WITmonth pick #4: Abnousse Shalmani

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There can be few more striking juxtapositions than the one found in the title of Abnousse Shalmani’s memoir Khomeini, Sade and Me. Indeed, it’s unlikely that the names of the ultra-conservative founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the notorious French aristocrat who penned some of the most violent and explicit literature ever published have ever found themselves staring at each other over a comma before.

The jarring effect of the title is entirely fitting, however, for it encapsulates the gulf that its author has crossed in the course of her life – a feat that forms the basis of this, her first book. Jumping from her childhood to her present-day existence, as well as to many incidents in between, the narrative records the reasons for and consequences of Shalmani’s atheist family’s decision to leave Iran for France a few years after the 1979 revolution. In so doing, it provides a framework for the writer to set out and interrogate the conflicting forces that shaped her, as well as to explore the immigrant experience, and build passionate arguments for equality and free expression.

The controversy inherent in the title is reflected on every page. This is an angry book and Shalmani pulls no punches in pillorying Khomeini and the fundamentalist men and women – dubbed ‘Beards’ and ‘Crows’ – who champion a creed to which she cannot subscribe. Many of her arguments, such as her vehement opposition to Muslim women wearing the veil, make for challenging reading – particularly in light of France’s recent burkini scandal.

Shalmani is well aware of this. For many, she writes, she will be ‘just a woman that comes off as a racist when she fears for the future of other women’, yet she will not give ground in the face of those for whom ‘open-mindedness is just a way of washing their hands of the matter’. Indeed, she makes no attempt to help her case or soften her words, thinking nothing of dismissing those who disagree as ‘idiots’.

The reasons for Shalmani’s vehemence are two-pronged and have their roots in the men featured in the title of her book. On the one hand, there is the extreme suffering that she and her family went through when their values clashed with those of their homeland’s new regime; for Shalmani this plays out particularly strongly in gender issues and the attempt to police women’s bodies not just in Iran but throughout the world because ‘each culture has its own women’s prison’. On the other hand, there is the ‘divine Marquis’, whose writings remade her and changed her thinking for good.

The most extraordinary passages are those in which Shalmani writes about her encounters with libertine literature – which she accessed first, surprisingly, with the help of her father who ‘firmly believed that there is no crime worse than censorship’. When writing about how reading Sade’s scenes of unparalleled depravity made her fearless and free in her thinking, staunch in her defence of free expression, and exhilarated about what words can do to expand horizons and change minds, she is magnificent. (Indeed, she is a much bolder reader than I am: I once opened The 120 Days of Sodom in a bookshop and had to put it back on the shelf after a paragraph because I was feeling sick…)

With such a literary hero, it is small wonder that Shalmani does not shrink from causing offence and expressing herself as powerfully as she can. This does her work a disservice occasionally. At points, it makes her writing seem as dogmatic as the teachings of those she attacks. In addition, the fervour with which she expresses love and admiration for her adopted country, France, can sometimes sound a little naive.

On the whole, though, her passion is compelling. Many readers will not agree with all she says and some may be offended, but that is, in a way, the point: this book is a reminder that outrage should be part of the reading experience. It demonstrates that words ought to stretch, challenge and unsettle us. And it is a stark demonstration of the terrible things that can happen when there is no space left in which to question or offend.

Khomeini, Sade and Me (Khomeini, Sade et moi) by Abnousse Shalmani, translated from the French by Charlotte Coombe (World Editions, 2016)

Picture: (TEDxParis Nov2015) Abnousse Shalmani (2) by Olivier Ezratty on flickr.com

WITmonth pick #2: Paulina Chiziane

Woman voters stand on line at a rural polling station in Catembe on the second day of the elections. 28/Oct/1994. Catembe, Mozambique. UN Photo/Pernaca Sudhakaran. www.unmultimedia.org/photo/

I have been wanting to read this book for more than four years. It came onto my radar during my Year of Reading the World in 2012, when I was finalising my choice for Mozambique. As I wrote in my post at the time, I had actually just read a novel by Mozambican writer Mia Couto and was planning to post about it, when a comment from Miguel made me think twice.

