Saudi Arabia: girl power

When I started this project to read a book from each of the world’s 196 sovereign states in 2012, I knew that translation would be one of the key issues I would encounter. But I little imagined that the process might cause the sort of public row that blew up around Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh.

First published in Lebanon in 2005 (the book was banned in Alsanea’s home country until 2008), the novel was written in a range of Arabic dialects, each reflecting the background of the different characters portrayed. The difficulty of rendering this in English and getting across some of Saudi Arabia’s cultural idiosyncrasies led to a three-way tug of war between translator, author and publisher, resulting in translator Marilyn Booth seeing her version reworked against her will.

Given the furore, it might have been simpler to leave Girls of Riyadh on the e-shelf and go for one of the more universally accepted translations on my list. But I was intrigued: the more I heard about this book, the more I wanted to read it and when I came across a rash of online reviews hyping the book as a ‘Saudi-style Sex and the City, I knew I was going to have to try it out for myself.

The reviews were half right. Written in the form of weekly emails by an anonymous female narrator, who is two parts Carrie Bradshaw, one part Belle de Jour and one part Mary Wollstonecraft, the book follows the lives, loves and liaisons of four young women in Saudi Arabia’s wealthy elite or ‘velvet class’. Moneyed and manicured, the girls are nevertheless bound by the tight social, religious and legal codes of their society, in which women are forbidden from revealing, expressing or asserting themselves outside their own all-female circles.

Faced with a world in which they are often not permitted so much as to sign their names or have coffee with a male friend without being arrested and interrogated, and yet are able to access all luxuries and comforts, as well as Western cult classics such as Clueless and, yes, Sex and the City, these girls of Riyadh lead schizophrenic lives. They conduct their love affairs in secret and remotely, they create fake personas online and they wear low-cut designer pieces under their abayas, which they queue up to change back into in the toilets on flights back from London, Paris and the States.

Now and then some of the transitions between stories and timeframes are a little clunky and the feisty narrator has a tendency to rant. There are also certain bits of exposition and explanation about Saudi society and culture, which feel shoehorned into the narrative and probably aren’t essential for readers to understand it. I sometimes found myself wishing that Alsanea had trusted her Western readers to follow her a bit more.

All this feels minor, however, when set against Alsanea’s achievement of exploding the single biggest weapon in the armoury of repressive regimes: that of making the oppressed group faceless and voiceless. Here, we are presented with four (five if you count the narrator herself) vivacious, witty, intelligent individuals, who despite the restrictions placed upon them attack life with energy and verve. We see educated girls testing the barriers that hem them in and brokering their own peace, or otherwise, with the codes with which they have been raised. And we see a marginalised group beginning to flex its muscles in the virtual sphere and discover the potential of the internet to help people visualize and effect changes such as those seen across much of the Arab world in 2011.

Isn’t this a tad more meaty and daring than Sex and the City? Yu-huh. Is the English text a pale imitation of its original form? I’m in no position to judge (perhaps you can tell me?). Is it better that this version is available to Western readers than nothing at all? Absolutely.

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea (translated from the Arabic by Rajaa Alsanea and Marilyn Booth). Publisher (Kindle edition): Penguin (2008)

9 responses

  1. What is your purpose behind reading books from 196 sovereign states? I am quite curious! And are you planning to read a book from Pakistan as well???

    As far the book is concerned, this story seems soo interesting and quite daring! The Saudis should concentrate more on limiting what men do instead of what their women do if you understand what I mean.

    • Thanks. Yes I am planning to read a book from Pakistan – you can see the suggestions I’ve got for all the countries so far on The List page. 196 is the total number of sovereign states in the world. As 2012 is the year of the Olympics coming to London, I thought it was a good opportunity to go out and meet the world… through books.

  2. “Is it better that this version is available to Western readers than nothing at all? Absolutely.” Yes, surely. Now I’m adding this to my TBR list…
    Please, can you explain the photo that appears on the top of every post? Are you giving this book 3 stars? (Out of?) Or something else? Sorry if you already mentioned this and I missed it.

    • Hi Eibhlin. Thanks for your comment. The picture at the top is a time lapse photograph showing all the books I’ve read so far (at least all those while I’ve been in NYC, I’m heading back to London now so will add them to my London bookshelf for the next post). The star is on my Kindle and shows the number of e-books so far. It hadn’t occurred to me that it might look like a star rating, but it’s a good point. Hopefully when the numbers get high enough it will be obvious. Maybe for the next picture I’ll try opening the Kindle case to make it clearer what it is. Thanks for your input.

  3. Saudi Girls are much powerful and influential than anyone can imagine. An fortunately I never read the book because I knew about it after the hype and I hate to read things after being hyped about. However, being a Saudi girl from about the same generation of the author I think I have far more interesting changes and accomplishments that are happening right now, and fortunately with a great help from our kinsmen. Many people do not realize that their is a great deal of Saudi men who are really offering a great support to their relative women in order to exert the change. So please give these men some credit!! I am lucky for having a really great father, because I know if it is not for him I would not be able to accomplish what I accomplished today. Both me and my three sisters (4 girls in total) are currently in different stages of our PhD thesis. In fact, 2 of us were able to get a scholarship and study in the UK. 3 of us work in really good Universities in Saudi, and the fourth is a diplomat !! So.. I guess this can be considered our edition of (Girls of Riyadh) but in a different setting and for different aims.. Thanks for your interest in reading about my country..

  4. First of all I want to say fantastic blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you
    do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing.
    I have had trouble clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out there.
    I do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like
    the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be wasted simply just trying to
    figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or hints? Appreciate it!

    • Thanks Isaac. It’s really very individual, but like anything writing is a habit. The more you do it, the more you feel able to do it. Finding a chunk of time when I could work on it undisturbed in the early mornings was the key for me. All the best, Ann

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