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Authors: Rajaa Alsanea

Girls of Riyadh

BOOK: Girls of Riyadh
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Rajaa Alsanea

Rajaa Alsanea and Marilyn Booth


New York

Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. • Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi–110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0745, Auckland, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published in 2007 by The Penguin Press,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Copyright © Rajaa Alsanea, 2005
Translation copyright © Rajaa Alsanea and Marilyn Booth, 2007
All rights reserved

Originally published in Arabic by Dar al Saqi, Beirut.

Publisher’s Note
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


Sani’, Raja’ ’Abd Allah.
[Banat al-Riyad. English]
Girls of Riyadh: a novel / Rajaa Alsanea; translated by Rajaa Alsanea and Marilyn Booth.
p. cm.
ISBN: 9781101419939
I. Booth, Marilyn. II. Title.
PJ7962.A55B3613 2007

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrightable materials.Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

To my most beloved;


and sister Rasha

to all of my friends,


Girls of Riyadh


It never occurred to me, when I wrote my novel (
Banat Al-Riyadh
), that I would be releasing it in any language other than Arabic. I did not think the Western world would actually be interested. It seemed to me, and to many other Saudis, that the Western world still perceives us either romantically, as the land of the Arabian Nights and the land where bearded sheikhs sit in their tents surrounded by their beautiful harem women, or politically, as the land that gave birth to Bin Laden and other terrorists, the land where women are dressed in black from head to toe and where every house has its own oil well in the backyard! Therefore, I knew it would be very hard, maybe impossible, to change this cliché. But the success of my book in the Arab world was enough to mark me as a member of Arab intellectual society, which seemed to come with certain responsibilities. Furthermore, coming from a family that values other cultures and nations, and being the proud Saudi I am, I felt it is my duty to reveal another side of Saudi life to the Western world. The task was not easy, however.

In my Arabic version of the novel I interspersed the classical Arabic with language that reflects the mongrel Arabic of the modern world—there was Saudi dialect (several of them), and Lebanese-Arabic, English-Arabic and more. As none of that would make sense to the non-Arab reader, I had to modify the original text somewhat. I also had to add explanations that will hopefully help the Western reader better understand the gist of the text, as it was originally intended in Arabic.

In the interest of fairness, I have to make clear that the girls in the novel do not represent all girls in Riyadh, but they do represent many of them.

I hope that by the time you finish this book, you will say to yourself: Oh, yes. It is a very conservative Islamic society. The women there do live under male dominance. But they are full of hopes and plans and determination and dreams. And they fall deeply in and out of love just like women anywhere else.

And I hope you will see, too, that little by little some of these women are beginning to carve out their own way—not the Western way, but one that keeps what is good about the values of their religion and culture, while allowing for reform.

“Verily, Allah does not change a people’s condition until they change what is in themselves.”

(The Chapter of Thunder), Verse 11


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To: [email protected]

From: “seerehwenfadha7et”

Date: February 13, 2004

Subject: I Shall Write of My Friends

Ladies and Gentlemen: You are invited to join me in one of the most explosive scandals and noisiest, wildest all-night parties around. Your personal tour guide—and that’s
—will reveal to you a new world, a world closer to you than you might imagine. We all live in this world but do not really experience it, seeing only what we can tolerate and ignoring the rest.

To all of you out there

Who are over the age of eighteen, and in some countries that’ll mean twenty-one, though among us Saudis it means over six (and no, I don’t mean sixteen) for guys and after menarche for girls.

To everyone out there

Who has got enough inner courage to read the naked truth laid out on the World Wide Web and the resolve to accept that truth, with of course the essential patience to stay with me through this insane adventure.

To all who have

Grown weary of the “Me Tarzan You Jane” brand of romance novels and have gotten beyond a black and white, good and evil view of the world.

To anyone who believes

That 1 + 1 may not necessarily be equal to two, as well as all of you out there who have lost hope that Captain Majed
will score those two goals to reach a draw in the last second of the episode. To the enraged and the outraged, the heated and the hostile, the rebellious and the bilious, and to all of you who just know that every weekend for the rest of your lives will be a total loss—not to mention the rest of the week. It’s for you; it’s to you that I write my e-mails. May they be the matches that set your thoughts on fire, the lighter that fuels a blaze of change.