Mia Couto was a literary cliché, he said. I should try to find something else – and Niketche by Paulina Chiziane, the nation’s first-published female novelist, would be a good starting point.

Loathe to be thought to have plumped for a cliché, I embarked on a quest to find an English version of Niketche, which did seem to have been published in translation. But when I contacted the publisher, it turned out that the firm had folded before it was able to release the book. A finished English-language version did not exist.

All was not lost as far as a good alternative to Mia Couto was concerned, however, as this conversation led to the manuscript translation of the extraordinary Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa, an amazing book that richly deserves an English-language deal.

Yet, while Ualalapi still awaits an anglophone publisher, the last few years have brought good news for Chiziane’s novel. This summer, Archipelago Books launched a version titled The First Wife, translated by David Brookshaw, and I lost no time in snapping up a copy.

As the title suggests, the novel is about marriage – albeit in a rather different form to that which many of us in the English-speaking world are used to, at least at first glance. When Rami discovers that her husband of 20 years, police chief Tony, has been secretly conducting a series of concurrent, long-term extra-marital relationships – effectively practising a form of polygamy – she reacts furiously. Yet her anger quickly gives way to a desire to understand and challenge the warped gender dynamics that have seen her and so many women like her marginalised and silenced across the generations.

Embarking on a journey of personal discovery that leads her to question the traditions and assumptions that have shaped her life, Rami visits dubious love counsellors and wizards, and eventually joins forces with her husband’s unofficial wives to right the wrongs they suffer. In so doing, she reveals the extraordinary potential of female solidarity and exposes the hollowness of patriarchal power – uncovering a self-perpetuating system, in which those who appear to wield influence and to gain from inequality are often the most deluded and damaged of all.

This is a powerful and angry book. Portraying the myriad injustices to which Rami and her contemporaries are subject – from a welter of myths about women’s evilness and tendency to precipitate natural disasters, through cultural rules that dictate men should receive the best parts of the chicken to eat, to the appalling treatment of widows, whose possessions can be appropriated by their in-laws and whose bodies can be commandeered by their brothers-in-law for ‘sexual purification’ – Chiziane reveals the ‘litany that has sent women to sleep down the ages’.

Yet, for all its fury, the narrative is underpinned by an appreciation of the interconnectedness of the human experience. To Chiziane, the suffering experienced by her female characters is part of a loop of wrongdoing and hurt, in which all people are implicated. Rather than women against men, or them and us, gender inequality as seen through this author’s eyes is part of a wider, skewed system, which it behoves all humankind to correct. This is neatly summed up in the description of the ‘cycle of subordination’:

‘The white man says to the black man: It’s your fault. The rich man says to the poor man: It’s your fault. The man says to the woman: It’s your fault. The woman says to her son: It’s your fault. The son says to the dog: It’s your fault. The dog barks furiously and bites the white man, and the white man once again angrily shouts at the black man: It’s your fault. And so the wheel turns century after century ad infinitum.’

This clear-eyed evaluation of the causes of subjection makes Rami’s discovery of her own agency and worth deeply touching. I was moved to tears by several passages towards the end of the novel, in which she and her friends revel in their femininity and celebrate womanhood – free at last from the mental fetters that formerly made them resent their gender.

The writing is urgent and surprising. As in Ualalapi, there are images that leap from the page and delight with their freshness. That said, there are a number of mixed metaphors that obstruct the sense. In addition, some English-language readers may struggle with the unfamiliar pacing, which makes some events seem rather abrupt, while other minor incidents stretch on for pages. Similarly, several episodes and thought processes are recounted on more than one occasion, which can be a little discombobulating.

These niggles are really beside the point, though. In addition to being a work of great imagination and creativity, this is an important book. As well as setting out a story that enables readers to feel the necessity of challenging patriarchal norms, it provides a compelling comment on the long shadow of colonialism and telling insights into the way tradition moulds minds.

Hats off to Archipelago Books for bringing this towering work to the English-speaking world. Might I persuade you to take on Ualalapi next?

