Wednesday, November 19, 2008


An anonymous female internet user sends highly controversial emails every Friday to a mushrooming group of Saudi readers. In the emails, she recounts the adventures of four of her friends, all upper-crust urban girls in their late teens, who are on the cusp of pursuing marriages and/or university degrees. The anonymous blogger broaches ideas of love, heartbreak, marriage, and faith, claiming to speak out for Saudi women everywhere when she gets backlash from her readership, who criticize her morality and religiosity.

I recommend this book because it was illuminating. I haven't been able to classify it as "good" or "very good" or "very bad" or anything; I'm simply not prepared to make a judgment call. Here's why. The content, in theory, could be construed as trashy--the girls in question are all rolling in money, and yet this fact is never acknowledged (sure, they all have personal drivers who wait for them literally around the clock--it's never questioned in the book that "everyone" and certainly every good Saudi woman has a driver). The girls all declare that they love Sex & the City, and this is without a trace of irony or self-reflection (one girl, Gamrah, insists on watching all the episodes even though she doesn't understand English and has no clue what they're saying). So the book is, on the one hand, an answer to chick lit.

On the other hand, the content is, as I mentioned, illuminating. Although the writing didn't really hold me--the translation is very readable and conversational, but I don't think high art was the aim of the prose--and sometimes the girls' attitudes toward themselves frustrated me, I learned a lot about a culture that I think is difficult to absorb in positive pop culture. This was a book written by a Saudi and for Saudis, unlike so many of the books about the Middle East that play on themes of escape and oppression in order to appeal to American audiences. Although Alsanea is critical of her own society in Girls of Riyadh, her take on modern Islam is a totally different animal than a book like Kite Runner--which, incidentally, I love--can ever offer. It's missing the degree of alientation any book written FOR a foreign culture necessarily imposes.

I don't want to go on and on here, although I have a lot more to say about the book. If anyone else has read it, leave me a comment...


ChrisEldin said...

I've been embarrassed to show my face here because Moonie mailed a book to me for review (I actually begged for it), but it sits on my shelf, gathering dust. I'm five pages in, but have read x number of other books while looking at my homework assignment sitting on the shelf, mocking me....

But, this post is too much for me to hold back!

I have this book waiting for me in Dubai. I was gifted TWO BIG boxes of books last spring, during a neighbor's move. This book is banned (to my knowledge. unless it's just fun for us foreigners to say, 'oooh, we're reading a *banned* book')

Anyway, about the drivers.
An interesting part of the Middle East is the amount of pampering going on. Is 'pamperage' a word? I'm going to make it one.
There's a high degree of pamperage.
Drivers, nannies, cooks, gardeners, and maids. Not sure if I'm leaving out a category.

Women in Saudi have to have drivers because they aren't allowed to drive. Ahem. Unless they are over the age of 35 and have more than 3 kids, then I think they can drive (truly, I think this was a law passed a few years ago).

But even in other Arab countries, where women do drive, there are drivers. An American woman I know in Dubai, she's from California, has a nanny for each child, as well as a driver and etc etc.

I can't be sitting too far back in judgment because when we are there, we have a live-in helper. She's not a nanny, but helps around the house and *we are VERY happy for this* babysits in the evenings so DH and I can go out.

Oh, I'm straying far from the book.

The sentiments do sound authentic to the beliefs of these women. They want so much to be "American" in many ways (and I don't mean "Western." They idolize the U.S. culture). But they do have loads and loads of money, and not much to spend it on except consumption. And they judge each other by that as well.

It's superficial, yes, but they are doing soul searching.

I'm writing all of this obviously as an outsider, but this book is very popular among the ex-pats, and seems the Arab women as well.

Phew. Now maybe I'll go to page 6 of my homework, although I'm in the middle of Edgar Sawtelle and loving it!

moonrat said...

haha Chris!! You should never be embarrassed!! We all read whatever we read whenever we want to/have time to read it!!

but thanks for your insight on this. if you do get around to reading GIRLS OF RIYADH eventually, we should reconvene!!

The thing that gets me is... Every woman can't possibly have a driver. Because then every man would be used up. I mean, there must be whole populations in Saudi that don't figure into the social equation at all, who make up the drivers etc. Right? Or do people just not go many places?

ChrisEldin said...

Thanks Moonie!

About the drivers, you make a great point. But much of the hard labor in that part of the world is imported 'slave' labor from countries like India, Pakistan, and China, etc. That's a big conversation, but it sounds like this book talks about such workers as they are perceived--material goods indicative of social status.

I can't tell you how much of an impact the election of a black man to the U.S. presidency will have on attitudes about race in other countries. When I took my kids with me to vote, I kept telling them "Remember this day so you can tell your own children."

Sorry for the tangent, but your question really was a good one.

I can't wait to read the book, and I'll try to go into some of the social issues I see and live when I'm over there.