Book Review: Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea


I picked up this book while I was in the Virgin Store in downtown Beirut.  I had originally been looking for
Muhajababes by Allegra Stratton, but the staff was unable to localize the one remaining copy they had in the shop.  I did not want to walk out empty-handed, given that the down-sized Virgin store in Kuwait specializes more in perfume now than in reading matieral.

Thus, a discounted copy of the book Girls of Riyadh by the 25-year old Rajaa Alsanea struck my eye.  The back cover of the paperback had a quote from Time magazine that reads: "Imagine Sex and the City if the city in question were Riyadh".  Well, with that kind of description, I knew it would be a book I either hated or loved, but the combination of the two piqued my interest enough for me to walk to the cash register with a copy.

The way the novel is written is set up in a fascinating structure.  The premise of the book is that the omniscient author is a girl of Riyadh herself, who is writing the story not as a book but rather as weekly installments sent through a listserve from  So, the beginning of each chapter is really an e-mail from the author, and the main body of the chapter is the next part of the story.  This allows the author to address the e-mail responses she has received from members of the yahoo group in regards to the previous week's installment.  However, as readers, we never read the original e-mails sent from her e-followers, just her responses.  What this does is allow for a parellel story.  The novel is just as much about the fictional installments the yahoogroup administrator sends to her subscribers, as much as it about her e-mail exchanges with her readers about these very fictional installments.  Her readers are a diverse crowd, as she often has to defend her writing against conservative accusations.  They are also a curious crowd, wondering if the author is herself one of the fictional characters she is writing about.  Lastly, I think the fact that the novel mimicks an e-group environment mirrors the growing trend of youth in the Gulf country to take advantage of social networks to bypass censors and to interract with each other in a way unfeasible in direct dialogue.

The story revolves around a group of upper-class Saudi friends (Gamrah, Lamees, Michele and Sadeem) and their respective love lives...yes, indeed, similar to Sex and the City.  The page-turning element of the novel is the way the author manages to capture male-female relationships in Saudi Arabia from an insider perspective.  I certainly appreciated these revelations.

However, a more apt title for the novel might have been The Boys of Riyadh because these four friends have no character development outside of their relationships with the men they love.  That is, no light is shed on their personalities in any other aspects of their lives.  The author restricts telling us information about the characters, limiting the novel exclusively to her four friends' escapades with the men they have affairs with.  Even the friends' relationship to each other seems to be based solely as a confessional for divulging details about their boyfriends and lovers.  In this way, the author perpetuates a notion that women in Saudi Arabia are only defined by the men they are attached to, even if the aim is to examine how unfair these relationships are.  No mention is made of the women in their career, even though all the girls are supposed to be well-educated and successful young professionals-which is in strong contrast to, dare I go back to the comparison, Sex and the City for example.

Now, going back to her description of the Boys of Riyadh, who serve as foils to the girls in the novel, but end up being painted by the author's words much more vividly than her main characters, the author does a good job at highlighting the unfair power dynamics between young men and women in modern Saudi society.  The similar mindsets and actions of all the girls' men present in truth an archtype of everything that is wrong with the Saudi man vis-a-vis his relationships.  The author does not restrain in displaying how infantile, hypocritical, patronizing and self-centered she believes these men are, bolstered by a society that condones these traits.

"Men who come from this part of the world, Sadeem decided, were by nature proud and jealous creatures.  They sensed danger when face to face with females who might present a challenge to their capabilities.  Naturally, such men would prefer to marry a woman with only a very modest education, someone feeble and helpless, like a bird with a broken wing, and without any experience in the world.  That way the man could assume the position of the teacher, who takes on the job of forming his pupil into whatever he wishes.  Even if many men admired strong women, Sadeem pondered, they did not marry them!  So the ignorant girl was in hot demand while the smart and savvy one watched helplessly as her name became slowly etched in a giant plaque in commemoration of spinsters, a virtual list that was growing longer every day to accommodate the requirements of all the insecure men who didn't actually know what they wanted and so refused to attach themselves to a woman who knew absolutely what she wanted." (pg. 276)

Whether the man is condescending, in need of self-assurance of his masculinity by having a passive woman to manipulate or whether he is "a slave to reactionary customs and ancient traditions even if [his] enlightened mind pretends to reject such things (p. 302), he is undeniably characterized by the author as weak.  The ultimate lesson of the author is that a woman in Saudi Arabia simply must marry someone who loves her more than she loves him, otherwise the man, cognizant of his upper hand, will for all her life beat and undermine her.

The novel's conclusion on love is best written in the last paragraph of the last chapter entitled "Between You and Me", where on p. 313-314 she writes:

As for love, it still might always struggle to come out into the light of day in Saudi Arabia.  You sense that in the sighs of bored men sitting alone at cafes, in the shining eyes of veiled women walking down the streets, in the phone lines that spring to life after midnight, and in the heartbroken songs and poems, too numerous to count, written by the victims of love unsanctioned by family, by tradition, by the city: Riyadh."

The lost stories in the novel to me stem from who these women are divorced from their interractions with men...or if such a concept was possible in a society where all interractions are strongly segregated and defined by male-female boundaries.  Secondly, are Saudi men so bored with life that they have no opinion themselves about their lives?  Do they have a voice to offer or only a sigh and a yawn eminating from their mouths?

2 Responses on "Book Review: Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea"

  1. Lensman says:

    A nice read. I should try and get this book. Seems interesting.

    Victoria says:

    if you do get a chance to read it, i'd love to hear your opinion too!