Girls of Riyadh

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Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa AlsaneaMany years ago I received an unexpected marriage proposal from a man I’d met just a couple of hours earlier. My speedy admirer was an outrageously handsome Saudi Arabian working for an international oil company.

“I’ve never met anyone like you before” he said, and I thought to myself, “Yep, I can totally believe that”.

“Marry me and come to Saudi, you’ll never have to work again and I’ll brew alcohol in the bath for you”.

It’s not every day you get an offer like that; a good looking meal-ticket and a life of luxury and constant sunshine. However, there was one big thing standing in the way; my utter dislike and contempt for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the worst examples of a country with no rights for women. So it was a clear case of ‘Thanks but no thanks’.

At the time I laughed it off. The idea that anyone could offer to spend the rest of their life with someone they don’t know seemed preposterous. Once I had read ‘Girls of Riyadh‘ I was reminded of my suitor and came to realise with a shock that he might actually have been deadly serious. ‘Girls of Riyadh‘ taught me that proposing marriage to a woman you don’t know and have never spoken to is not that unusual in Saudi society.The recommendation of a relative or a business contact of your father would be enough to bring on a proposal. The odd thing with my young Saudi was that his approach was direct. I learned from Girls of Riyadh that the closest thing to ‘normal’ would have been his uncle to contact my father and negotiations to follow.

Girls of Riyadh‘ caught my eye on the shelf of my favourite charity book shop. I’m not a big fan of Chick-Lit but how could I resist the lure of Chick-Lit Saudi-style? I snapped it up for £1.75 and headed home.

How do you find love when you can’t spend time with the opposite sex?

This is the story of four well-off, relatively sophisticated girls living in Riyadh who have – as it the habit in chick lit – plenty of problems with men. Take all the problems of a Euro chick-lit, remove all the freedoms we take for granted, add a large dollop of family pressure to marry and stir them all up. It’s not as if you can date for a while, see how it goes, discuss your future with your boyfriend, move in together, have a kid or two and maybe book a date for the wedding for 2 years later. In this society you don’t get freedom to choose or enough exposure to your spouse to know what you are getting into. Mind you, even with all those freedoms we don’t seem very good at getting marriage right either.

Pass the Cheese

The story is structured as a series of weekly emails posted by an anonymous writer using the code name ‘seerehwenfadha7et’ – catchy huh? Each week she updates her mailing list with the latest events in the love-lives of her friends, Gamrah, Sadeem, Michele and Lamees. With each update she responds to the emails she’s had since the last chapter – by turns taunting and teasing her readers, refusing to admit whether she is one of the four and responding to the praise and criticism of her readers. It’s clunky, contrived and more than a lot cheesy.

The Girls

Gamrah:  the book starts with her wedding to Rashid, the handsome groom who’ll take her away to live in the USA but won’t sleep with her on their wedding night. When he does get round to it, he can’t summon much in the way of enthusiasm. Why is he so disinterested? And how can we ever accept that when his cover is ‘busted’, it’s his wife who’s rapidly served with divorce papers and sent back to Saudi in disgrace.

Sadeem: after being spotted at Gamrah’s wedding by the relatives of an eligible chap, her romance seems to be going well; the papers for the legal marriage are signed and it’s just a matter of waiting a few weeks for the family wedding. But when the groom is nagging to get his conjugal rights a bit early, what’s a girl to do? Well I won’t say what she does but he’s off in a flash and the divorce papers are served before the wedding’s even complete. Sadeem, broken and confused heads off to London to hide her shame, meet someone new and equally useless, make some more but different mistakes, and waste her life on another oxygen-thief. It’s all ridiculously sad. Once again, give them what they want, get what you don’t deserve.

“From our western viewpoint, you’ll want to scream at the pages “get a life woman”, “kick him in the goolies”, “run for your life”.”

Michele: the wild one of the bunch, she’s half-American and badly tainted by the lack of a good family background but that doesn’t seem to bother the guy she meets who falls in love with her. Will he stand up for his love or cave in like a pathetic wobbly jelly-fish under the glare of his family?

And finally Lamees: the medical student, keeping her head down, studying hard and playing the long game to try to snare the man of her dreams. Will it work or won’t it? Will we get any happy endings from this sad bunch?

So is it actually any good?

1.       Shock Factor – High; you’ll wonder just how much more lousy women’s lives can get. From our western viewpoint, you’ll want to scream at the pages “get a life woman”, “kick him in the goolies”, “run for your life”.

2.       Educational value – Medium/High; I learned loads about Saudi society and the way that marriage (and divorce) work, about the value of virginity and the devastation of single parenthood. I can’t say I learned anything though that made me think any more favourably about Saudi society.

3.       Literary merit – Awful. Oh boy, I can’t dress it up more nicely – it’s literary dross. The writing is laboured, the quotations from the Koran and classical Islamic poetry sit lumpily next to the provocative taunts of trendy girl-speak. There’s no finesse to the flow and it would surely have been rejected by any western publisher if it hadn’t already been banned in the writer’s home market. Who’d turn down a banned book from Saudi?

4.       Bravery factor – Off the scale; whilst I might dismiss the book as sappy poorly written chick lit I have to admire the bravery of Rajaa Alsanea in sticking her neck out and blowing the whistle on Sex and the Saudi. She must have known the book would get instantly banned on publication, getting her into massive trouble, and probably ruining her chances of ever being an acceptable bride to any Saudi man (maybe not a bad thing). She’s now living in the USA studying dentistry.


If you fancy a bit of chick lit with a difference and aren’t looking for literary brilliance, give it a go. For the sake of her patients, I just hope Rajaa Alsanea makes a better dentist than a writer.

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Girls of Riyadh
by Rajaa Alsanea

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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