Tonight’s the night. The heroes of my story are people among you, from you and within you, for from the desert we all come and to the desert we shall all return. Just as it is with our desert plants, you’ll find the sweet and the thorny here, the virtuous and the wicked. Some of my heroes are sweet and others are thorny, while a few are a bit of both at the same time. So keep the secrets you will be told, or as we say, “Shield what you may encounter!” And since I have quite boldly started writing this e-mail without consulting my girlfriends, and because every one of them lives huddled in the shadow of a man, or a wall, or a man who is a wall,
or simply stays put in the darkness, I’ve decided to change all the names of the people I will write about and make a few alterations to the facts, but in a way that will not compromise the honesty of the tale nor take the sting out of the truth. To be frank, I don’t give a damn about the repercussions of this project of mine. As Kazantzakis put it, “I expect nothing. I fear no one. I am free.” Yet a way of life has stood its ground in the face of all you’ll read here; and I have to admit that I don’t consider it an achievement to destroy it by means of a bunch of e-mails.

I shall write of my girlfriends,

for in each one’s tale

I see my story and self prevail,

a tragedy my own life speaks.

I shall write of my girlfriends,

of inmates’ lives sucked dry by jail,

and magazine pages that consume women’s time,

and of the doors that fail to open.

Of desires slain in their cradles I’ll write,

of the vast great cell,

black walls of travail,

of thousands, thousands of martyrs, all female,

buried stripped of their names

in the graveyard of traditions.

My female friends,

dolls swathed in gauze in a museum

coins in History’s mint, never given, never spent;

fish swarming and choking in every basin and tank,

while in crystal vessels, dying butterflies flock.

Without fear

I shall write of my friends,

of the chains twisted bloody around the ankles of beauties,

of delirium and nausea, and the nighttime that entreaty rends,

and desires buried in pillows, in silence.

—Nizar Qabbani

Right you are, Nizar, baby! Your tongue be praised, God bless you and may you rest in peace. Truth be told, though you are a man, you are indeed “the woman’s poet” and if anyone doesn’t like my saying so they can go drink from the sea.

My hair is now fluffed and teased, and I’ve painted my lips a shameless crimson red. Beside me rests a bowl of chips splashed with chili and lime. Readers: prepare yourselves. I’m ready to disclose the first scandal!

he wedding planner called out to Sadeem, who was hiding behind the curtain with her friend Gamrah. In her singsong Lebanese Arabic, Madame Sawsan informed Sadeem that the wedding music tape was still stuck in the machine and that efforts were being made to fix it.

“Please, tell Gamrah to calm down! It’s nothing to worry about, no one is going to leave. It’s only one
! And anyway, all the
brides these days start things on the late side to add a bit of suspense. Some never walk down the aisle before two or three

Gamrah, though, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She could hear the voices of her mother and her sister Hessah shrieking at the events manager from the other end of the ballroom, and the whole evening was threatening to turn out to be a sensational humiliation. Sadeem stayed at the bride’s side, wiping beads of sweat from her friend’s forehead before they could collide with the tears that were held back only by the quantity of kohl weighing down her eyelids.

The voice of the famous Saudi singer Muhammad Abdu finally blasted from the amplifiers, filling the enormous hall and prompting Madame Sawsan to give Sadeem the nod. Sadeem poked Gamrah.

let’s go.”

With a swift movement Gamrah wiped her hands along her body after reciting some verses of the Holy Qur’an to protect her from envious eyes, and raised the neckline of her dress to keep it from drooping over her small breasts. She began her descent of the marble staircase, going even more slowly than at the rehearsal with her girlfriends, adding a sixth second to the five she was supposed to count between each stair. She murmured the name of God before every step, praying that Sadeem wouldn’t stumble on her train causing it to tear, or that she wouldn’t trip over the floor-length hem of her dress and fall flat on her face like in a comedy show. It was so unlike the rehearsal, where she didn’t have a thousand women watching her every move and assessing every smile; where there was no annoying photographer blinding her every few seconds. With the blazing lights and all those dreadful peering eyes fixed on her, the small family wedding she’d always disdained suddenly began to seem like a heavenly dream.

Behind her, Sadeem followed her progress with utter concentration, ducking to avoid appearing in any of the photos. One never knows who might be looking at the photos from the bride’s or groom’s side, and like any decent girl, Sadeem wouldn’t want strange men to see her in an exposing evening dress and full makeup. She adjusted the veil on Gamrah’s head and gave a tiny jiggle to the train after each step Gamrah took as her radar picked up fragments of conversation at nearby tables.


