Banat-al-Riyadh is the first novel by Saudi author, Rajaa Alsanea. Its English version is called ‘Girls of Riyadh’. It has popularly come to be known as the ‘Sex and the City’ of the Arab world. Initially, this book was banned in Saudi Arabia as this account of Alsanea’s vivid observations was considered to be a taboo to be brought out to readers in a restricted society.
Alsanea is a graduate student in dentistry, juggling her love for literature with a respectable Saudi career. The author aspires to bring about a change, a social transformation and not a religious one. She believes in speaking for herself, and thus felt the need to write about a society drowned in restraints and its impact on the women.
The story is told through an anonymous, female narrator who presents her tales in the form of e-mails and sends them to any Saudi e-mail address she can possibly find. The saga revolves around the lives of four Saudi girls in their early twenties, belonging to the higher echelons of the society. Four of them are close friends and share their stories with each other, especially romantic issues. The narrator interestingly weaves in the description of life in Saudi along with the eventful lives of the characters. Marriage, love, friendship and feminism emerge as the primary themes of the novel.
The girls are generally well-educated and most have at least some experience abroad. Both in university and abroad, they are in closer proximity to the opposite sex than is otherwise generally possible or permissible.
Of the four young women, Gamrah is the most conservative, Sadeem is the hopeless romantic, Michelle brazenly questions her society’s restrictions and Lamees is the one who gets exactly what she wants. In the beginning, it is hard to keep track of the girls and their varied love interests. But as one reads further, and the characteristics of the individual personalities are revealed, their intertwining story becomes apparent and fascinating.
These women pour out their hearts to each other in a transparent manner, conversing in a frank way, without caring about the use of ‘proper’ words and splendid expressions. On the other hand, in their society, they are expected to talk, walk, behave and even breathe in a strained, instructed manner. This proves that the author has succeeded in eliciting the subtleties of the social setup.
The author also provides an exceptionally accurate account of Saudi Arabia as a country and its ingredients. She has tried to cover all aspects, from geography to authenticities, to poets and singers and food and what not. This consummate effort of this debut author is highly commendable.
The writing is lively and quick-paced, making for an interesting read but it must be said that some portions are drenched in poetic metaphors that are, at times, hard to gulp down. There are indeed many reasons to read this book, but the prose isn’t one of them, as the writing is often strained.
Though a fictional piece, this book undoubtedly bears the reflections of untainted, honest opinions of a woman who carefully observed her environment and has endeavoured to bring about the change it needs.
This novel is a brave and surprisingly informative tale of the existence of love in a conservative society. Offering an insider’s view of a closed society might be provocative enough, but to do so from the point of view of a woman, and a young, unmarried woman at that, is revolutionary indeed.
While ‘Sex and the City’ compelled American women to be open about sex, ‘Girls of Riyadh’ blazes a trail for not just openness about sex but about love, religion and limitations presented by family and society. Thus, it is quite irresistible and thought provoking.