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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Girls of Riyadh

Rajaa Alsanea

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To purchase Girls of Riyadh

Title: Girls of Riyadh
Author: Rajaa Alsanea
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 281 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Girls of Riyadh - US
Girls of Riyadh - UK
Girls of Riyadh - Canada
Girls of Riyadh - India
Les filles de Riyad - France
Die Girls von Riad - Deutschland
Ragazze di Riad - Italia
Chicas de Riad - España
  • Arabic title: بنات الرياض
  • Translated by Marilyn Booth and the author (see note)

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Our Assessment:

B : lively glimpse of a very different world

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 4/8/2007 .
The Guardian . 14/7/2007 Fatema Ahmed
The Independent . 3/8/2007 Alev Adil
The LA Times . 8/7/2007 Judith Freeman
New Statesman . 23/7/2007 Roger Hardy
The Observer . 22/7/2007 Rachel Aspden
San Francisco Chronicle . 29/7/2007 Malena Watrous
The Telegraph . 19/7/2007 Lucy Beresford
The Telegraph . 9/8/2007 Elena Seymenliyska
The Times . 14/7/2007 Christina Koning

  Review Consensus:

  Not great writing, but still a winner

  From the Reviews:
  • "To begin with, the narrator's perky tone can be a bit irritating. (…) The narrator does not rant at the state laws and family customs that dictate the way she and her fellows live, but bitterness drifts through." - The Economist

  • "The prose style isn't the reason to read this novel. Some of the sentences are extremely clunky (…). There's also an uneasy tension between the breathless narration and some of the unhappier plot twists. Girls of Riyadh is unromantic -- bad things happen to its heroines -- but Alsanea is clearly on the side of romance, and her exploration of whether it can exist in Saudi Arabia is brave and surprisingly informative." - Fatema Ahmed, The Guardian

  • "Rajaa Alsanea's Saudi take on Sex and the City is an irresistible, and thought-provoking, confection. (…) Alsanea's style is rendered chatty and demotic in English, and perhaps some literary gravitas is lost in translation. The original text moves between classical Arabic, several Saudi dialects, Lebanese-Arabic, English-Arabic and e-Arabic. The non-Saudi doubtless misses many regional jokes (..…) This is an entertaining read: revealing, hilarious and chilling in turn." - Alev Adil, The Independent

  • "(O)ne of those rare books with the power to shake up an entrenched society. (…) Alsanea's narrator's voice, with its mix of high- and low-brow references (she quotes, among others, Socrates, Mark Twain, Khalil Gibran and Eleanor Roosevelt, along with a host of Arabic poets and Muslim televangelists), carries the novel forward at a brisk pace. (…) As compelling as Girls of Riyadh is as a scandal-mongering piece of cultural writing, it also, as the 21st-century version of an epistolary novel, reads like a blog between covers. (…) There's almost no sense of the physical landscape, no nuanced consideration of moral or psychological realms, and the language is uneven at best. And yet, however we may characterize this book, one thing is indisputable: It's the work of a brave and intelligent young woman." - Judith Freeman, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Bored young women from wealthy Saudi families chronicle their unhappy love lives: it hardly sounds like a winning formula. But Girls of Riyadh will tell you more about one of the world's oddest and most closed societies than a library of books and articles by supposed western experts. (…) Girls of Riyadh is highly readable without being great literature. Some readers will be exasperated by the self-obsession of the Saudi me-generation. But it is a wonderfully vivid social portrait of stifled lives, and one that shows there is now a brave new generation of Saudi women no longer ready to suffer in silence." - Roger Hardy, New Statesman

  • "Like the youthful majority of Saudi Arabia's population, the girls are squeezed between homegrown tradition and global modernity. Alsanea's prose pieces together classical Koranic Arabic with slangy, roman-script 'internet language', colloquial Lebanese and Emirati, song lyrics and scraps of English -- a patchwork that enraged Saudi proprieties almost as much as the 'racy' content. Though many of the nuances are lost to non-Arabic readers, the off-key Americanisms of her own translation are equally revealing. (…) Despite official paranoia, Girls of Riyadh is more conservative than crusading. Alsanea, like her heroines, barely touches on the fraught context of their reversals in love. (…) (I)n the end, Girls of Riyadh is more a love letter to America than a poison pen to the Saudi establishment." - Rachel Aspden, The Observer

