Posted by: koolwine | August 12, 2010

Saudi Arabia: Girls of Riyadh

Country: Saudi Arabia

Local Name: Al Arabiyah as Suudiyah (in transliterated Arabic)

The 2009 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi 133rd out of 134 countries in “economic participation and opportunity” for women.  Women are not allowed drive, vote, appear in court, and are required to wear robe-like abayas and headscarves when in public.

Title: Girls of Riyadh

Author: Rajaa Alsanea (Saudi); Translated by Rajaa Alsanea and Marilyn Booth

Published: 2005  Pages: 281

Acclaim/Notoriety: Banned by the Saudi government;  Alsanea received death threats “for bringing her nation’s women into disrepute;” Nominated for the 2009 Dublin Literary Award

Time Period: 2000s

Summary: Details the romances, marriages and divorces of four twenty-something women who reside in one of the world’s most conservative Muslim cities.

My opinion: An eye-opening look at the dating scene in Saudi, whose Sharia-based law decrees virtually no face-to-face interaction between unrelated men and women (unmarried couples conduct relationships via cell phone).  Chic lit through and through (a genre I usually avoid), Girls of Riyadh kept me hooked by describing the country’s strict, complex and often heart-breaking rules of courtship.

In my book (or, what Saudi Arabia means to me and maybe you, too)

Because Saudi Arabia is the only Middle Eastern country that includes the term “Arabia” in its name, I’ve been erroneously connecting anything that was described as “Arabic” or “Arabian” to Saudi.  Arabia actually encompasses the entire peninsula between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf and includes the countries of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and parts of  Jordan, Syria and Iraq.

This inconvenient fact takes what little I thought I knew about Saudi and scatters it across the Arab world.  For example, Scheherazade’s tales of Aladdin and Ali Baba originated in Syria, so I’ll wait to discuss those stories from Arabian Nights until that post.

Arabian horses were domesticated in the “Arabian peninsula,” which is vague enough to keep them in this Saudi post
I was one of those horse-obsessed girls.  “Horse” was listed at the top of all of my birthday and Christmas wish lists until, well, never mind.  Nothing fueled my horse fever more than the 1980 movie The Black Stallion, which was based on Walter Farley’s first book in a series of Black Stallion adventures.  The title character was an Arabian, a horse breed easily recognizable for the dished profile of its face, finely sculpted features, and tail carried so high that it streams out behind like a proudly waving flag.  Arab poets described the Arabian as “a drinker of the wind, a dancer of fire.”

Bedding down with the Beduin
British explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s book Arabian Sands contrasts sharply with Girls of Riyadh.  In this recounting of his 1945-1950 travels across the Rub’ al Khali, or “Empty Quarter” (a vast stretch of desert with towering sand dunes that blankets southern Saudi Arabia), Thesiger gives the reader insight into the lives of his male Beduin companions, a camel-owning nomadic people who are as much a part of the romantic mythology of Arab world as Native Americans are are to the western U.S.   He writes:

“Bedu notice everything and forget nothing.  Their life is at times desperately hard and they are merciless critics of those who fall short in patience, good humor, generosity, loyalty or courage.  They make no allowance for the stranger.  Whoever lives with the Bedu must accept Bedu conventions and conform to Bedu standards.  They are accustomed since birth to the physical hardships of the desert, to drink scanty bitter water, to eat gritty unleavened bread, to endure the maddening irritation of driven sand, intense cold, heat and blinding glare in a land without shade or cloud.”

Are they Saudi for the attacks?  And my flying woes?
On the morning of 9/11, I was unemployed and hanging out at home.  My husband called from work to tell me to turn on the TV; the first of the twin towers had already fallen.

Osama bin Laden, son of one of the wealthiest and most influential businessmen in Saudi Arabia, was responsible for the overwhelming rise in TV viewership and American patriotism that day.  He wasn’t the only Saudi involved in the attacks; fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were also Saudi.

So, of course we declare war on Afghanistan.  And later, Iraq.

Charles Lewis, head of the Center for Public Integrity (a nonprofit that acts as a government watchdog), said: “It’s always been very clear that there are deep ties between the Bush family and the Saudis. It creates a credibility problem. When it comes to the war on terror, a lot of people have to be wondering why we are concerned about some countries and not others. Why does Saudi Arabia get a pass?”

Michael Moore made a movie called Fahrenheit 9/11 about that.

Politics aside, the influence of fanatical Saudi men on Americans is undeniable. If the loss of our World Trade Center, four planes, nearly 3,000 innocent lives, over 5,500 of our servicemen and women, and billions of dollars wasn’t enough of an effect on my life, for the past nine years and forever into the future, whenever I fly, I have Osama to thank for:

  1. having to arrive at the airport two hours instead of one hour ahead of time because of longer airport security lines (leaving Missoula, I can still get away with only in hour but anywhere else I depart from…)
  2. forcing me to buy overpriced drinks from airport stores since we are no longer allowed to bring our own through security (damn those pesky scientists who figured out how to weaponize liquids!)
  3. making me pay to check a bag since most of the time my toiletry liquid needs are greater than the allowed 3 ounces (or, for making me take the time and energy to fill small bottles with stuff from big bottles, bah!)
  4. relegating friends and family to wait in baggage claim rather than being able to meet each other (and wait together) at the gate


  1. […] Saudi Arabia: Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea […]


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