Girls of Riyadh

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Overview

When Rajaa Alsanea boldly chose to open up the hidden world of Saudi women—their private lives and their conflicts with the traditions of their culture—she caused a sensation across the Arab world. Now in English, Alsanea’s tale of the personal struggles of four young upper-class women offers Westerners an unprecedented glimpse into a society often veiled from view. Living in restrictive Riyadh but traveling all over the globe, these modern Saudi women literally and figuratively shed traditional garb as they ...

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Overview

When Rajaa Alsanea boldly chose to open up the hidden world of Saudi women—their private lives and their conflicts with the traditions of their culture—she caused a sensation across the Arab world. Now in English, Alsanea’s tale of the personal struggles of four young upper-class women offers Westerners an unprecedented glimpse into a society often veiled from view. Living in restrictive Riyadh but traveling all over the globe, these modern Saudi women literally and figuratively shed traditional garb as they search for love, fulfillment, and their place somewhere in between Western society and their Islamic home.

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Editorial Reviews

Time
The daring debut by a young Saudi Arabian woman— "imagine Sex and the City, if the city in question were Riyadh
Los Angeles Times
[The] work of a brave, intelligent young woman. One of those rare books with the power to shake up an entrenched society.
Seattle Times
Engaging, enlightening, enjoyable.
Washington Post
A taboo-breaking novel.
San Francisco Chronicle
A rare glimpse into ordinary life for young women in Saudi Arabia.
Publishers Weekly

Four upper-class Saudi Arabian women negotiate the clash between tradition and the encroaching West in this debut novel by 25-year-old Saudi Alsanea. Though timid by American chick lit standards, it was banned in Saudi Arabia for its scandalous portrayal of secular life. Framed as a series of e-mails sent to the e-subscribers of an Internet group, the story follows an unnamed narrator who recounts the misadventures of her best friends, Gamrah, Lamees, Michelle and Sadeem-all fashionable, educated, wealthy 20-somethings looking for true love. Their world is dominated by prayer, family loyalty and physical modesty, but the voracious consumption of luxury goods (designer name dropping is muted but present) and yearnings for female empowerment are also part of the package. Lines like "the talk was as soft as the granules in my daily facial soap" or "Sadeem was feeling so sad that her chest was constricted in sorrow" appear with woeful frequency, and the details about the roles of technology, beauty and Western pop culture in the lives of contemporary Saudi women aren't revelatory. Readers looking for quality Arabic fiction have much better options. (July)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
While studying endodontics in Chicago, Saudi Arabian Alsanea published a first novel in Arabic about four very contemporary young Saudi women resisting -society's efforts to contain them. It was banned forthwith in her homeland and has since been sold to 11 countries. With a seven-city tour. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Alsanea's debut, which sparked controversy in her native Saudi Arabia, concerns four wealthy Muslim girlfriends who support each other in the quest for the perfect husband. An anonymous narrator relays the story via weekly emails to a chat group. The preoccupation with shopping and boy talk among the four central characters, who have been friends since schooldays, seems familiar at first, but the separation of the genders, the veils and the tinted glass soon indicate that different rules apply here. Sadeem gets engaged to Waleed but makes the mistake of permitting him to "cross the line" before the marriage is finalized, and he "divorces" her. Gamrah, married to Rashid, can't understand his coldness toward her until she discovers he has had a lover all along. Gamrah too ends up divorced, and pregnant. Michelle falls for Faisal, but his mother objects to her family so there will be no wedding. Lamees gets involved with her Shiite friend's brother, until the Religious Police catch them. These four privileged members of the "velvet class" enjoy expensive cars, first-class flights and plastic surgery (which is against the laws of Islam) but are still subject to the marriage market, where strict tradition holds sway: arranged unions, "pure" females and jealously protective men. Lamees succeeds in making a love match, but Sadeem experiences a second, much deeper disappointment before settling for someone who loves her more than she loves him. Michelle takes revenge on Faisal, attending his wedding looking far lovelier than the bride. Perfunctory storytelling attracts greater interest because of its unusual origins.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143113478
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/24/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 223,593
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

RAJAA ALSANEA grew up in Riyadh, the daughter of a family of doctors. She intends to return to Saudi Arabia after attaining a degree in Endodontics. Two weeks after the release of Girls of Riyadh in Arabic, the book became a #1 bestseller. Rajaa is twenty-sixyears- old, and this is her first novel.
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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

