Driven to attraction: The Women of Riyadh

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*Roula Khalaf - The Financial Times- April 18, 2006

I will write about my friends,
the story of each of them,
I see in it, I see myself,
a tragedy like my own tragedy,
I will write about my friends,
about the prison that sucks the years of the prisoners,
about the time devoured by the columns of magazines,
about doors that don't open,
about desires slaughtered at birth,
about the huge prison cell,
and about its black walls,
and about the thousands of female martyrs,
buried without names,
in the cemetery of tradition.

From a poem by Nizar Kabbani, cited in The Girls of Riyadh

It is possible for most adolescents in the world not only to think, dream or anguish about their first date but also to have one, probably followed by a second, maybe a few more. In Saudi Arabia you can do the dreaming and worrying, but you may very well end up with no more than one date, especially if you are a girl, and you are likely to have little more than a walk-on part in it.

Marriages are for the most part arranged, and it is not unusual for a couple to meet for the first time after their parents agree to the union. So much in Saudi social life seems to be built around the idea that girls and boys should not meet, even to prepare themselves for marriage. There are no cinemas or concerts or parties to go to. Single young men, thought to be disruptive, aren't allowed to go to the mall on Thursday, 'family night', the busiest night of the week, and they must eat in separate sections at restaurants. So they sit in their cars outside, blocking traffic. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, religious policemen who wear long beards and refuse to look at a woman's face, keep an eye on them and intervene if the mall's security guards let them slip in. The young men sit and wait for a glimpse of a woman entering or leaving. They are unlikely to see any more than her eyes, the rest of her shape and form dispossessed, hidden beneath a robe. If they get so much as a look, one of the men may write his phone number on a piece of paper and throw it out the window, hoping she will have the courage to pick it up. Some stick their phone numbers on their car windshields in the hope of getting a call.

Determination and technology, however, have made life a little easier for young Saudis. Satellite television bombards them with images of the way other people live. Mobile telephones and internet chat rooms have made it less painful to get to know each other, once families have signed off on wedding plans. A common way to flirt is to turn on the wireless bluetooth facility on your mobile phone, allowing messages to be sent to other bluetooth-enabled phones within reach, even when the number is not known.

Into this clash of centuries comes a novel that captures it all. Written as a series of e-mails, The Girls of Riyadh records the trials and tribulations of four high-society city girls. They wear expensive designer clothes, sprinkle their speech with American jargon, make references to Sex and the City, and sometimes drink champagne. But under it all they continue to live in their Saudi world, smothered by the severe interpretation of Islam that prevails, where their most natural feelings are denied expression. Though the lifestyles of Sadeem, Gamrah, Mashael (nicknamed Michelle) and Lamees are more elite and far more liberal than many other Saudis, their experience is the experience of Saudi youth.

The Girls of Riyadh is written by Rajaa al-Sanie, a 25-year-old dental student who comes from a family of professionals, has lived most of her life in Riyadh and attended King Saud University. A kind of Arab Bridget Jones's Diary, the novel is popular across the Arab world and a bestseller at book fairs all over the Middle East. Published in Beirut last September, it was officially banned from distribution in Saudi Arabia until last month, a prohibition that created even more excitement. In Saudi Arabia itself, tens of thousands of copies have been circulating - from the internet or the black market. It is being read by men as much as women, its impact has been debated in newspapers and on television, and Rajaa has become a celebrity.

In an exchange of e-mails with me, Rajaa insists that The Girls of Riyadh is not based on her own life or that of her friends, but rather on stories that she's heard. 'I hate to disappoint you, but I have not found true love,' she says. She started writing it six years ago as a hobby, and she plans to write more novels as she continues her postgraduate dental studies in the US.