The First Wife (Niketche) by Paulina Chiziane, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw (Archipelago Books, 2016)

Picture: ‘Elections in Mozambique’ by United Nations Photo on flickr.com

Canada: inside story

This book had lots going for it. The British Centre for Literary Translation’s director Dr Valerie Henitiuk, a Canadian national, told me it was one of the best translations she’d come across. In addition, as a Quebecois classic, it would be the first French-Canadian novel I’d ever read. And it was feminist literature – something I’ve had a fascination with ever since my year of reading women opened my eyes to some of the riches in this frequently overlooked field of writing. Nevertheless, even with all this promise, I could not have imagined the treat I had in store.

Split into three parts, Nicole Brossard’s Mauve Desert takes storytelling and translation apart from the inside. The first section follows 15-year-old Mélanie as she speeds across the Arizona desert in her mother’s car, ‘moving forward in life, wild-eyed with arrogance’, while also fleeing the insecurity, awkwardness and tenderness of life at her lesbian mother’s motel. Next, the middle part catalogues the experience of Maudes Laures, who finds Mélanie’s story in a second-hand bookshop and spends two years obsessing over its meaning and the actions of its characters and author, Laure Angstelle. The final section is Maudes Laures’s translation of Mauve Desert, which is at once similar to and very different from the original text.

Rich, ambiguous and fluid, Brossard/Angstelle’s writing sweeps the reader into the heart of teenage longing, using fine details to evoke intense experience. Long, sultry afternoons around the pool consist in the glint of wet tiles and the snaking of a hose pipe, while the rush of speeding through the desert shimmers on the horizon and in the dizziness of dehydration. Deliberately ambiguous, ‘both in focus and out of the frame’ as Mélanie describes her driving experiences, the narrative opens up a vast landscape of multivalency so that we can often never be sure exactly what is taking place. ‘Reality had a meaning, but which one?’ reflects Mélanie at one point.

As Maude Laures discovers, this confusion is precisely the point. While she strives to get to the heart of the text that has obsessed her, picking apart places, characters and events, and even at one stage imagining an encounter with Laure Angstelle herself in which she berates and interrogates the author over her treatment of one character, she finds herself dazzled by ‘the inexorable light that transforms lives of flesh into the bare bones of narrative’. As she records and analyses conflicting assertions that she finds in the text and her discourse with it, some sort of truth emerges like a line drawn through a cluster of points on a graph, tying trends and outliers together into a kind of coherent whole.

Yet, as Laures’s translation in the final section shows, this whole will not be the same for any two readers. Filtered through her consciousness and the result of her interaction with the novel, Laures’s rendering of the text (here of course given another layer by virtue of having been translated in reality by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood), is a new work. It picks up fresh angles and possibilities in the story and even adds things not in the original, as well as sometimes making passages awkward and stilted. Mélanie’s brush with some aggressive road-users is a good example:

Original: ‘At the junction of Route 10 and Route 25 are dozens of motorcycles, guys smoking as they look at the sky. Two girls are talking. One of them flashes me a peace and love sign while the other one, barely set back in the spatial plane, gives me a violent f**k with her finger, then with her fist. I press on the accelerator. I know reality. Fear, it doesn’t matter when you accelerate; fear vanishes like a dark spot in the rearview mirror.’

Translation: ‘At the junction of Route 10 and Route 25, a gang of bikers are smoking with their noses in the air. Two girls are talking, a bottle of beer in hand. One of them flashes me a victory sign and the other one, barely set back in the spatial plane, violently “up-yours” me with her middle finger, then the whole fist up. I accelerate. I know reality. Fear is nothing, it’s nothing when one is fast so fast. Fear faints dark spot in the rearview mirror.’

This exploration of the mysterious alchemy of translation and the anxieties around the authenticity of such renderings – as Laure Angstelle puts it in her imaginary dialogue with Maude Laures: ‘How am I to believe for a single moment that the landscapes in you won’t erase those in me?’ – is utterly engrossing. It is without question one of the most innovative things I’ve ever read.

However, it does come with a health warning for e-reader fans. While normally a Kindle enthusiast, I would encourage anyone planning to read this to do so on paper. Flicking back and forth between the third and first sections to compare the two versions of the novel is maddening on-screen, whereas it would be a breeze in a hard copy.

