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"Girls of Riyadh" - A Review

posted on: Apr 5, 2023

"Girls of Riyadh" - A Review
Rajaa Alsanea – WordPress

By Alison Norquist / Arab America Contributing Writer

Considered to be the “Sex and the City” of Saudi Arabia by the New York Times, Rajaa Al-Sanea’s novel follows the love lives of four friends in the refreshing format of an email newsletter by an anonymous writer. Set in the capital of Saudi Arabia, the four women navigate love, loss, birth, and friendship while adhering to and fighting against the strict social laws of the country. Humor, realism, and a teasing writing style are sure to keep you hooked.

The Four Girls of Riyadh

The story, broken up in the format of an anonymous writer telling the stories of her four friends, is written in vignettes that span the events of about six years. Sadeem, Lamees, Michelle, and Gamrah are all young college students who are now embarking on the search for true love in a society that does not even allow for what Western audiences would call reasonable. Instead of dates and flirtation in person, the dating scene of Riyadh in the late 90s and early 2000s relies on cell phones, covert cruising, and arranged meetings.

The women, who each have different encounters with first loves, marriage, births, and romance, share commonalities with even Western readers in how they feel such passion despite the strict moral laws put in place. Young men, who slip numbers into women’s hands as if they were pickpockets, are shown throughout the novel to be not worth the trouble typically. Two of the friends face divorce, a taboo subject and often almost a social death sentence. Still, through their friendship and determination to not let the expectations of those around them determine their fates, each woman finds what they were searching for most: a sense of self.

Riyadh’s Reaction

Originally written in Arabic, the novel has won awards in several countries abroad. However, in her home country, the book has been banned since its initial release in Lebanon in 2007. Many have deemed its content to be detrimental to the female population due to its cavalier treatment of taboo topics like sex, divorce, and love. Concerned that it would give women the emboldened sense to become more like their Westernized counterparts, a lawsuit was even filed against the author in Saudi Arabia. Thankfully, the matter was found to be without merit, and the English translations are said to be available at some retailers.

The Real Girl From Riyadh

Much like her characters, Rajaa al-Sanea attended college to pursue a degree in the medical field. Since her debut as an author, she has been credited with breakthroughs in stem-cell research as well as being one of the best in her field of dentistry. Since returning to Saudi Arabia after completing her Masters in the United States, al-Sanea has been a practicing endodontist and researcher at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital. Thus far, she shows no signs of publishing another book despite being a Dublin Literary Award winner. This is likely due to the backlash she faced regarding her fictional but realistic depiction of young women in Saudi Arabia, which went as far as causing the author to fear for her safety.

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