Girls of Riyadh, 25-year-old Rajaa Alsanea’s début, caused a stir when it first appeared in Saudi Arabia in 2005. Flagged by the Government for inflammatory content, the novel’s offences included its subversive depiction of women and its encouragement of ‘vice’. With public denunciations reaching a feverish pitch, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the novel went on to do a roaring trade on the local black market and soon found a US publisher.
It’s not difficult to see where the controversy came from. Billed as a Saudi Sex in the City, Girls of Riyadh lifts the veil on the lives of four young women. Sadeem, Lamees, Gamrah and Michelle, all members of Saudi Arabia’s privileged ‘velvet class’, career around Riyadh, encountering love and heartbreak and inviting us into a way of life which, while stereotypically Middle Eastern, also contains many touchstones. OK, Sadeem and her friends aren’t supposed to drive. They can’t open bank accounts. They wear traditional clothes. But they also listen to Britney Spears. They steal their father’s Dom Perignon, get around the law by driving cars with tinted windows, check their horoscopes, indulge in plastic surgery and spend thousands of dollars on designer dresses. It’s not quite the life of an ‘average’ Western woman – but Carrie Bradshaw, anyone?
It’s a shame that Girls of Riyadh is, ultimately, a flawed piece of writing. As a cultural peephole it works very well. As a novel, the sentences are clunky, the dialogue is wooden, and the imagery and set pieces are clichéd. Characters, meanwhile, exist less as rounded people than as ciphers through which to explore female issues.
For insight into a normally invisible part of Saudi Arabian society, Girls of Riyadh is fascinating. Just don’t expect finely crafted fiction.