  • "The main satisfaction of Alsanea's novel is not literary -- the characters are broadly drawn, and the prose, at least in this translation, seldom sings -- but anthropological, a rare glimpse into ordinary life for young women in Saudi Arabia, an Islamic state where law is based upon the Quran. (…) This is not an overtly political novel. This is chick lit -- Saudi chick lit. True to form, Alsanea leads each girl to her own version of a happy ending. Still, in its own way, Girls of Riyadh is a feminist book, as it reveals women making choices and dealing with the often severe consequences." - Malena Watrous, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Pride and Prejudice this is not. This is topical chic-lit, even down to the requisite embossed dust-jacket, although one of glamorous black and gold rather than the British standard of baby pink. The diet of girl-longs-for-boy palls, largely because many of the chapter endings are limp, the translation from Arabic is often clunky, and few characters possess a credible interior life. And yet Rajaa Alsanea raises important questions about self-respect, tolerance and emotional maturity. For all the cultural and religious differences, these teenagers are seen to echo educated girls the world over: they giggle, they bitch, and their dreams are often thwarted by social constraints. There may be more polished novels on this theme to come, with more emotional texture, but Alsanea has had the courage to lift the veil of an obscured world." - Lucy Beresford, The Telegraph

  • "The format might be a bit stale -- four girls, four love lives, four very different outcomes -- but the content is anything but, as the blogging narrator reveals the innovative flirting tactics of rich young people in a society bound by strict Islamic laws." - Elena Seymenliyska, The Telegraph

  • "This is not a good book, but it is a brave one -- and deserves to be read for that reason. Offering an insider’s view of a closed society -- Saudi Arabia -- 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. (…) In sharp -- even incongruous -- contrast to the depressing subject matter, is the relentless "Valley Girl" perkiness of the narrative. For, despite liberal quotations from Middle Eastern literature, the author, who lives in America, has preferred the airport bestseller and the self-help guide as her stylistic models. Clunking phrases and clichéd images are found on every page." - Christina Koning, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Girls of Riyadh tells the story of four college-age friends in Saudi Arabia, girls looking for love but stymied by a system that allows them only limited freedoms and has very specific expectations and demands. There's little contact between men and women -- especially single teens and adults -- but modern technology has changed that a bit (leading to young men trying everything to get women to take down their cellphone numbers). The Internet is also a new medium that can't contain women and their thoughts like the old system could, and the anonymous narrator of the novel takes advantage of that: she presents her stories in the form of e-mails that she sends out weekly to any Saudi address she can find.
       Each chapter begins with the narrator writing about her project and the reactions she is getting, before she then settles down and offers yet another episode from the lives of the four friends.
       The four main characters aren't completely typical Saudi women:

