Interview With Rajaa Al-Sanea, Author of 'The Girls of Riyadh' (2006)

Note: Despite all the criticism that the young Rajaa Al-Sanea was subjected to in the Arabic media following the publication in September 2005 of her controversial Arabic novel, "Banat Al-Riyadh," she was calm, composed and confident during the interview that I conducted with her in March 2006. When I asked her if she regretted writing "Banat Al-Riyadh," Al-Sanea's answer was straightforward: "I am proud of it and I would hate any change to be made to the novel's content." When this interview was first published in the weekender Review section of Arab News, it generated a huge debate in the newspaper and on various blogs it was posted on. — Siraj Wahab, Feb. 17, 2007


JEDDAH, March 11, 2006 — Twenty-four-year-old Rajaa Al-Sanea stirred up a hornet's nest with the publication of her first novel, "Banat Al-Riyadh" or "The Girls of Riyadh." Reactions to the 319-page novel have, in some cases, been extreme. The novel deals with the lives of four young Saudi girls who must live according to the traditions of Saudi society. The girls are students at a university in Riyadh.

Al-Sanea has attained instant fame because of the raging debate over her novel which was first published in Arabic by Saqi Books in Lebanon last September. Now she is looking for an English language publisher. Nearly 250 articles have appeared about the novel, both here and abroad. Her critics and fans come from all age groups.

Al-Sanea's detractors contend there is nothing great about the book and offer a variety of justifications for their position. Some credit the book's success to its introduction, written by Labor Minister Dr. Ghazi Al-Gosaibi, a renowned poet and author. "'Banat Al-Riyadh' is a work that deserves to be read. I expect a lot from this author," he writes in his introduction.

In trashing the book, one Saudi woman writer said: "But for Dr. Al-Gosaibi's introduction, nobody would have given this novel a second thought." Some others say the reason for Al-Sanea's popularity is her good looks. In an Associated Press report, Donna Abu-Nasr describes her as "a petite brunette who wears an Islamic head scarf, like virtually all Saudi women."

"This is the age of television and looks matter," said a 30-year-old Saudi who read the book last week. "Somebody got it for me from Beirut. Beauty drives the marketing of your product. Rajaa has the looks, and so even when the product, i.e. the novel, is bad it sells and is selling like hot cakes," he said.

Al-Sanea's fans, whose numbers are legion going by the hits on her website (www.rajaa.net), say those who criticize are simply jealous of her success. They (the critics) say the style is atrocious. They say the language is far from classical Arabic. They say it is peppered with chatroom English and full of meaningless terms from the Internet. When Al-Sanea was asked about it, she was blunt. "I wrote the first few chapters in classical Arabic, but I modified them later because I couldn't convince myself that women my age would use classical Arabic to speak to each other. I used colloquial language to improve communication with my readers."

One Saudi woman journalist probably hit the nail on the head when she observed: "It is our tradition not to talk about the ills of our society. We know there are problems in our society, but the general reaction is to keep quiet. We have been taught from an early age that if we talk about the ills of our society, people will laugh at us. We are seen as role models in the Muslim world. And even when we are not entirely perfect, we should pretend that we are. 'Banat Al-Riyadh' deals with four characters. They may or may not represent all of Saudi society. But yes, we do come across the four fictional characters in our daily lives. Probably Saudi society - and especially Saudi women - are so much in the spotlight that this novel has come in handy for people who want to take a peek into the lives of Saudi girls. My only problem is that it sheds only a negative light on Saudi women. People outside this country will take it as a definitive word on the girls of our country." Many of Al-Sanea's critics would agree and they want her to change the title of the novel precisely because they think it gives the impression that it is true of all the girls in Riyadh.

The Book

"Banat Al-Riyadh" examines the lives of four Saudi girls: Sadeem, Qamrah, Mashael and Lamees. Mashael is half-Saudi and half-American. Her American mother and friends call her Michelle. All four are students at a university in Riyadh. According to one Saudi female columnist, there are in fact five women instead of four. "Everyone seems to forget the narrator," she wrote.

The narrator is unidentified, except that she is in her early 20s. She is a modern Scheherazade who tells the stories of the girls' weekends. Her motivation is to end society's tyranny over her friends.

The four girls are bound by a strong friendship despite many differences. Each one of them experiences failures except Lamees who succeeds in both her professional and personal life. She marries the man of her choice and goes with him to Canada to study for a degree in medicine.

