BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea, translated by Rajaa Alsanea and Marilyn Booth

Girls of RiyadhSometimes the best thing that can happen to a book is to get banned. REALLY. Just ask Rajaa al-Sanea (yes, the spelling of her name is different on the cover of her book from what she has on her personal website – which has two variations of ‘Al-Sanea,’ and ‘al-Sanea,’ so I’m just picking the latter here).

[Update on July 11, 2013: al-Sanea’s personal website,, seems to have taken down or is being blocked. No further information found.]

Her novel was first published in Lebanon in Arabic in 2005, and was quickly banned by the government of her native Saudi Arabia, making it a near-instant underground bestseller. It appeared in English translation in 2007, and was longlisted for the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Liteary Award in 2009. Death threats aside (!), al-Sanea has had quite an auspicious literary debut!

The titular Girls are four wealthy, privileged young women living in Riyadh, all searching for true love with someday (soon) dreams of a happy marriage. Their lives are revealed by an anonymous fifth friend in a series of weekly emails she posts via a Yahoo group; her following grows exponentially as she reveals the intimate lives of Qamrah whose arranged marriage to Rashid proves disastrous, Sadeem who twice chooses the wrong men, Mashael who is betrayed by a man who cannot go against his family, and Lamees the only one who finds true love.

While the 19th-century genteel man-hunting world of Jane Austen immediately comes to mind, the shock factor here is that what happens in Girls is happening now, two centuries later. Even in a major city such as Riyadh, women remain closeted and controlled. In spite of modern conveniences like the cell phone and computers, communication is anything but open. Regardless of vast wealth that allows for first-class airline tickets and posh educations abroad, the lives of these girls remain tightly circumscribed by constrictive societal expectations.

That the anonymous friend reveals everyday, albeit private, details about her friends is akin to blasphemy in the suppressed Saudi society in which these girls live; even for those who choose to leave such confinement, choose inevitably to return. For the Western reader used to … say … Sex in the City, or even the current Fifty Shades of Grey craze, the experiences of Girls of Riyadh will seem virtually harmless. But to read Riyadh as an outsider is to glimpse how these women on the other side of the world live … and endure. The realization is quite a sobering bottom line: more often than not, even wealth and privilege cannot buy freedom.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2007 (United States)



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