Saturday, 17 March 2012

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea (Saudi Arabia)

Gamrah’s faith in her new husband is not exactly returned …

Sadeem is a little too willing to please her fiancé …

Michelle is half-American and the wrong class for her boyfriend’s family …

While Lamees works hard with little time for love.

The girls of Riyadh are young, attractive and living by Saudi Arabia’s strict cultural traditions. Well, not quite. In-between sneaking out behind their parents’ backs, dating, shopping, watching American TV and having fun, they’re still trying to be good little Muslim girls. That is, pleasing their families and their men.

But can you be a twenty-first century girl and a Saudi girl?

I first heard about this book during one of many trips to Lundy, a small island in the Bristol Channel, when I read an interview with the author in the Daily Mail. The book sounded fascinating, but this was in the days before Kindles when everything (for me at least) was still bought in shops, so the book was filed in my brain under those that I would like to read, until some vague recollection triggered its memory and a copy was finally ordered several years later.

It was worth the wait, as I can honestly say that this was one of the most eye opening reads of last year (2011). It definately changed my perception of what goes on 'beneath the veil' in the world's only Islamic state, where there is no secular law, only religious.

Having worked for a company whose clients were all Saudi banks back in the early 90's, I had many conversations with our salesman, a regular visitor to Riyadh where the book is set, on the apparent contradictions and blatant hypocrisy in Saudi society, especially when it comes to women, which this book exposes in stark detail. I remember a conversation I had via email with the Indian employee of one of our clients, to the effect that I should not go to Saudi, for women there were like "birds in gilded cages". Having read this book, I have no doubt that he was right. The cage of which he speaks is very much a men's world, where the every single action that a woman takes, even in private, is largely controlled by the attitudes and beliefs of men.       

The book follows the lives of 4 Saudi women, all of whom are very different, but as it turns out, want the same thing (goodness knows why, for if I were a Saudi woman I would remain resolutely single, not that I would probably have a choice) to marry the man of their dreams. How though do you do this, in a society where dating as we would know it is forbidden, and where most marriages are arranged, or at the very least, have to be 'vetted' by the grooms family?

The girls go about their quest in different ways and experience many trials and tribulations along the way. As with all good stories, all bar one end up happy and settled in the end, the rest I will leave you to find out for yourselves ...

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