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)