Alternatively, of course, you could buy yourself an e-version and a paperback and read it like that. It’s certainly worth it.

Mauve Desert (Le Désert Mauve) by Nicole Brossard, translated from the French by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood (Coach House Books, 1990, 2010)

Iran: gender politics

I was tempted to choose Nasrin Alavi’s We are Iran as my Iranian book. Compiled from a series of blogs translated from Farsi, this book – or blook – caused a great deal of controversy when it burst on to the literary scene in 2005, purporting to provide Western readers with an unprecedented survey of contemporary Iranian thought. However, the book had had a fair bit of attention in the media and something about the way the texts in it had been curated for the Western eye made me hesitate – probably entirely unfairly, given that arguably every text in translation has been selected and prepared with English-language readers in mind.

Then I heard about Shahrnush Parsipur. Something of a trailblazer throughout her life, from being one of the first female students at the University of Tehran through to becoming one of Iran’s best-known and most innovative novelists, Parsipur captured my imagination. Her epic novel Touba and the Meaning of Night, which was published in 1989 just three years after Parsipur’s release from prison, caused controversy for its exploration of religion and gender power relations, as well as its departure from the literary style common before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. It finally became available in English translation in 2006, the year after the much-vaunted We are Iran. I was going to have to take a look.

Spanning the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the novel presents an alternative reading of the history of Iran through the eyes of one woman, Touba, who grows up, marries, divorces, remarries and grows old during the course of it. As dynasties rise and fall and the world moves towards its bloodiest war, Touba embarks on a struggle for supremacy in her own life, finding herself drawn towards Sufism as a possible escape from the oppressive rules and judgments of a society that increasingly forces her to be a prisoner within the walls of her house.

Right from the opening passage, in which a scantily clad teenage Touba cleans the courtyard pool under the disapproving gaze of her tenant’s wives, Parsipur sets out the limitations imposed on women as a central theme in the book. Sometimes, as when Touba’s father reflects that bringing strange women into his home to work might be dangerous because ‘they might participate in some perverse activities with one another’, this is done with wry humour.

More usually, however, it has a much darker side. This initially reveals itself when 14-year-old Touba narrowly escapes a beating from her first husband for going out for a walk alone and later becomes painfully obvious in the story of the raped girl who, on revealing she is pregnant, is killed by her uncle Mirza Abuzar and buried under a tree in the garden. Touba’s reaction to the news is telling:

‘She was filled with the sense of guilt. She wanted to ask Mirza Abuzar why he had not discussed the matter with her. Then she thought, if he had mentioned it, would she have done anything? A living girl who has a bastard child in her is hateful and defiled. The same girl, however, if she is killed like this, will be chosen to be among the Pure Ones. She was realizing that she probably would have done nothing for the girl, or could have done nothing. She tried to put herself in Mirza Abuzar’s place. She truly felt sorry for him.’

Parsipur’s ability to think her way inside her characters like this means that the narrative is far from a one-sided polemic on the oppression of women. Even the most difficult of characters, such as the sinister Prince Gil and the sullen child Ismael who harbours murderous intentions towards Touba because of his anger at the loss of his parents, are presented as rounded and complex individuals with insight and thought processes that often surprise.

This multiplicity of perspectives and Parsipur’s use of elements of magic in her storytelling, give the narrative a sense of plurality that cuts across time and space. Often, in the embedded stories and mini-tales that Parsipur weaves into the novel, it seems as though the author is digging back into the past to gain the depth and distance that will allow her to tell contemporary truths.

The pacing is strange at times, partly due to the sheer scope of the story, which contains so many characters that the editors saw fit to list them all at the start of the book. As a result, the narrative moves in fits and starts, lingering over details only to jerk forward, sometimes skimming over incidents that seem to deserve more attention. This can be frustrating and leaves you glancing back over your shoulder now and then as a major character whizzes past into oblivion, like the stop you expected to get off at the moment you realise you’ve unintentionally caught the fast train.

On the whole, though, there can be no question that this is a towering achievement. Packed with insights, historical detail and rich compelling storytelling, the translation of this epic work opens up a world quite different from the one many English-readers will be used to. A rich addition to anyone’s bookshelf.

