that the people in Jeddah are quite different from those in Riyadh.

Heather ~ I so appreciate you taking the time to stop by to let me know. Thank you, I hope you enjoy the book!

Lotus Reads said...

@Gentle Reader ~ Thank you for tagging me...I think we've collected some awesome suggestions!

shnag said...

this has been an undying question of my life...what would have happened to me had i pushed through with my plans of settling in the east. would i have fallen on the same treatment most women experience with their hubs? for some reason i am so happy where i am...but if i were to back track my life 17 years...hmmm exciting.

this would be a very interesting read i am sure...

and "a year without made in china" i guess would be impossible!!!

Sanjay said...

she makes it quite clear that it is not the government that encourages the subordination of women, but the Saudi society itself
Lotus, Do you think the authors contention here maybe a bit simplistic or have a bit of a hidden purpose?

May I offer the possibility that she may have said this to avoid criticizing the Saudi Royal family too much? Also on what basis does she make that claim? I am just curious thats all. :-)

I can't recall where I read this but the Saudi royals have supposedly made a deal with the clerics where they (the royals) get to do their thing (and we know some of them live it up outside their kingdom) while the clerics get to impose their version of religion on the kingdom.

I could be wrong about this though. :-)

ML said...

Another fascinating read, Lotus. Your reviews always make me want to read the books immediately. Wonderful!

Happy Reader said...

Another wonderful review Lotus! I've been eyeing this book for quite a while now, and finally you gave me that nudge to pick it up :) Women oppression happens everywhere but it seems like they exist predominantly in the Muslim World. Whatever the reason could be, it needs to be condemned. I applaud the author for her commendable work and bringing to light what its like to live out there. It just reminds me of the many freedoms I enjoy everyday and make me feel grateful!

Lotus Reads said...

@Shnag ~ You've got me quite curious now...were you planning on living in the Middle East at one time?

@ml~ Hi and thank you! :) What are you reading now that you've got Harry Potter out of the way? :)

@Chitts ~ Thank you for your comment. I love how we can pick up a book like this and be immediately transported to a world that we can barely imagine. I am ever so grateful to authors that will share their culture with us through fascinating characters so that we put our lives aside for a while and live someone else's!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

You ask good questions. I have to clarify that the author doesn't say any of this in her book, but I heard her speak of this on an interview with the BBC Radio 4.

It is more than possible that she said what she did to be diplomatic,
but she also did say that sometimes change can be very slow to happen unless it's enforced and the example she gave was that of King Faisal (the previous monarch)and how he made it mandatory for girls to go to school even though it didn't sit well the more conservative families. I guess if King Faisal had just waited for it to happen on its own, Saudi girls would never have received an education.

The deal made between the monarchy and the clerics certainly sounds like more than just a conspiracy theory!

mookuthi said...

Hi lotus
I lived and studied in Halifax, Nova Scotia.Well, my friend belonged to the royal family:) So i understand why she defended everything she said. She caught me being surprised and shocked many timesand i would question her tima and again about her beliefs so did another canadian ..but she always defended it. A phd student who was not just above average but a brilliant student. This book is a must read for me now:)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Mookuthi

Wow, so you studied in Nova Scotia? I am told it is beautiful! Do you come back to visit often? Your friend, because she hailed from the Royal family,probably had the best of both worlds. I hope you like the book!

ML said...

Lotus - now that HP is out of the way, I'm spending most of my time sewing blankets. Oh, plus reading my serger manual which is definitely not entertaining! :)

Id it is said...

I am piqued by your review, ( there's a distinct flavor to each one write)and I will pick up a copy of this novel to read. However,I am a little wary of women writing about feminist themes these days, especially if it is in the genre of chic-lit. More often than not these writers exploit the raised interest levels of the reading public regarding womens issues in developing and/or Islamic countries. Many of these writings do a real disservice to some important women's issues that need some honest reckoning. Thanks to these novels, unfortunately being churned out in big numbers ('Shibanu' being my most recent read), the readers are developing an insensitivity and a casual disregard for some real problems that women across the world are dealing with.
Japanese mafia! Sounds interesting. The last memoir I read was the one about Geishas, and it was an enjoyable read.

Brown Paper said...

I was offered this book for review, and I passed because the reviews on amazon were pretty negative. Your post now makes me want to read it! I think I'll check it out of the library and give it a shot... A great review as always, Lotus!

Lotus Reads said...

@ml ~ I think it's wonderful you do what you do. YOu're helping so many people.

@Id ~ you make a wonderful point. Curiosity about women in the Muslim world has never been higher and true, this is a great time for novelists to capitalize on that, which is fine just so long as the real issues don't go unearthed. A lot of our Indian novelists are also guilty of catering to the western reader (with exoticism), I guess, in the end, it sometimes boils down to what sells. Going to check out "Shibanu" now.

@Brown Paper ~ Amazon readers often disagree with me, you'd think they'd get it right sometimes! :)

Seriously though, if you're looking for a literary novel, this is not it, however, it was interesting to read about life in Saudi Arabia from the perspective of four young Saudi women. It satisfied my inner anthropologist, also, I lived in the Middle East for a number of years and although I saw a lot of Saudi women, I never really managed to get a good insight into their world, this book was a window.

I hope you enjoy the read.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am working at a Publishing House from Romania and I'm wondering if you could help me find the original publisher of GIRLS OF RIYADH. Is there a clue on the page title? Thank you in advance for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I wanted to correct some information the story of a Saudi Princess running away with an American soldier is not true the girl in concern is a Bahraini princess who fell in love with U.S. Marine Jason and now they are divorced