In the book, three of the girls have relationships that go badly wrong, frustrated by conservative families and conservative men. The girls meet (sometimes bringing a boyfriend) in the house of Um Nuwayyer, a friendly neighbour who shares their secrets and advises them. Um Nuwayyer's son is gay. Her husband left her to live with his second wife, after beating up his son. Homosexuality is only one of the taboos the author confronts in her book. Another is the hostility that even the least conservative of Sunni Wahabi society feels towards the minority Shia Muslims. Lamees refuses to heed her sister's advice and becomes friendly with Ali, a Shia. But the affair ends when the religious police find them together in a cafe. 'Poor Ali. He was a nice guy and, frankly, if he weren't a Shia, she would have loved him,' says the narrator, who is portrayed as a friend of the four girls.
Perhaps more shocking, is that Rajaa dares to show that Saudi girls are keen to meet boys, despite the oppressive social barriers. 'At the entrance to the mall, the girls followed a group of boys, who stood hesitant before the security guards. The defeated boys dispersed, except one, who walked towards Michelle. It seemed to him that she and Lamees were brave girls looking for adventure. He asked if he could go in with them as a member of the family in exchange for 1,000 riyals. Michelle was shocked by his defiance but quickly agreed.'

Funny and tragic, silly and serious, the book is written in a mix of colloquial and classical Arabic. Some readers have dismissed it as cheap melodrama. Others say it is a revealing study of one of the world's most secretive societies.

Rajaa did not intend it to be a social or political message. 'I hate it when people think I was trying to deliver a message. In the Arab world, most writings are tarnished with motives or political messages that turn them into propaganda and I hate for my book to be categorised as such. I leave it to the reader to come to his own conclusions.' Maybe so. But many Saudis saw in the book a passionate cry for an end to religious interference in people's lives. 'The book also exposed society,' a Saudi man and fan of Rajaa told me. 'It says you can't stop people from loving, that telephones and the internet have facilitated this, that parents might leave girls at the doors of university but they might get picked up by boys.'

Rajaa says she did not expect her book, which will be published in English later this year, to cause such a furious reaction. Yet she starts every chapter with a fictionalised account of the responses to her weekly mail, some conveying gentle praise, others spitting outrage. But as Abdelaziz al-Qassim, a young reformist expert in Sharia law, tells me, the most surprising thing about the book is that it provoked a debate, instead of a vicious religious backlash. True, Rajaa was vilified by conservatives writing in internet chat rooms but there was no official condemnation of her work. 'She put the behaviour of the girls of Riyadh on the table - and it just went by,' says al-Qassim. 'Four years ago there would have been a huge scandal and she could have been sent to jail.'
In some way The Girls of Riyadh reflects the changing times. It is part of the struggle between the religious forces that have taken Saudi Arabia into cultural xenophobia, and the more liberal voices who have wanted to liberate society in recent years. Until the attacks of September 11 2001, the al-Saud royal family had given clerics virtually a free hand in controlling Saudi society, while its own members went about governing the kingdom and living their own, often ostentatious lives. But having discovered that this policy had created young fanatics, the government has been trying, slowly and sometimes grudgingly, to curtail the powers of the clergy.

The succession in August last year of King Abdullah who, even at 82, seems to want more relaxed social rules, has reinforced this trend. His labour minister and close adviser Ghazi al-Gosaibi, himself a poet with several books banned in Saudi Arabia, endorsed Rajaa's book with a comment printed on the back cover: 'This book deserves to be read - I expect a lot from this novelist.' Islamists were furious that a figure so close to the king could hold such views. One prominent activist, Mohsen al-Awaji, used al-Gosaibi's support for the book as part of a scathing attack on the minister in an article published on the internet. Al-Awaji was harshly punished and briefly thrown in jail, an over-reaction it is difficult not to feel disappointed by.

The government is steering social relaxation -it wants to sponsor more cultural events, and more books are now allowed in, including some that discuss religious beliefs other than Wahabism. But cinemas and concerts are still banned and if you're a woman you still aren't allowed to drive a car (which means that if you've got one, you have to be alone in it with a man, usually a foreigner, called your driver).

Even if Rajaa insists it is not her intention to change all that, she can claim to have made a small contribution to young Saudis' war of liberation. 'Everyone is amazed that I dare to write this, and blames me for breaking taboos that we are not used to discussing in our society with such frankness,' writes the narrator in The Girls of Riyadh. 'But doesn't everything have a beginning? I may find a few believers in my cause today and I may not, but I doubt that I will find many opponents half a century from now.'

*Roula Khalaf is the FT's Middle East editor

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