Touba and the Meaning of Night (Tuba va ma’na-ye shab) by Shahrnush Parsipur, translated from the Persian by Havva Houshmand and Kamran Talattof (The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2006)

Zambia: what price education?

This 2000 novel by Binwell Sinyangwe, another pick from Heinemann’s African Writers Series, promised something I hadn’t come across in any of the books I’ve read so far this year: a story centring on the hardships facing women in rural Africa written by a man.

Its premise is disarmingly simple. At the start, widow Nasula has less than three weeks to find the 100,000 kwacha she needs to pay for the next stage in her only daughter’s education, after more than a year of trying to get the money together. The rest of the narrative portrays the extreme lengths she goes to in an effort to raise the funds that are her daughter’s only hope of escaping a life of poverty.

In many ways, this is a profoundly feminist book. Dedicated to the memory of Sinyangwe’s wife Grace, the narrative reveals ‘the unfairness of the life of a woman’, returning again and again to Nasula’s desire for her daughter to be able to ‘carve a decent living that would make it possible for her not to depend on a man for her existence’. These hopes spring from Nasula’s memories of her own bitter experience of marriage and ill-treatment at the hands of her in-laws, recollections that bring out some of Sinyangwe’s best rhetoric:

‘Nasula had not forgotten. She would not forget. How could she? They had turned her into a servant, a slave in a chief’s palace. They had turned her into a stream in which to wash and kill the stink of their humanity. They had turned her into the hunter’s flat stone on which to sharpen their spears and axes. Into icisongole [a hard-shelled fruit] to play iciyenga [a game like jacks] with during the day, a fruit to be eaten at by the chief during the night. Into a source of laughter.’

Sinyangwe heightens our sense of Nasula’s plight with his repeated references to the common hardships facing many Zambians during the nineties. With the end of government grants, poor rains and the spread of HIV/AIDs, these are ‘the years of havelessness’ for rural and urban workers alike, in which many who previously prospered, and to whom Nasula turns for help, struggle to survive.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this material would be woven into a two-dimensional sob story. Instead, Sinyangwe rises to the challenge, imbuing his narrative with the vigour, vibrancy and ingenuity of his heroine. As we watch Nasula undertake the marathon walk to her in-laws, sleep in the city market to protect her possessions and challenge criminals and corrupt officials single-handedly, it’s impossible not to admire her.

If the narrative is occasionally a little overwritten, with a few too many adjectives fighting for space, the power of the plot more than makes up for it. So much so, in fact, that in the gripping final chapters, it’s easy to forget that what we are reading is not an account of some grand odyssey but the story of one woman’s attempt to secure a basic necessity for her child. It’s humbling to remember this as the narrative draws to its close – and more effective than any sob story could ever be.

A Cowrie of Hope by Binwell Sinyangwe (Heinemann, 2000)

Brazil: Goethe the ‘dirty old man’

From one Portuguese-language country with very few novels available in translation we jump to another that has a whole heap of them (by British standards, at least).

With so many exciting recommendations on the list, Brazil was a tough choice. In the end, I plumped for House of the Fortunate Buddhas because of the intriguing circumstances of its inception: Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro was commissioned to write one in a series of books inspired by the seven deadly sins. I was curious to see whether a novel written to order in such a way would turn out to be any good. And I wanted to see how Ribeiro handled the vice he chose to write about: lust.

As with the other Dalkey Archive book I’ve read so far this year (Francois Emmanuel’s Invitation to a Voyage), voice is this novel’s driving force. Prompted to record her story by a terminal illness, Ribeiro’s fearless narrator, a self-confessed ‘queen of lectures’, recalls her heyday in the 1940s and 50s. She focuses on her and her friends’ many and varied sexual exploits ‘at a time when everything was more difficult for women’, attacking the social mores that straitjacket desire and force people to ‘live according to rules and patterns for which no human was made’.

This disarming frankness extends to literary conventions too. Unafraid to share her opinions on any subject, the narrator weighs into many of academia’s leading lights, calling Lacan’s work ‘con games’, Goethe ‘a real fucker who died a dirty old man’ and Freud ‘the greatest waste of genius since Plato, the son of a bitch’.