Through a series of emails on a Yahoo subscription list, an unnamed narrator relates the adventures of her four young friends as they confront the challenges of adult life in the privileged society of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. While the urbane clique shares fashion tips, the occasional sip of champagne, and a dream of true love, each of the girls has her own individual story: Gamrah has moved to the United States with her new husband in a union their families have arranged. Lonely and confined to a Chicago apartment, she wonders if she made the right choice. Her best friend, the romantic business student Sadeem, is fixed up with Waleed, a handsome civil servant from a prominent lineage, and they are soon caught up in a romantic whirlwind that might be a bit too intoxicating for their own good. Michelle, the half-American member of the group, is at the mall when she meets her own seemingly perfect paramour—the one man who can truly understand her Western values—but who, unfortunately, comes from a less tolerant family. Rebellious, headstrong medical student Lamees finds herself attracted to the brother of a Shiite classmate, even though the relationship may jeopardize her friendships and her freedom.

What Gamrah, Sadeem, Michelle, and Lamees soon learn is that falling in love might be easy, but finding lasting romance in Riyadh is a much more difficult proposition. As sophisticated as they are, they, like all Saudi women, must contend with their culture's conflicting attitudes about sexuality and its deeply rooted class and religious prejudices—social pressures that can doom even the most auspicious-seeming match. Nothing seems to turn out exactly as they planned, but as the girls of Riyadh struggle to maintain their moral integrity in a modern world, they learn to find happiness on their own terms.

Originally published in Arabic in Lebanon in 2005 and now translated into English for the first time, Alsanea's debut novel exposes the private world of Saudi Arabia's most cloistered citizens to uncover young women who ultimately share the same hopes and dreams as their Western counterparts. Her honest portrayal of controversial subject matter made Alsanea a literary sensation and a public enemy, sparking fierce debate in the media and online discussion groups. Addictively readable yet deeply political, Girls of Riyadh has been called the first modern Arab novel and its comic but poignant accounts of contemporary Saudi life make it an instant classic.

ABOUT RAJAA ALSANEA

Rajaa Alsanea grew up in Riyadh, the younger of two daughters in a family of doctors and dentists. She is currently living in Chicago, where she is pursuing a degree in endodontics. She intends to return to Saudi Arabia after obtaining her degree. She is twenty-five years old.

A CONVERSATION WITH RAJAA ALSANEA

Q. You have structured Girls of Riyadh as a modern epistolary novel, a series of emails from an unidentified narrator. What inspired you to tell the story in this manner?

I used Internet as a vehicle in my novel to portray the impact of modern communication tools on the Saudi society in the past ten years. In the conservative Saudi society, the Internet, cell phones, and Bluetooth can be as important, if not more crucial, than face-to-face communication. The narrator in Girls of Riyadh is a well enlightened twenty-first century young woman who lives in Saudi. She is smart, motivated, and knows exactly what she and her friends are missing, but yet not strong enough to face the whole society by exposing her true identity.

Q. The narrator responds to hate mail and protests from readers that find her subject matter offensive. It's almost as if you were predicting the response to your book. Could you have anticipated the amount of attention the book has received?

When I wrote the story I didn't want the fear of being judged or criticized to affect the plot. Therefore, I was very involved and occupied by the writing process. What took over was the style or the general theme, how characters would react to each other and where the story should go. I knew that if one had sent such emails in real life that would be the predictable response of the Saudi society. However, I did not anticipate that my book would spread as fast as mass emails would. I had my first interview with a Saudi newspaper just the day after my book was released in Lebanon. It seemed like my book was something that Saudis have been longing for, but were never ready to put into action.

Q. In its original form, the novel was written in a mixture of classical and modern Arabic dialects, but these subtleties are lost in the English version. What, if anything, would an English-speaking reader miss in this translation?

At first I was hesitant to translate my book to any other language because of the importance of the different dialects, levels, techniques used in it. But as a girl who grew up reading translated novels from all around the world I thought I owe it to book lovers everywhere to translate my book. Arabic is a very literary language and translating Arabic books to other languages is usually less successful than translating books written in other languages into Arabic. The fact that the majority of Arab critics considered the way I have written my book a breakthrough in Arabic literature made me believe that even if parts of the book were lost in translation, it will still be good enough in other languages. I am glad I made that decision because there aren't many Arabic novels translated to other languages and this is part of why people know so little about us.

Q. The scene where Lamees, Michelle, Gamrah, and Sadeem dress in abayas and drive around the city in a rented car seems especially bold. Is this a common practice for young Saudi women looking to get around the laws that prohibit them from driving?

To some extent; when there are rules there are ways to get around them. And in Saudi there are numerous laws, both religious and social. The majority of Saudis adhere to religious laws like praying, fasting, not drinking, etc. But when it comes to social laws like females not driving or men and women not falling in innocent love, the young generation is starting to question and refuse such time honored laws.

