“I laughed so much when I heard that,” she said, explaining that in Saudi Arabia, the question provides a convenient shorthand way to plumb an interviewee’s opinions on a range of social and political topics that would be unthinkable to broach directly. “In an interview like that, they want to get a sense of the personality, and it’s not really polite to ask, ‘What do you think about women driving?’, for example. Many people in Saudi were offended by the book. They said I gave Saudi girls a bad name—that people would think that all Saudi girls are like that.”
Yet Ms. Alsanea’s characters are hardly the stuff of scandal, at least by any non-Wahhabi standard. They are always properly veiled in public, they live at home with protective extended families, and they expect these families to choose—or at least to approve—prospective fiancés. They may invent suggestive screen names and send messages to men in chat rooms for hours on end, or talk to their boyfriends on their cell phones until the dawn prayer. But they rarely meet these boyfriends in public or speak to them face to face. The content that so scandalized readers around the Persian Gulf—scenes in which a group of college-age girls have tea at the home of a divorced woman, or in which they sneak sips of alcohol while one girl’s family is away—is unlikely to raise many eyebrows among Western readers.
GIRLS OF RIYADH IS AN EPISTOLARY NOVEL, written as a series of e-mails to a Yahoo! Group list serve, and it has inspired comparisons to Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex and the City. And though it contains many political themes, the English edition of the novel often does feel like chick lit. True to form, its main characters spend a great deal of time thinking about fashion and lifestyles—the names of the four girls’ favorite brands, like Cavalli, and favorite restaurants in places like London and San Francisco, are mentioned constantly—and how to ensnare successful partners.
But it is chick lit of a distinctly Saudi variety, dealing with the search for cunning ways around the daily frustrations and oppression of Saudi society while basically remaining classic “good girls.”
What do you do when you and your friends want to go to the mall, but there’s no chauffeur or male relative available to take you? What do you do when your family wants to marry you off to a mean-spirited Bedouin almost twice your age? What do you do when your creepy ex-boyfriend comes crawling back and asks you to be his second wife, one of the four allowed him under Saudi law?
Girls of Riyadh has sold in 18 languages to date, and Arab newspapers have reported that a Lebanese satellite channel is planning to buy television rights from Ms. Alsanea for $1 million. Yet it is hard to predict how Western readers will react to the novel. An early review in Publisher’s Weekly seemed puzzled, calling the book “timid by American chick lit standards,” yet it will be a shame if Girls of Riyadh is read by those standards alone.
Liza Darnton, Ms. Alsanea’s editor at Penguin, called Girls of Riyadh “incredibly political” and said that she’s most curious to see how American readers will react to its young author, whose patriotism and great affection for Saudi culture are apparent even while she is criticizing it.
“Rajaa hasn’t defected to the U.S., complaining of oppression back home,” Ms. Darnton said. “She’s very happy being a privileged young Saudi woman. So there’s always that tension in the novel: There’s a desire for change and a recognition of injustices that is balanced by a true belief in her religion and a pride in Saudi culture. She wants to be a good Saudi girl and she shows how good Saudi girls can still have a foot in both worlds. It’s so much more complicated than our limited understanding of that culture.”