The girls belong to society's "velvet class," an elite whose behavior is normally kept hidden to all but themselves.
       Their families are wealthy, the girls are generally very well educated (training to be doctors and dentists, for example) and most have at least some experience abroad, in some cases even traveling unaccompanied to England and the United States. Both at university and abroad they are in closer proximity to the opposite sex than is otherwise generally possible or permissible, but finding love and romance proves almost impossibly difficult in a world where the future bride and groom are often only permitted to see each other a single time before their wedding.
       The 'girls of Riyadh' do hook up -- or get set up -- with men, but even where there is the glimmer of hope that they've found Mr.Right things tend to go catastrophically wrong. The first to get married finds her husband isn't particularly interested in her, while another goes all the way just a bit too early, which is enough to cause her intended to dump her. And, of course, families have a lot of say -- though the girls' families tend to be relatively understanding and indeed almost -- or at least relatively -- enlightened.
       The major problem all the girls face is men. Almost all the men are pathetic. As one of them finds:
Sadeem saw Firas as greater and stronger and more noble and more decent than the pathetic, emasculated weakling who had abandoned her friend ! But it appeared they were cut of the same cloth after all. Apparently, all men were the same. It was like God had given them different faces just so women would be able to tell them apart.
       And another explains that men:
are stamped out of the same mold: passive and weak. They are slaves to reactionary customs and ancient traditions even if their enlightened minds pretend to reject such things ! That's the mold for all men in this society. They are just pawns their families move around on the chessboard !
       The girls' romantic woes are quite fascinating, but much of this is also frustrating. The men remain ciphers, and most of their actions go more or less unexplained. That is, of course, how it also appears to the girls -- but that also leads one to wonder why they have anything to do with these men in the first place. The difficulty of getting to know anyone of the opposite sex, given all the restrictions in place, seems nearly overwhelming, but even where connexions are established, Alsanea doesn't manage to make the men convincing characters. (Such simple idealised description, dominated by passion, is of course a staple of romance novels everywhere, but given the foreign conditions here the failure to make the male characters three-dimensional is far more noticeable.)
       It's also disappointing that romance dominates so completely: these are educated women, on their way to becoming medical professionals and the like. One starts her own business. One worked in a bank abroad for a while, and several have been exposed to the outside world, where they don't have to go around completely veiled and can mix and mingle with men. (Avoiding other Saudis while abroad is a major pre-occupation -- while the last-minute costume-change on the plane trip home makes for long lines for the bathrooms.) Saudi Arabia and its peculiar customs are isolated, even for them, but there's very limited discussion of the hypocrisy and absurdity of the situation. (One girl signs her wedding contract: while her intended signs his name, she is only allowed to press her fingerprint in the registry .....) Personal achievement -- academic and professional success -- is rewarding, but at best casually mentioned. What really matters is getting a man -- though that turns out to be something different than they expected for most of them. (Interestingly, faith is also not very prominent: there are the religious routines to get through (prayer, Ramadan), and, of course, all the rules to obey, but few seem to expect much from god, or religion generally.)
       Girls of Riyadh does offer considerable insight into Saudi society -- a very different world from that most readers are familiar with. These girls, and their adventures, aren't typical -- they represent a very privileged sliver of Saudi society -- and Alsanea doesn't manage to convey much more of Saudi Arabia, as so much remains so close-knit and walled off. Still, it's an eye-opening glimpse -- and in showing how modern technology undermines antiquated mores suggests that radical change is inevitable. But for the most part Alsanea avoids much direct criticism of the system, preferring to blame weak-willed men .....
       The writing is lively and quick-paced, making for an entertaining read, but it must be said that some of it is just god-awful:
These songs would drench her in sadness and envelop her like a warm, clean bed.
He played bewitching songs on his guitar as the sun biscuit dipped into the cup of sea.
       (Maybe this sort of stuff works better in the original Arabic .....)
       But most of the time Alsanea concentrates on keeping the story going, and the pace and variety make for a breezy read.
       Girls of Riyadh doesn't stand up to much scrutiny and isn't even that sharp a portrait of the (privileged) female condition in Saudi Arabia, but in offering the closest thing to an insider-account of a world that is otherwise so inaccessible currently available it is worthwhile.

       Note on the translation: In a letter to the editor published (scroll down) in the 28 September issue of the TLS co-translator Marilyn Booth explains:
When I submitted the translation to Penguin, complete except for Saudi vernacular terms with which the author had promised to help me, I was informed that the author intended to rewrite it, and thereafter I was kept entirely out of the process. The resulting text, with its clichéd language, erasures of Arabic idioms I had translated, and unnecessary footnotes, does not reflect the care that I took to produce a lively, idiomatic translation conveying the novel’s tone and language, which are crucial to its critique of (globalized) Saudi society. Of course, my decision to retain my name on the title page (the only decision about the text’s final shape that the publisher allowed me !) means that I remain partly responsible for a work that I was given no authority, ultimately, to craft.

It is unfortunate that a novel which works partly through humour, punning and multilingual wordplay has been "cleaned up" by the Arabic text’s author.

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Girls of Riyadh: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Arabic literature

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About the Author:

       Saudi Arabian author Rajaa Alsanea (Raja' 'Abd Allah Sani', رجاء عبد الله الصانع) is studying dentistry.

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© 2007-2021 the complete review

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