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Girls of Riyadh


Girls of Riyadh

GIRLS OF RIYADH is being referred to as "Saudi-style Sex and the City" --- a secret look into the lives of professional women as they search for love. But this love story is set in the conservatively Islamic Riyadh as opposed to the melting pot of Manhattan. Riyadh girls dance, eat McDonald's and shop, but only with each other. Their link to the male world is through cell phones and online chat rooms, and even then they are not allowed to choose with whom they can spend the rest of their lives.

Rajaa Alsanea's book follows the storylines of four fictional women, which is a style found in many contemporary novels: HOW THE GARCIA GIRLS LOST THEIR ACCENTS, DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YA-YA SISTERHOOD, THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS, and, of course, SEX AND THE CITY. In all of these books, four women's lives interchange throughout the pages. Some are more conservative, some are more liberal, some are bold, some are shy --- but all represent different faculties of the feminine experience. When each set of four is taken as a whole, the female reader is more apt to be able to identify with at least one of the characters.

In this particular novel, Gamrah is the most conservative, Sadeem is the hopeless romantic, Michelle brazenly questions her society's restrictions, and Lamees is the one who succeeds in getting exactly what she wants. At first it's hard to keep the characters, and their various love interests, straight. But as time goes on and the characteristics of the individual personalities are revealed, their intertwining story becomes clear and fascinating.

What makes this so much different from the chick-lit that has come before is the setting. Alsanea holds her own as a writer, but her background is what sets her apart. As Americans we are generally unfamiliar with the goings-on of the Saudi Arabian elite. Even some of the elite themselves aren't very familiar with what goes on behind closed doors, or at least they aren't open to talk about it freely. Thus, while SEX AND THE CITY blazed a trail for American women to be open about sex, GIRLS OF RIYADH blazed a trail for not just openness about sex but about love, religion and the limitations presented by family and society.

The only thing that feels disjointed about GIRLS OF RIYADH is the unnamed narrator, who tells the story about her friends through emails sent out to a listserv every Friday after prayers. The narrator doesn't seem to serve much purpose, minus responding to hate mail and praise that she receives after every post. It is as if Alsanea wants to show how controversial her book is to someone who might question that fact, but the story alone educates the reader as to the sensitive nature of the subject matter. Instead, the narrator's responses seem only to break the pattern of the story itself and provide an unwanted interruption to its flow.

Alsanea is not just a writer but a graduate student in dentistry, juggling her love of literature with a respectable Saudi career. First published in Lebanon, the novel was banned in Saudi Arabia and circulated through black market copies. After four months she got permission for it to be legally distributed there, and now the rights have been sold to 12 countries. Alsanea's wisdom and insight into the female experience seem surreal. She captures the core, universal truths of the complications in finding and holding a life partner. Her characters provide wisdom to each other that are astounding in their accuracy, and Alsanea thus speaks for countless women everywhere.

Even though this novel rallies against arranged marriages, GIRLS OF RIYADH is not about abandoning one's heritage and culture. Instead, it's about finding fulfillment within that culture. It's a critical look at Riyadh society, but by women who wish that it and their personal goals could coincide. It's also a look back in time for Americans --- to a time when women lacked the freedom they have now. However, throughout the pages we find that Riyadh and America are not so different after all. The dress is different and the customs are different, but the individuals under those robes and adhering to those customs are just the same as we are.

The character with the most success, and who is the most similar to Alsanea herself, is the one who is able to embrace both religion and love, both education and relationship. Though Alsanea admits that such success in Saudi is not generally as high as 1 in 4, it gives hope and empowerment to those of us, in every country, looking for love.

Reviewed by ShannonLuders-Manuel ( on January 22, 2011

Girls of Riyadh
by Rajaa Alsanea

  • Publication Date: July 5, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The
  • ISBN-10: 1594201218
  • ISBN-13: 9781594201219