The spicy new novel "Riyad Girls" is Saudi Arabia's version of "Sex and the City."
By KSENIA SVETLOVA
'After signing the wedding contract, Walid started coming over to the house, sometimes with Sadeem's father's knowledge, and often without. He was coming after the evening prayer and rarely left her room before 2 a.m. Soon the first kiss occurred and with each visit things were getting hotter. It was Sadeem's decision to postpone the wedding party for after her finals, although Walid was rushing her to have the wedding as soon as possible. Happy and glowing, Sadeem was also feeling a bit guilty: she made her beloved Walid wait a few more months! Was it fair to him? Walid was getting impatient... that night she made up her mind. Sadeem decided to please her beloved: the lights were dim, soft music streamed from the invisible stereo systemâ€¦ The girl came to the door wearing nothing much other than a red lacy negligee that revealed more than it hidâ€¦"
Sadeem, Lamees, Michel and Qamra are four girlfriends in their early 20s who are looking for love...in Riyadh, one of the most conservative cities in Saudi Arabia.
Banat al-Riyadh or "Riyadh Girls" is the first book by 24-year-old Rajaa as-Sanaa, who is a resident of Riyadh herself and a daughter to one of the richest and most powerful families in town.
In Sanaa's book, the familiar format of four girlfriends chatting about love, men, sex, marriage and divorce has been transplanted into a particularly exotic ground: Saudi Arabia. There, sexes are segregated not only in school, but also in the streets, in the banks and in the malls, and the harsh laws of the country make flirtation and romance almost impossible. And still, Rajaa Sanaa's revealing book deals with the most restricted taboos in the country - homosexuality, premarital sex and the discriminations of the divorcees and social casts.
Is it the Saudi version of Sex and the City?
SANAA'S heroine, Lamees, who comes from an ultra-orthodox Wahhabi family, falls in love with Ali, a young Shi'ite and goes on a date with him despite threats from the "morality police." Sadeem, who is convinced of her fianc Walid's love, loses her virginity before the couple marries. Walid, shocked by her sexual boldness, decides to annul the marriage.
Qamra and Rashid are forced into an arranged marriage, which soon turns out to be a nightmare for the new bride. Qamra finds out that her husband is involved with a Japanese woman whom he is not allowed to marry. Already pregnant, Qamra returns to her parent's house to live a life of misery.
And Michel, who is half-American, sneaks away from her house disguised in men's clothing so she can drive with her boyfriend to a shopping mall. Unfortunately, not being a "genuine" Saudi, Michel cannot marry her boyfriend, son to a wealthy and noble family. Nuri, a teenage boy who is know to all by the name of Nutert due to his sexual preferences, is beaten by his father who suspects that Nuri is a homosexual.
The book tells the tales of its four heroines in 50 short chapters. Each chapter is an e-mail sent out by the narrator to a popular Arabic Yahoo! blog, in which she discloses her best friends' secret romantic encounters.
Banat al-Riyadh was published by Saki Publishing in Beirut and became a huge hit all over the Arab-speaking world overnight. More than 50,000 copies were sold in the Beirut Expo and today the 3rd edition is in print. In September 2005 the book was also translated into French, German and Italian.
Written by a Saudi, the book is officially banned in Saudi Arabia, although it is possible to have a copy brought from Cairo or Beirut, or even to find one on the Internet. There are 328,000 entries for the book title in Google, where you can find multiple blogs - in English and Arabic - where the book is heatedly discussed by readers. Many of them believe that Banat al-Riyadh is a very true and honest picture of life in Saudi Arabia, and accurately describes the many contradictions, taboos and hypocrisy that rules in the kingdom.
Though difficult to speak with Saudis and gather their reactions due to the impermeable nature of their society, these Internet blogs provide insight on how much attention the book has garnered.
ONE blogger who liked the novel wrote that while "it does tell the story of many Saudi girls... maybe the name of the novel was not quite appropriate, [because] not all of the girls of Riyadh are living like that... to me, the novel was good and funny at many parts and sad at the same time."
Another blogger said although the novel is "not meant to be an intellectual read," they found it "interesting" nonetheless, and asserted that "the point of all this was just to show people what many Saudi girls go through."
There were others, of course, who rushed to criticize Banat al-Riyadh, some without even reading the book. One angry mother - who didn't read the book - wrote in a letter published in the Al-Riyadh daily newspaper that she worried the novel would badly portray their city and their "beloved kingdom." She complained of the "media frenzy" created by the novel and expressed concern about her own daughter's exposure to such literature.
The letter was later cited on one of the popular Saudi blogs, and hundreds of bloggers advised the mother "not to judge the book by its cover."
"I feel a lot of care for the writer in your letter, but if you'd find the time to actually read the book, you should see that in no way does it shame the girls in Riyadh. The book is well written and really fascinating," says a post published by one blogger.
Others brought up the contradiction between the imposed moral laws in the country and the obvious disrespect for these laws at home and abroad. One of the scenes in the book describes drinking champagne in alcohol-free Saudi Arabia.