Lamees is the group's fortune-teller. She always is consulted by her friends about future matches and emotional relationships. At one point in the novel, she ends her friendship with Fatema because she is a Shia, and Lamees is a Sunni. Lamees likes Fatema's brother who is studying medicine, but the relationship ends abruptly after they are caught in a cafe by members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

Lamees has a kind heart and helps her friends in resolving their problems. She supports them in times of need. For example, she teaches Qamrah, who has been ill-treated by society, how to use the Internet, send e-mails and to chat online so that she can come out of the isolated world she finds herself in. Qamrah is a divorcee with a baby.

Qamrah's story is typical. She married Rashed after an arranged meeting at which the two families allowed the prospective husband to see the girl once to decide whether he liked her. There was no exchange of ideas or thoughts. "See the girl once and make up your mind." Qamrah also had the same chance to see the man and give her opinion. Since they both agreed, their families proceeded with the marriage. After marriage, the two go to Chicago so that Rashed can finish his postgraduate studies. The novel discusses their marital discord.

Rashed forces her to give up her hijab. And she does so in the hope of winning his heart. But when he sees her without hijab he thinks she looks ugly. He asks her to wear the hijab again to hide her ugliness. Qamrah loves Rashed despite all his cruelty. Matters come to a head when she learns of Rashed's betrayal. He has a mistress: A Japanese-American woman. Qamrah insists on meeting the woman and leaves seething with the desire for revenge. She stops taking her contraceptive pills and becomes pregnant.

When Rashed finds out that she is pregnant, he slaps her and sends her back to Riyadh. He then sends divorce papers and she becomes a single parent. She lives at her father's house completely isolated. Her family members prevent her from going out. They fear she will stain the family name and honor if she goes out but her friends nonetheless manage to get her out from time to time.

Sadeem's story is no less tragic. She is raised by her father because her mother dies soon after giving birth to her. She loses her first love and then her second. Her first tragedy is caused by Walid when he deserts her after a few months of marriage. She gives herself to him one night considering that he is her husband even though the wedding had not taken place yet. Walid disappears and is never seen again. He eventually sends divorce papers which come as a shock; she blames herself because she did not wait until after the wedding. Sadeem never tells her family about what happened. She believes Walid divorced her because he thought she was girl with loose morals. (In the Muslim world, engagement norms are different from those in the West. The man and woman are considered officially married when their marital vows are exchanged and the documents signed. However, the period from the time of signing the documents till the night of the wedding is the engagement period. There is nothing in Islam to prevent them from having sex before that night as they are officially wed, but to do so is considered a mistake by society and men may get the impression that the girl is too easy or that she has had a premarital relationship.)

Sadeem's second tragedy is caused by Firas. She meets him in London while recovering from her first tragedy. She falls in love with him and he with her. But the fact that he has never been married prevents him from marrying a divorcee. Firas then marries one of his relatives and later calls Sadeem and offers to continue the relationship without leaving his wife. Sadeem refuses. Her suffering increases as Firas continues to call her. She finally decides to forget all about him and she is left with no choice but to marry her cousin Tareq. She never wanted to marry him even though he had strong feelings for her.

Mashael is more realistic and more liberal. Compared to her friends, she has had more freedom. She was born to a Saudi father and an American mother. One day, she meets Faisal when he asks her and her girlfriends to allow him to enter the shopping mall with them as a brother. (Single young men are not allowed to enter big shopping malls in order to prevent them from flirting with women.) This brief encounter is the start of mutual love. Their attraction lasts a year, and when Mashael asks Faisal to marry her, he refuses since his mother will not allow him to marry a girl who was not chosen by his family. On top of that, there are objections to Mashael's American mother. The upshot is that Mashael loses her faith in men and travels to San Francisco to study with an American cousin. They are attracted to one another, but things never progress to love. Faced with this confusing relationship, she travels back to Riyadh. Her father decides to move the whole family to Dubai in order to escape the gossip about Mashael as well as what has become her bad reputation.

In Dubai, Mashael works for a satellite TV channel. She succeeds in her work and lives freely. She admires a TV director who works with her, but she remains confused about whether she loves him. She asks her father if he will allow her to appear on TV as there is an opening for a TV hostess, but he refuses and convinces her that her appearance on TV would lead to problems in Saudi Arabia and with his family.

