From Saudi Arabia, Chick Lit Without the Racy Bits

When Girls of Riyadh, a first novel by a young Saudi woman, then-23-year-old Rajaa Alsanea, was first published in 2005,

When Girls of Riyadh, a first novel by a young Saudi woman, then-23-year-old Rajaa Alsanea, was first published in 2005, it created a firestorm of controversy across the Arab world. The book, which tells the intertwining life stories of four young Saudi women who have been friends since their school days, garnered praise from Arab intellectuals while eliciting howls of disapproval from regional conservatives who were scandalized by its frankness. Girls of Riyadh discusses topics including homosexuality, premarital romance, class and sectarian issues, and alcohol consumption in Saudi Arabia, and it is one of the first books to appear in the Arab world that does so from the perspective of a female college student.

Next month, the English translation of Girls of Riyadh will be released in the United States by the Penguin Press, and though Ms. Alsanea seems unconcerned—perhaps even a bit bemused—by the horrified reactions of some of her countrymen, she admits to a bit of anxiety about how American audiences will receive her book.

“When you criticize your own country for an audience in your own country, that’s one thing,” said Ms. Alsanea, who is presently studying endodontics in Chicago. “But when you criticize your country for an audience outside your own country, it becomes something else entirely. When I write for an Arab audience, I feel pretty confident that they’ll know when I’m joking and when I’m trying to make a serious point.”

Ms. Alsanea said that she has loved living in the United States over the past year, but that the experience has also made her much more sensitive to heightened tensions between the West and the Arab world.

In such a climate, she said, it has been disconcerting to realize that her book is one of very few novels translated from Arabic—and one of even fewer to come out of Saudi Arabia—to find a mass-market American audience.

“It’s a big responsibility to be representing my country like this,” said Ms. Alsanea in a phone interview, speaking rapid, flawless English and sounding much younger than her 25 years. “Just being one of the few books that are translated feels like a huge responsibility. How can a single book speak for a whole country? I wish that many more books were translated into English so that people could see us as we are, how in Saudi Arabia we have liberals and conservatives and a bit of everything, just like anywhere else.”

Two years after it was first published by Saqi Books, a Beirut-based imprint, Girls of Riyadh still ranks as one of the most-talked-about books in the Arab world. Saqi Books was initially forbidden from distributing the book in Saudi Arabia, although that ban was lifted in March 2006. During the ban, contraband copies were sold on the black market for many multiples of the $10 cover price, and even posted on the Internet for download. In neighboring countries like Bahrain, booksellers had trouble keeping the book in stock, and regional newspapers reported that most of the buyers were visiting Saudi men who were anxious to learn about the lives of young women in their country, so close at hand and yet so assiduously hidden from view.

Inside Saudi Arabia and in other parts of the Middle East, Girls of Riyadh was debated in Internet chat rooms and on newspaper op-ed pages. Saudi Minister of Labor Ghazi al-Gosaibi, a novelist and poet in addition to his official duties, wrote the introduction to the Arabic edition of the book and publicly defended it, though he was assailed by Islamists for doing so.

A group of conservative Saudis filed a class-action lawsuit against Ms. Alsanea accusing her of slandering Saudi society and the reputations of Saudi women, and another group tried to petition the government to rescind her state scholarship to study dentistry overseas. When Saqi Books brought copies of the book to the Riyadh Book Fair, a group opposing the book appeared at the start of the fair and bought up scores of copies of the book so that Ms. Alsanea’s publisher would have none left to show or to discuss.

Yet Girls of Riyadh has inspired dozens of imitators, including a 2006 book called Boys of Riyadh, and it has been credited with helping to reinvigorate the novel as an Arabic literary form by encouraging other writers to experiment with colloquial Arabic and contemporary topics in their work. Ms. Alsanea was especially surprised to learn through friends, recently, that it has become common practice in Saudi job interviews to ask prospective employees, especially female ones, “What did you think of the Girls of Riyadh?”

From Saudi Arabia, Chick Lit Without the Racy Bits