"It is a known fact that on weekends many Saudis go to neighboring Bahrain and buy tons of alcohol, which they bring home and drink on the beach. And what about those men who forbid their wives to go to the mall alone but spend all their free time with prostitutes in Dubai?" asks another blogger, who chose to name himself "as-Saddiq" (the virtuous one).
After going through a few hundred of such posts from various blogs, I came to a conclusion that the majority of the bloggers approve of the book, relate to it, enjoy it and fully support the young author, who says she never expected the book to be such a success.
In an interview with the Saudi Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, Sanaa said her purpose in writing the book was an aspiration for a change.
"My concerns are identical to those of many other women in Saudi Arabia. In fact, I aspire to be the first to signal the beginning of change. These are social changes that are not connected to religion. That is why I am not anxious about discussing them through my writings. Silence is evil. I hate negativity and refuse to wait for others to act on my behalf. It is my duty to myself and to my children in the future. I fear I will mellow out with age and lose my motivation and courage, as has happened with others."
The introduction to the 319-page book is written by the famous Saudi poet and former minister of labor Ghazi al Gosaibi.
"When the curtain is removed, the scene is exposed to us with all its funny and sad elements, with all the details unknown to those outside this enchanted world," Gosaibi writes.
Banat al-Riyadh had a visibly shocking effect on conservative Saudi society, where women still cannot vote, are forbidden to drive, have to be escorted by their male relatives everywhere, can be forced into marriages and if unfaithful, can be stoned to death.
"Men are the guardians of the women," according to the Quran (4:34), and the Saudi society follows this ancient formula meticulously, although many believe that Saudi tribal traditions often contradict other instructions of the Quran.
BUT RAJAA Sanaa was not the first to reveal the well-guarded Saudi secrets. Last April, the world was horrified by the photos of Rania Al-Baz, the popular Saudi TV announcer who was brutally beaten by her husband. Al-Baz opened her hospital ward to reporters and told her story, which is also the story of thousands of Saudi women.
"I want to use what happened to me to draw attention to the plight of abused women in Saudi Arabia," she told the local newspaper Arab News shortly after surgery to repair one of 13 fractures to her face. According to hospital security, the beautiful Al-Baz starred on Oprah after recovering, talking openly about the ills of the society and the mistreatment of women.
Last year, when the first-ever municipal elections in the country took place, the question of women voting was discussed by the Shura council, which later decided that it's "still premature to let women vote."
But many Saudi women think the time has come, and try to achieve as much progress as possible despite the harsh and hostile environment. In an extremely surprising development, a Saudi businesswoman was elected to the board of directors of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce last November.
Rajaa Sanaa's book sheds light on many contradictions of her society that paralyze the life of the average Saudi woman.
And according to Hussein, a 33-year old Saudi male from Jeddah, the book is just as popular among males as it is among females.
"I have excellent connections with my sisters, so I know all their hardships and problems, but many of my friends were completely astonished by this book. They told me they never suspected the emotional distress that our sisters and wives are living daily," Hussein told The Jerusalem Post. Growing up in Saudi Arabia and then living in Lebanon, he believes women are not the only victims of the harsh and unfair laws and traditions in the kingdom.
"I identify very much with the story of Lamees and her Shi'ite boyfriend Ali - this is our version of Romeo and Juliet. As a matter of fact, I had an almost identical experience. I fell in love with our neighbor, a beautiful and intelligent girl. We talked on the phone, wrote e-mails and shared hopes and dreams, but we couldn't marry since she is Sunni and I'm a Shi'ite. She is married today and I still think of her," says Hussein, who remains single despite pressure from his family to get married and "live a normal life."
"It's impossible for me to marry a foreigner, and I can't marry a Saudi, since our traditions forbid us to meet and get to know each other before the wedding. My sister will show me her picture and describe her character! That's why many young Saudis were enchanted by this book by Rajaa Sanaa. It tells the truth."
Banat al-Riyadh is written in a mixture of literary Arabic and the colloquial language, which makes it easy for young readers to understand the book and relate to it. When criticized for using the colloquial language, which deviates from the standard literary Arabic, Rajaa Sanaa points to literary giants like Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, Yousef Idrees and Abbas al-Aqqad.
"It is just my first novel, give a young writer a little break," she says.
So the language might not be perfect, the style perhaps is too simplistic, but the young writer succeeded in her primary goal - to accurately depict modern Saudi society, to unveil some of the most well-hidden secrets of the kingdom and to make many Saudi men and women understand they are not alone in their pain. This daring book was a true revelation for many in the kingdom and the Arab world.
Perhaps it is another step that the traditional society is taking on its way to reforming and democratizing. Torn between ancient traditions and ultra-modern reality, unable to stop the infiltration of the global culture into the kingdom, Saudi society will soon have to make up its mind. Until then, Saudi youth will seek inspiration in fiction literature like Banat al-Riyadh.
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