The novel has one encouraging story and that is the marriage of Lamees to the man she has chosen. It seems that Lamees learns from the mistakes of her friends and never repeats them. In fact, she formulates a strategy to win her colleague's heart after falling in love with him at first sight. She uses everything to make the relationship succeed. Her plans culminate in a happy marriage and a trip to Canada to study medicine.

The Author

"I try all the time to distance myself from motivated writings since, in the Arab world, this kind of writing is more or less a form of propaganda that transfers a distorted image of reality to the reader," Al-Sanea told Arab News when asked about her motive for writing the book. "I write because I enjoy this kind of art; I'm not sure if anyone has to give a reason to write or to paint."

During her interview with Arab News, Al-Sanea said she was surprised by the amount of attention the novel has generated. "I did expect some controversy - but not to this extent," she said. "About 200 articles have been written about the novel in the Arabic media and about 50 in English. I never expected that. It is important to listen to both parties. Any creative act usually leads to controversy, but what is important is the end result - positive progress, I hope."

She also is quick to remind people that the book is a novel - a work of fiction. "I hate to disappoint you but the characters in the book are not my friends," Al-Sanea said. "The novel is based on events I've heard about; they have added authenticity to the novel."

Al-Sanea considers herself an author, not a firebrand. "I am just a member of this society who is giving the reader a chance to look through my small window and share the same scene with me," she said. "Any successful work should have a creative idea behind it, and I do believe the issue is not to write about different aspects of society, but to catch a creative idea and put it on paper."

The young woman is fascinated by the works of Dr. Ghazi Al-Gosaibi and Ihsan Abdul-Qudos. "I also read non-Arabic works in their original language. I have always admired 'The Old Man and the Sea' by Ernest Hemingway. In that novel, the writer uses his enormous talent and expertise to impress the reader with an environment that is abstract: The sea and one man."

Al-Sanea hopes to continue honing her craft and, at this point, expects it to be a lifelong pursuit. "I want to continue to write and produce novels of the same caliber. I have a book in my mind already, but I would like to keep it to myself for now," Al-Sanea said, noting that her family and friends have been supportive of her. She has no regrets about "Banat Al-Riyadh." "I am proud of it. I would hate any change to be made to its content."

11 comments:

Siraj Wahab said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Siraj Wahab said...

This is what The Funky Ghetto Hijabi (http://thefunkyghettohijabi.blogspot.com) wrote on his blog about my interview with Rajaa Al-Sanea:

"I think that if this novel gets published in the English-speaking world it should be called 'Muslim Girls Gone Wild!' because this would attract more readers.

"I loved reading this article because it gave me such a different impression of Saudi Arabian life than I usually get in Western media, or even in Muslim media for that matter.

"Saudi Arabia has poets! Saudi Arabia has women journalists! Saudi Arabia has girls who go to university! Saudi Arabia has literary critics who get mad about novels not being written in Classical Arabic! Mind-boggling ain't it?

"I think Rajaa was right not to write the novel in Classical Arabic. I mean, who really talks in hoity-toity Oxford don English anyways? Think about it. Her characters are in their twenties; they are going to be talking in Internet Arabic along with English slang. When I'm with my friends I'm almost entirely incomprehensible to anyone who doesn't speak Valley Girl (It's like, you know...) and listen to gangsta rap. That's reality and a writer has to be authentic and true to that reality even if it means degrading the beauty of one's language.

"But what about poor Fatema, abandonned by her friends because she's a Shia? Who cares about losing love and bad marriages, losing your girlfriends is the biggest tragedy of all. The growing hostilty toward Shias among Sunnis in the Muslim world, including here in Canada, is quite disturbing.

"Some religious leaders, such as our local Imam Gamal Sulaiman, have made serious efforts to combat this but it doesn't seem to be working much. That said, could we please find a way of supporting our Shia brothers and sisters without saying we are big fans of all the tactics of Hezbollah; I don't think the two need to go hand in hand.

"Who's Ihsan Abdul-Qudos? A very popular Egyptian writer. Many people are familiar with Naguib Mafouz but probably more Egyptians have read Ihsan Abdul-Qudos. Many of his novels were turned into films. Faten Hammama, one of my favourite actresses and Omar Sharif's first wife and the reason why he converted to Islam (he was originally a Syrian Christian), often played the heroines of his films. His novels often dealt with the difficulties of being a woman in modern Arab Muslim society.