Q. What are some of your literary influences? How do you classify Girls of Riyadh in terms of genre?

I am happy that I created my own genre with this book and hope to keep it this way for the coming books. I grew up reading Hemingway, Mum, and Hugo. My favorite author is Ghazi Al-Gusaibi, author of the Freedom Flat and many other books that are not in English yet, unfortunately.

Q. This book offers a vivid portrait of modern life in Saudi Arabia, one that Westerners don't often get. Now that the book is in translation, what are you hoping to communicate to Western audiences? Are there any myths or misconceptions you are trying to dispel?

We are victims of stereotyping. There is an Arabic proverb that says, “One is the enemy of what he does not know.” I did not write the book for Western readers. This is why it is very authentic and genuine even after translation. My Western audiences will look at Saudi through a keyhole and they will be able to connect with those who live at a totally different society, and yet have the same dreams, emotions, and goals.

Q. Two of your characters, Sadeem and Michelle, find themselves caught between cultures, unable to feel entirely at home either in Riyadh or in Europe or the States. Now that you have lived in America, what has been your own experience? Is there always a sense of losing touch with home or has the exposure to Western culture strengthened your Saudi identity?

I think that living within any culture makes you scrutinize its positive and negative aspects. Growing up in Saudi I was fascinated by what I see of the American society on TV and living here in the U.S. made me appreciate my homeland more. Both societies have taught me a lot and just like the Girls of Riyadh I am trying to find my own terms and create my own environment for myself; an environment that treasures religion and family and rejects unnecessary social or racial traditions.

Q. Your narrator says that “Our Saudi society resembles a fruit cocktail of social classes in which no class mixes with another unless absolutely necessary and even then only with the help of a blender!” Indeed, some of your characters find their chances at love thwarted by class divisions. In your experience, are class mores more restrictive than gender roles in Saudi Arabia?

Class is more restrictive than gender especially nowadays. Maybe fifty years ago men were privileged much more than women and so they were not under any sort of restrictions. Now, equality between genders is happening slowly, and both are victims of the social restrictions of class, tribe, and religious views.

Q. In the novel the Valentine's Day holiday is officially prohibited but celebrated on the sly, Gamrah covertly gets a rhinoplasty, and Lamees gets caught smuggling American videotapes in school—all infractions that would seem tame to a Western audience but which, it could be argued, have the potential to erode traditional Saudi culture. How do you distinguish cultural exchange from destructive influence?

Personally, I would say that we need to allow cultural exchange to freely express before we are able to decide what is destructive and what is beneficial. Censorship is a myth and it does not protect the society from outer governments. We realized now as Saudis that there are encouraging cultural exchange through scholarships to other countries, media, and the Internet. The society is opening up to other cultures and learning to respect different views and King Abdullah plays a big role in that.

Q. All of your characters are intent on finding “true love.” How has does this idea clash with the ideals of their society? Do you think there's a way the two things can ever be reconciled?

True love is hard to find everywhere. On top of that, many of the true love stories cannot survive under social pressure. There is no ideal situation in love and unless the society and families are less idealistic, love will not be able to thrive easily in our land. When Saudi was only deserts and farms, people were falling in love and living a much easier life than we are nowadays. It is surprising how idealism can not just restrict us from moving forward, but can pull us backwards too.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Gamrah's mother believes that “woman is to man as butter is to sun.” Do all the men in this novel have a corrupting influence on the women who love them?
     
  • In what ways are Michelle, Gamrah, Lamees, and Sadeem restricted by tradition and how do they work around it?
     
  • This story of young women looking for love has been compared to books like Bridget Jones's Diary and Sex and the City. In what ways does Girls of Riyadh's geographic and social context set it apart from its Western counterparts?
     
  • When she discovers her husband's secrets, Gamrah desperately attempts to hold her marriage together. Do you think she is a victim of circumstance or is she guilty of dishonesty in her own right?
  • What role does the widow Um Nuwayyir play for the girls? Is she a positive or negative model for them?
     
  • What are Michelle, Sadeem, Gamrah, and Lamees's individual relationships to religion and religious law? How do they differ?
     
  • After a couple of romantic disappointments, Michelle realizes she can never replace her true love with another man. Do you agree with this conclusion and do you view her ending as a happy one?
  • Does this novel have a moral point of view and if so, what is it?
     
  • During the scene where Lamees graduates from medical school, the narrator describes her joy of “having it all”: love, a career, a new baby on the way. How did Lamees manage to pull off this feat—was it skill or simply luck?
     
