Book cover: Girls of RiyadhOn the surface of it, this is exactly the sort of book I hate: chick lit, in which smart, independent girls define themselves almost entirely through their (much-imagined) love lives. But I didn’t hate it. It was a fascinating, tempestuous peek into a world I may never understand: Saudi Arabia.

Rajaa Alsanea is unusual: she’s a dentist with a bestseller to her name that’s banned in her home country (Saudi Arabia). She states in her introduction to the English edition that she never expected it to be translated, and her intention was never to talk to women outside the kingdom. Reading it, I had to battle from the start to keep my Western attitudes and prejudices leashed, not to mention my feminist leanings and my issues with male authority.

Sadeem, Gamrah, Lamees and Mashael are ‘velvet’ class girls in their first year of university: rich, privileged, and constantly brushing up against the strictures of Saudi society. They accept the teachings of Islam without question, but they long for love and hope to find men of their own choosing who will accept them as the free-spirited thinkers that they try to be.

Told through a series of emails (it is unclear whether this is merely a framing device or the voice of Alsanea herself, although I assume the former) whose author is castigated from the start – in much the way Alsanea was attacked following publication – by those who considered this candid portrayal of young women subversive and unIslamic.

Reading as an Englishwoman – even one with some (very limited) knowledge of Islamic culture – it’s difficult not to judge. Some of the things the girls take for granted are horrifying: the terrifying stalking that is substituted for meaningful contact by the gender-segregated youth (the scene of young men in cars trying to push their phone numbers on girls in other cars gave me the shudders); the control and judgement of the older women that reinforces the status quo; the ease with which Saudi men can dispose of unwanted wives, and the status of these women thereafter; the rigid control of the society (and the religious police); and the supreme arrogance of the ‘only true Islamic nation in the world’.

The things that outrage the email readership within the novel (and presumably the Saudi establishment in reality) seem almost trivial to a Western audience, just as the fictional email author’s rebuttals preach (however unintentionally) to a Western choir. The girls drink (once or twice), smuggle Western movies into school, smoke a shisha (once), and carry on clandestine relationships that amount to deep-of-night phone calls and text messages as any personal contact is almost impossible in the kingdom. There are rare meetings at a chaperone’s house, and a lot of talk about breaking taboos that none of them ever achieve.

Because, inevitably, the sheltered girls are so helplessly naive. Every broken heart is a car crash you see coming from the start: traditional Gamrah, desperate to please but hopelessly underprepared for her wedding night; sweet Sadeem, who is divorced by her fiancé (legally but not publicly her husband) because of her willingness to accede to his advances (it’s worth noting that the book only hints at what she may have allowed, which may well be much less than I read into the suggestion); half-American Michelle, tainted goods because of her mother, not fit for a true velvet class groom. Only bold Lamees, the Internet adventurer, is smart enough to keep her heart under wraps; although only she is arrested by the religious police for being found in a public place with a man she is not related to.

On the surface of it, this is exactly the sort of book I hate: chick lit, in which smart, independent girls define themselves almost entirely through their (much-imagined) love lives. The book is entirely given over to their dreams, heartbreak and compromises. But I didn’t hate it. I swept through it rapidly, intrigued by the conflict between the girls’ aspirations and their situation, and fascinated by this rare glimpse into a society I know little of. I lived on the outskirts of a Bedouin village in Jordan for a summer (whilst on a dig) and was invited to the wedding of a terrified teenage girl to a much older general (one of the more heartbreaking experiences of my life). This was another peek into a world that I can never fully understand.

Ultimately, it is a paean to the right to make your own choices; to abandon social prejudices (or at least some of them; the section dealing with a Sunni/Shiite friendship remains awkwardly underdeveloped – crossing this religious boundary seems to remain beyond the pale); and a rallying cry to recognise the value of a smart, independent woman rather than abandon her for an uneducated, sheltered girl who can be dominated. A searing moment – a critic writing in to question why a man wouldn’t marry another man if he was looking for that sort of relationship. Ouch.

But it is worth noting that it focuses strictly on a class showered with money and privilege; girls who you see shopping in Knightsbridge and New York. Compared with less well-off girls, the friends are bemoaning the cultural equivalent of #firstworldproblems – I was reminded of A Thousand Splendid Suns precisely because there are no similarities here. Regardless, this was a good read and I’m glad I finally got to it.

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