"I can see why Rajaa would find his work an inspiration. If you are interested in watching some of the films based on his novels, check out the Ottawa Public Library's collection of Egyptian Cinema Classics on DVD.

"Sex, love, and marriage are difficult in any religious community, city, or culture, just watch 'Sex in the City.' To quote Pat Benatar, 'Love is a Battlefield,' even if you aren't a Muslim girl from Riyadh."

Anonymous said...

Excellent stuff this.

Shaheen Zakariya said...

Rajaa Al-Sanea should not become a butt of ridicule. Books in all ages have provoked debates.

Al-Sanea’s novel, The Girls of Riyadh, has done the same thing.

Critical discussions are an indication that a society is buzzing with activity. That it is functioning. That it is alive. And as this article pointed out, whether one agrees with Al-Sanea or what one thinks of her book is a personal matter, but we should admire her for writing, seeking a publisher and daring to print it.

I happened to read some interesting comments about Al-Sanea’s novel on a website called Crossroads Arabia (xrdarabia.org). One guy called this novel a piece of trash, and said: “Westerners have taken special interest in Al-Sanea’s works just because it shows Saudi girls in poor light.” In response, the website’s moderator wrote back saying, “Since the book is yet to be published in any Western language — it’s only in Arabic — and since it’s also a best-seller, it isn’t Westerners who are taking a special interest.”

A Saudi girl on the same website endorsed the novel in full. “I read Rajaa’s novel and was enchanted with its story idea. What happens to (the four girls in the novel) Michelle, Lamees, Sadeem and Qamra holds true for many girls in my country,” she wrote.

I wish and pray that the bigwigs in the media, especially the Arabic media, would take a similar approach.

Anonymous said...

Rajaa is a learning curve for Saudi society. It will eventually prepare them to face boldly the religious and gender complexities. Its brave on Siraj's part to venture in this slippery area -SALIM

S. Irfan, Bombay said...

I think Al-Sanea is trying to make two points:

1. That Arab boys are irresponsible (Rasheed case), have loose character (Sadeem case) and are not free to take their own decisions (Michelle case).

2. That Arab women do not have the freedom to take care of themselves because of social/parental restrictions.

Any conservative-minded good Muslim will not like her novel because it presents Arab women in bad light. Of course, Westerners will appreciate her "courageous" efforts in bringing a bad name to Arab society.

Dawood Al-Shiriyan said...

I tell you, this woman is going to be a one-novel wonder, unless she comes up with an even more damning novel about Muslims and Arabs, which I am sure she will. Muslim-bashing has become an industry in itself. The surest way to become popular these days is to attack Islam and Muslims. And Rajaa has exploited that sentiment very well. Good luck to her. I didn't want to react to this article because for the likes of Rajaa, any publicity is good publicity. But then....

Dr.Majid Kazi said...

Many thanks for your e-mail.It was fun finding your witty,awakening & illuminating blog in my court yard. Indeed it is gratifying brain friendly activity to blog,I mean to sprinkle our ideas all around fertile blogging field.Blogging,solving puzzles,reading or writing articles,poetry novel,paintings etc.are all intellectual exercises.These along with daily physical activity with good nutrition improve the quality of life and may prevent or delay brain down fall.By the way I am looking forword to reading the future english edition of "Banat Al Riyad" when it is published, "InshaAlla "
What a pity that more people don't encourage and enjoy physical and literary activities,
May God grant us the serenity to accept the thyings we can not change; courage to change the things we can; and wisdom to know the difference.
Dr.Majid Kazi

Sultana Hind said...

I think the best response to Ms. Rajaa Al-Sanea came from Respected Sister Reem Al-Faisal. Her review of The Girls of Riyadh remains the best that I have read so far on the trashy book. The article, published in February 2006, is still available on arabnews.com (http://www.arabnews.com/?page=9§ion=0&article=77575&d=10&m=2&y=2006). Anyways I am posting the Sister Reem's entire article here. It is a must-read for all those who have read Mr. Wahab's interview with Ms. Al-Sanea on this blog.

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The Girls of Riyadh: You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are

By Reem Al-Faisal, Arab News —

A few weeks ago a friend called to tell me about the latest cultural storm brewing in Saudi society: A book entitled “Banat Al-Riyadh” (The Girls of Riyadh) by Rajaa Al-Sanea. My friend wanted to know my opinion of the book. Discovering I hadn’t read the novel yet, he began informing me enthusiastically of the groundbreaking subjects the book has tackled, such as gender issues, and class and regional differences. My friend applauded the writer’s courage in challenging the social taboos of Saudi society and exposing many of its dark secrets, which the society has refused to confront to this very minute.

