Taboo-breaking novel stirs passion, debate in Saudi Arabia
Author depicts love, marriage, and betrayal
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- It's hardly ''Sex and the City," but by Saudi standards ''The Girls of Riyadh" is a bombshell.
The fictional tale of the loves, dreams, and disappointments of four young women in the capital has, not surprisingly, drawn criticism in a country where women are not supposed to date or have a love life until married. More striking, however, is the degree of support being voiced for 24-year-old author Rajaa al-Sanie and her first novel.
In the novel, Sadeem's husband divorces her because she's too sexually bold for his liking. Qamra discovers soon after her wedding that her husband is in love with a Japanese woman. Mashael's boyfriend cannot marry her because her mother is American. Only Lamis finds true and lasting love.
''The Girls of Riyadh" was published in September in Lebanon, the most liberal of Arab countries, and is going into its third printing. In Saudi Arabia, where the sexes are strictly segregated, authorities haven't decided whether to approve its sale, but pirated editions are circulating in photocopy form.
Author Mariam Abdel-Karim al-Bukhari, writing in the newspaper Al Riyadh, said she hasn't read the book but nonetheless believes the title ''is hurtful to the girls in our country." She wants Sanie to change it, or ''issue an apology to the girls of Riyadh."
But glowing praise comes from Ghazi al-Qusaibi, a renowned Saudi author who is also the kingdom's labor minister. He calls it ''a work that deserves to be read. I expect a lot from this author."
Educator Hussah al-Ghanem agrees. ''I support her 100 percent," she said. ''People should talk about the positive and negative aspects of their society."
Sanie, fresh out of dental school, is a petite brunette who wears an Islamic head scarf, like virtually all Saudi women. She says a few of her friends have cut her off because ''They don't want to hurt their marriage prospects by associating with a bold friend."
Her biggest supporter is her family.
''Before the book was published, I asked Rajaa, 'Are you willing to go the extra mile for this?' " said her brother, Ahmed. ''She's not married yet, and society doesn't forgive or forget."
The book, which isn't available in English, is told in the form of weekly e-mails from a female narrator to Internet subscribers in Saudi Arabia. It portrays four women whose stories are based on true-life ones that Sanie says she has heard at weddings, in school, and at women's gatherings. Many in the Arab world are comparing it to ''Sex and the City," the HBO TV series about four young women in New York City, though there is so sex in ''The Girls of Riyadh," only emotions.
The novel opens with Qamra marrying Rashed in a lavish ceremony, having already been advised by her ultraconservative mother not to consummate her marriage on her wedding night lest she be judged ''easy."
The couple moves to the United States, only for Qamra to discover that Rashed married her to appease his parents, who wouldn't let him marry his real love, a Japanese woman.
Rashed soon divorces Qamra and sends her home pregnant. To protect its reputation, her family bans her from returning to college or going out much with her girlfriends.
Meanwhile, Sadeem sleeps with Walid after their marriage contract is signed but before she moves in with him. Shocked at her ''boldness," and interest in sex, Walid divorces her. She develops a phone relationship with a Saudi man and would like him for a husband, but being a divorcee makes that impossible and she ends up marrying a cousin.
Mashael is the half-American who once broke the ban against women driving by dressing as a man, renting a car, and driving her girlfriends around the city. She and her boyfriend, Faisal, meet at a mall and fall in love but don't marry because his mother doesn't want a half-American for a daughter-in-law.
And finally there's Lamis, who marries Nizar and finds happiness because unlike the other three women, she has let her head govern her heart and made sure he is right for her.
Sanie says she wrote the book to highlight issues that society denies.
''I didn't distort the country's reputation. I wrote about humanity here," she said. ''I wanted to show that both men and women are victims of society."
Sanie says that among many readers who have e-mailed her is a man who got the book from his divorced daughter.
''He told me it made him cry and made him realize what women go through," she said. ''He decided that his daughter will not live the traditional life of a divorcee."