Ma shaa Allah,
God willing, no envy touch her, she’s so pretty!”

“The bride’s sister?”

“They say she’s an old friend.”

“She seems a good girl—since we arrived I’ve seen her running around taking care of all sorts of things—it looks like she’s carrying the whole wedding on her shoulders.”

“She’s a good deal prettier than the bride. Can you believe it, I heard that Prophet Mohammed used to send up prayers for the unlovely ones!”

“God’s blessings and peace be upon him.
E wallah
must be true, because I swear, the ugly ones seem to be in demand these days. Not us, what bad luck.”

“Is her blood pure? Her skin is so fair.”

“Her father’s mother was Syrian.”

“Her name is Sadeem Al-Horaimli. Her mother’s family is married into ours. If your son is serious, I can get you the details about her.”

Sadeem had already been told that three ladies had asked about her since the wedding started. Now she heard numbers four and five with her own ears. Every time one of Gamrah’s sisters came over to tell her that so-and-so had been asking questions, she murmured demurely, “May good health knock on her door.”

It seemed to Sadeem as if Gamrah’s marriage might indeed be “the first pearl to roll off the necklace,” as Auntie Um Nuwayyir put it. Perhaps now the rest of the girls would be just as lucky. That is, if they followed the plan Auntie had concocted.

The strategy of
yaaalla yaaalla,
which means “get going, but just
” is the most foolproof path to a quick marriage proposal in our conservative society. The idea is to be energetic and constrained at the same time. “And after that you can be as foolish as you want,” according to Um Nuwayyir’s counsel. At weddings, receptions and social gatherings where ladies meet, especially the
ladies looking to make a match (or “capital funds and mothers-with-sons,” as we girls like to call them), you must follow this strategy to the letter: “You
walk, you
talk, you
smile, you
dance, be mature and wise, you always think before you act, you measure your words carefully before you speak and you do not behave like a child.” There is no end to Um Nuwayyir’s instructions.

The bride took her place on the magnificently decorated platform. Her mother and the mother of the groom mounted the stairs to congratulate her on the happy marriage she had embarked on and to have their photos taken with the bride before the men came in from where they were celebrating in an adjoining room.

At this traditional Najdi wedding, where most people spoke in the dialect of the country’s interior, Lamees’s sophisticated west coast Hijazi accent stood out as she whispered to her friend Michelle.

“Hey! Check her out. The pharaohs are back!” The influence of Lamees’s Egyptian grandmother was always readily apparent in Lamees’s sharp tongue and manner.

She and Michelle studied the heavy makeup that coated the face of their friend Gamrah, especially her eyes, which had turned the color of blood from all the kohl seeping into them.

Michelle’s real name is Mashael, but everyone, including her family, calls her Michelle. She answered Lamees in English.

Where the hell did she get that dress?”

“Poor Gammoorah,
I wish she had gone to the dressmaker who made Sadeem’s dress instead of this mess she came up with herself! Just look at Sadeem’s gorgeous dress, though—anyone would think it’s by Elie Saab.”

“Oh, whatever. Like there’s even one lady in this provincial crowd who would know the difference! Do you think anyone has any clue my dress is by Badgley Mishka? By God, her makeup is painful! Her skin is too dark for such a chalky foundation. They’ve made her practically blue—and look at the contrast between her face and her neck. Ewww…so vulgar!”

“Eleven o’clock! Eleven o’clock!”

“It’s one-thirty.”

“No, you idiot, I mean, turn to your left like the hands of a clock when it’s eleven—you will never get it, will you—you’ll never pass Gossip 101! Anyway, check out that girl—she’s got ‘talent,’ all right!”

“Which ‘talent’—front bumper or back?”

“Are you cross-eyed? Back, of course.”

“Too much. They ought to take a chunk off her and give Gamrah a dose on the front, like that collagen stuff everyone is using.”

“The most ‘talented’ of all of us is Sadeem—look at how feminine she looks with those curves. I wish I had a back bumper like hers.”

“I think she really needs to ditch a few pounds and work out like you do.
Alhamdu lillah,
thank God, I never gain weight no matter how much I eat, so I’m not worried.”

BOOK: Girls of Riyadh
6.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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