  • The narrator says early on that every one of her friends “lives huddled in the shadow of a man, or a wall, or a man who is a wall.” Is this true for all of the characters, and is it true even at the end of the story?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 30 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 31 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2008

    A glimpse of another culture...

    This book was very hard for me to put down. It captured me by both the happenings in the lives of all of the girls, but even more so on the univeral thoughts about love and freedom. I appreciated the differences and similarities between my western culture and the Saudi culture. Read Snow Flower, too, for a less affluent view of a male dominated society, as well as A Thousand Splendid Suns. There is much to learn about life through many cultures from around the world. I am grateful this book was published in English.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2015

    i am 18 years old and this book is amazing! its the kind of book

    i am 18 years old and this book is amazing! its the kind of book you can read 3 times and still get the chills! I honestly carry this book with me everywhere I go!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2013

    Brilliant!

    This book is awesome. I loved the writing style and the characters were interesting and had very different personalities. And some parts are funny.

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  • Posted June 27, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    I loved this book! Read it on a Nook, and I couldn't put it down

    I loved this book! Read it on a Nook, and I couldn't put it down. Definitely worth reading. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2011

    Had me hooked

    This book is fantastic. I loved the characters.

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  • Posted April 11, 2011

    cultural enlightment

    A DEFINITE read! I learned so much about Saudi traditions. Exactly what I was looking for. Wish it did not end. I would take notes on the characters.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2010

    Free your Mind

    Girls of Riyadh was an awakening story. Although Saudi women (and men) live life through traditions, they crave the same friendships and love all the world crave. I highly recommend this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Enlightening!

    This book is a quick read and hard to put down once you start reading. It was insightful about the reality of Arab culture and an excellent book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted December 21, 2009

    Great book!

    I thought this book was awesome. The author did a great job of defining her characters and inviting the reader into the lives of her characters. The author gave the reader a sense of understanding. When I was reading the book I felt as though I was there during the different plots and events. This would be a great book for a women's book club. Each week you would have something new and interesting to discuss!

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  • Posted December 6, 2009

    A Rare Glimpse into the Lives of Saudi Women

    Girls of Riyadh is, more or less, a Saudi take on Sex in the City - only with more substance.

    Rajaa al-Sanea captivates readers with this story of a small group of upper-middle-class/upper-class friends experiencing what most western college-age girls do, only in Saudi Arabia.

    By American standards, the issues addressed - education, career, love, marriage, sex and homosexuality - are timid. Given the story's setting and the author's national home, however, it's altogether daring. In fact, Girls of Riyadh is banned in Saudi Arabia.

    This book provides a rare glimpse into the lives of Saudi women. It's definitely worth a read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted November 21, 2009

    Inside Glimpse of Young Saudi Women

    This is the story of the lives of 4 middle class young Saudi women. It tells the story of their lives and loves in the engaging and original writing style of an email list. I enjoyed reading it and seeing what some women of another culture go through and sometimes how universal things can be. Bravo to the author for stepping out and showing us these characters.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2009

    This book opens your eyes to the Arabic culture traditions in Saudi Arabia

    This book opens your eyes to the Arabic culture traditions in Saudi Arabia. This is a story of 4 Saudi women looking for love and how their culture acts against it. I enjoy reading women's fiction and how women search for love, but this book put a new spin on it. We feel what these women feel and it's sad what their culture considers "risky." In America, we wouldn't even blink an eye. It took awhile to get into the fact that the author was writing her story in a "Yahoo Group" and you need to almost write down the character's names with side notes to follow. The names are very similar and sometimes it's hard to follow the translation, but overall I enjoyed it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2009

    a new low in boredom...

    Different culture.. yes. That was the only thing good about this book. I found the writing juvenile and sluggish and weak. Way too many characters with names that all sound the same. Okay, so the email concept was different. But it's been done before. I struggled through the book. It was a constant battle to keep awake. "Why bother?" I'd think. "Life is too short." Finished it only because it was the book club's choice for this month. If it was still winter, I'd use the book as kindling in my fireplace.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2008

    A reviewer

    I read this book, and even though I thought it was pretty insightful on the ways of the middle east, I really was kind of turned off by the way society seems to work over there. The ways of marrige even if its without love probably was the thing that got me most. I give this author alot of credit for going agenst her rules I guess you would say, of her culture by writing this book, I was very sad and dissapointed in the ending. The way she end up with her cousins. To me it was too...strange

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2008

    Wonderful

    The book gave a peak into another culture, that we,as Americans, have a lot of misconceptions about.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2007

    Different - an Exotic Setting

    A decent first effort with an interesting format of e-mail messages to depict the trials and tribulations of finding love in Saudi Arabia.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 31 Customer Reviews

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