Thursday, August 09, 2007

Book Report; "Girls of Riyadh"

If you're into Arabic chick lit, Girls of Riyadh is the book for you. If you're like me, and have never read Arabic chick lit, but are ready for some light summer reading, this is still the book for you.

Girls of Riyadh was first published in Lebanon, written in Arabic by Rajaa Al-Sanea,(left) a 24-year-old Saudi woman, studying to be a dentist when she wrote the book, and now, apparently working in a hospital in Saudi Arabia. The book was initially published in Lebanon because it was banned in Saudi Arabia, but has recently been allowed in that country, as well, and has become a best seller in Arab countries. (It is apparently not a best seller yet in this country, but give it time; it will benefit from word of mouth.)

The book is about four young upper class Saudi women and their love lives. Anyone who knows even a little about Saudi Arabia knows that it is a very conservative Islamic society, where women are required to be covered from head to foot, have very little interaction with men who are not family members and whose roles in society are very restricted. What this book does is show what goes on beneath the gowns and behind the closed doors. Surprise, surprise, people are pretty much the same everywhere. Underneath the gowns, the girls of Riyadh are wearing designer clothes, and spend much of their time dreaming, worrying and talking about men. Although nominally, their families may make the final decisions about whom they will marry, the women have ways of getting who and what they want -- but like people in the rest of the world sometimes discover that who and what they thought they wanted didn't turn out so good.

The book follows the lives of four friends, young women in their early 20s. The book opens by describing a wedding of one of the friends, but the young woman who is the envy of her peers soon discovers her new husband has other interests. Two of the other three women eventually get married, only one happily, and one, like the author, pursue a professional career. These women all come from families with money, and I have read some Arab criticism that it shows only the lives of privileged women, but so what, so did Jane Austin. One gets the feeling of authenticity; that Ms. Al-Sanea is depicting a life that she really knows about.

I am sure one reason I liked this book is because, like the Amish, the conservative Arab society is misunderstood by ordinary Americans, judged mainly by its severe rules and the pronouncements of its most extreme practioners. It is refreshing to read a book that does not romanticize its subjects, but shows their common humanity. This is not the book to read if you're only interested in great literature, although, it has as much claim to being great literature as Jane Austin's books. This is the book to read if you like to educate yourself in a light-hearted way about people you know little about.

I gave the book four stars.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your open-minded ideas with regard to your book selections. I would not have imagined this as a choice you would have made "just like that." Have you read "Reading Lolita in Tehran"? or "A Thousand Splendid Suns"? I liked Splendid Suns much better than Kite Runner(same author) They all provide perspectives on the lives of women in very restrictive societies.

I would be inclined to wear PJs and tee-shirts under the burka rather than pricey designer duds.

Amishlaw said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I did read "Reading Lolita in Tehran." It was okay, although I think I liked "Girls of Riyadh" better. "Reading Lolita" seemed to try too hard to make its points while "Girls" just tells the reader the stories and lets you figure the points out yourself. "Kite Runner" was a hard book to read and, I thought, suffered from too much plot. I haven't gotten around to "A Thousand Splendid Suns," but will check it out.

Patry Francis said...

One thing I really appreciate about your reviews is that they really feel
"independent." In other words, you evaluate the book for what it is, rather than resorting to arbitrary categories and dismissing it for what it is not.

I will look for this one...

Amishlaw said...

Thanks, Patry, and I'm looking for your second book, about which I will give my usual independent review.