My friend objected to the harsh and unjust criticism that the writer has received in the Kingdom. At the end of the telephone conversation with my friend I too was enthused and eager to read the book. I took the opportunity to buy the book, banned in Saudi Arabia, when I was traveling outside of the country.

I started to read the book enthusiastically, eager to discover this writer that has shaken the foundations of our society. I proceeded to acquaint myself with the five young women of the book. (Yes, there are five women, not four; everyone seems to forget the narrator.) At first I felt interest and some sympathy for the difficulties these women faced, knowing full well that the writer is only using these young and superficial girls to go deeper into the ills of our society and delve into the dark heart of Arabia. However, as I read about one flirt after another, and young women facing their first broken heart, abuse, betrayal, and even divorce, I realized that what the book was addressing was not so much the problems unique to Saudi culture, but issues that confront all rich, pampered kids everywhere in the world. Several pages later and I began to dislike these young girls with their superficial intellect and slight souls.

We do get a spattering here and there of the difficulties hidden in Saudi society, such as the simmering dislike and contempt between the different regions, especially among the western Hejazis and the central Najdis; the long-suffering of the Shiite minority inflicted upon them by the rest of society.

She also exposes some of the problems faced by most Saudi women as being nothing more than chattel, victims to the whims of their male masters — they like to call them guardians but we know better. If the male who controls your destiny is God-fearing and knows Islam well then you are fine, but if he is a limited man taking tradition and Islam to mean one thing then your life is a tragedy and you have limited room for maneuvering.

The young women of the book do face certain difficulties, but these are tempered by the many opportunities and luxuries they have. They can basically do everything a girl of her class in the world can do. Many of the women outside of Arabia would cut their arm off to have the so-called limited luxury these women enjoy. How many Saudi women have the choice to go and spend a few weeks in London all expenses paid after a divorce, or are sent to study in San Francisco to mend a broken heart? How many women not just here but in the rest of the world get this kind of family support?

Anyone who feels for these poor girls should go tell that to the woman living in a small town in the south of Arabia; the woman whose husband just divorced her to marry his third younger wife; leaving the woman with three small children to take care of, forcing her to move back in with her father, who, for his part, isn’t too happy to see her return with four more mouths to feed; and her ex-husband doesn’t really care about the kids or her and there isn’t a way to force him to live up to his responsibility; and she can’t find a job since 90 percent of women of working age can’t find a decent job anyhow.

So forgive me if I don’t cry my heart out for these women whose greatest tragedy in life is that they haven’t received red roses on Valentine’s Day.

This is an amusing book, no more, no less. The immense controversy the book has caused is its best quality.

I write this article because I’m disappointed in the book. I read it expecting it to be more than it is and I hoped that finally a writer dared to speak out for the oppression of the Shiites, or the abuse of women, or of simply the little injustices and mundane cruelties we observe in our daily life and just pass them by with an aching heart and a silent tongue.

Saudi Arabia is not a utopia even though we insist obtusely that it is. Oh, how I wish my land was a utopia of happy citizens, but I would settle now for a society that faces its ills with dignity and tries to correct them.

As for those clueless girls in Riyadh: You don’t know how lucky you are.

— Reem Al-Faisal is a Saudi photographer. She is based in Jeddah.

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Having been born in the holy land and having lived there for quite some time I agree with every single word written by Sister Reem. Three cheers to her. May Allah protect her.

ahmed said...

Through this interview I came to know that Saudi girls are not that much underprivileged (as far as the freedom to choose man is concerned). Girls should have freedom to choose their life partners and Sanea pinched the very nerve of the Saudi society. She also maintained the balance between the conservative restrictions and 21 century Saudi girls who go to university. well done Siraj Wahab.

Odacieuse Odacieuse said...

I think that is the case of most Saudi women, I read the novel of rajae Alsanea and I think it draws a portrait very representative of Saudi society. I liked her audacity, no one can take the risk to express himself in that way in Saudi Arabia. She talked about Gamra Sadeem, Mashael who broke the silence in which thousands of others Sadeem, Gamra Mashael and Lamis who suffered but can not express their pain for fear that they will be punished later.