Similarly forthright about her own blindspots and limitations, she questions her own utterances and literary skill with urgency and humour. ‘This testimony isn’t a novel, it doesn’t even have a plot – although the novels of Henry James barely had one, now that I think about it,’ she says at one point.

This unflinching engagement with the world and her place in it, enables the narrator to venture confidently where others fear to tread. The narrative is filled with exceedingly graphic accounts of sex in all its forms, which succeed because they are free from the coyness amd awkwardness that send other writers fumbling for euphemisms and clichés.

Ribeiro’s ability to inhabit the female universe is impressive. The voice is powerful, believable and peppered with details that will have many women nodding wryly in recognition. Only occasionally did I find some of the claims about the power dynamics between the sexes hard to swallow and sense a slight Tiresian wistfulness in the descriptions of men as ‘poor machos chained to a bunch of strange expectations’.

In general, this is an engrossing and persuasive performance by a leading writer on the world literary stage. With its narrator’s bold depiction of her – perhaps Utopian – vision for ‘a world of sex without problems’, it brims with generosity, fellow-feeling and a desire to improve the lot  of humankind. The issue, it suggests, may not lie with the unbridled expression of sexual desire, but with the concept of sin itself.

Perhaps this is simply the passionate manifesto for free love it appears to be. Or maybe, on some ‘con game’, Lacanian or Freudian level, the artist Ribeiro is protesting that the basis of his commission is ultimately flawed.

House of the Fortunate Buddhas by Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro (translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E Landers). Dalkey Archive Press, 2011

Algeria: the truth within

As titles go, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris has to be one of the most controversial out there. In fact, I got quite a few stares when I was reading this book on the Tube (no mean feat when you consider the sights you see on the East London line most days of the week).

One of the most anxious stares came from a young, blonde woman, who, when she saw me looking at her, switched on the radiant smile of the evangelical Christian. This impression was strengthened when the seat next to her became free and I sat down and saw that the title of the chapter she was reading was ‘The Lavish Grace of God’. All through the journey, I thought I could feel her twitching beside me, ready to pounce and tell me the good news.

However, if my neighbour had read the book, she would have found that there is a surprising lack of sex in much of it, albeit not for want of trying on the part of the protagonist. Having reached his fourth decade, Algerian-born banker Basile Tocquard, who ‘Frenchified’ his name as part of his attempts to shrug off North Africa and embrace Western culture, feels it is high time he moved out of his mother’s home and set himself up in a bachelor pad in the centre of town. There, he envisages, he will quickly dispense with his virginity and embark on a sexual odyssey among the city’s Caucasian goddesses.

He has reckoned without two things though: the powerful pull of his Islamic heritage, and the barriers in his own head. In addition, Basile’s story is related by a contemptuous female narrator, who makes fine capital out of the gap between his fantasies and the reality. As the novel progresses and Basile becomes increasingly deluded and paranoid, she strips his ambitions bare, revealing the contradictions and hollowness within.

Leïla Marouane is an exceptional writer, with a gift for making words pay their way. Every detail counts, from Basile’s ‘whitening creams and hair straightening sessions’ to the ‘poetry manuscripts’ he locks away in his desk drawer, building a rich picture that is at once funny, true and sad. This literary economy extends to the way that Marouane insinuates her female narrator into the text: at first sketched in only at the start of chapters and in the occasional footnote, but gradually making her presence felt everywhere.

Although the narrative is rooted in the clash between Islamic and Western culture, it is packed with universal insights about the attempts of younger generations everywhere to break away from what has gone before. As Basile sinks into madness in his efforts to deny his origins, the book excavates the foundations of identity, revealing the uneasy bargains we must all strike, whether between one culture and another or between the present and the past.

Inner peace, it seems, depends on an honest engagement with who we are and what we have been — sentiments with which I suspect my East London line neighbour would have heartily agreed. But then, who knows what her book was really about anyway?

The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane (translated from the French by Alison Anderson). Publisher: Europa Editions (2010)

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)