Note: Despite all the criticism that the young Rajaa Al-Sanea was subjected to in the Arabic media following the publication in September 2005 of her controversial Arabic novel, "Banat Al-Riyadh," she was calm, composed and confident during the interview that I conducted with her in March 2006. When I asked her if she regretted writing "Banat Al-Riyadh," Al-Sanea's answer was straightforward: "I am proud of it and I would hate any change to be made to the novel's content." When this interview was first published in the weekender Review section of Arab News, it generated a huge debate in the newspaper and on various blogs it was posted on. — Siraj Wahab, Feb. 17, 2007
JEDDAH, March 11, 2006 — Twenty-four-year-old Rajaa Al-Sanea stirred up a hornet's nest with the publication of her first novel, "Banat Al-Riyadh" or "The Girls of Riyadh." Reactions to the 319-page novel have, in some cases, been extreme. The novel deals with the lives of four young Saudi girls who must live according to the traditions of Saudi society. The girls are students at a university in Riyadh.
Al-Sanea has attained instant fame because of the raging debate over her novel which was first published in Arabic by Saqi Books in Lebanon last September. Now she is looking for an English language publisher. Nearly 250 articles have appeared about the novel, both here and abroad. Her critics and fans come from all age groups.
Al-Sanea's detractors contend there is nothing great about the book and offer a variety of justifications for their position. Some credit the book's success to its introduction, written by Labor Minister Dr. Ghazi Al-Gosaibi, a renowned poet and author. "'Banat Al-Riyadh' is a work that deserves to be read. I expect a lot from this author," he writes in his introduction.
In trashing the book, one Saudi woman writer said: "But for Dr. Al-Gosaibi's introduction, nobody would have given this novel a second thought." Some others say the reason for Al-Sanea's popularity is her good looks. In an Associated Press report, Donna Abu-Nasr describes her as "a petite brunette who wears an Islamic head scarf, like virtually all Saudi women."
"This is the age of television and looks matter," said a 30-year-old Saudi who read the book last week. "Somebody got it for me from Beirut. Beauty drives the marketing of your product. Rajaa has the looks, and so even when the product, i.e. the novel, is bad it sells and is selling like hot cakes," he said.
Al-Sanea's fans, whose numbers are legion going by the hits on her website (www.rajaa.net), say those who criticize are simply jealous of her success. They (the critics) say the style is atrocious. They say the language is far from classical Arabic. They say it is peppered with chatroom English and full of meaningless terms from the Internet. When Al-Sanea was asked about it, she was blunt. "I wrote the first few chapters in classical Arabic, but I modified them later because I couldn't convince myself that women my age would use classical Arabic to speak to each other. I used colloquial language to improve communication with my readers."
One Saudi woman journalist probably hit the nail on the head when she observed: "It is our tradition not to talk about the ills of our society. We know there are problems in our society, but the general reaction is to keep quiet. We have been taught from an early age that if we talk about the ills of our society, people will laugh at us. We are seen as role models in the Muslim world. And even when we are not entirely perfect, we should pretend that we are. 'Banat Al-Riyadh' deals with four characters. They may or may not represent all of Saudi society. But yes, we do come across the four fictional characters in our daily lives. Probably Saudi society - and especially Saudi women - are so much in the spotlight that this novel has come in handy for people who want to take a peek into the lives of Saudi girls. My only problem is that it sheds only a negative light on Saudi women. People outside this country will take it as a definitive word on the girls of our country." Many of Al-Sanea's critics would agree and they want her to change the title of the novel precisely because they think it gives the impression that it is true of all the girls in Riyadh.
"Banat Al-Riyadh" examines the lives of four Saudi girls: Sadeem, Qamrah, Mashael and Lamees. Mashael is half-Saudi and half-American. Her American mother and friends call her Michelle. All four are students at a university in Riyadh. According to one Saudi female columnist, there are in fact five women instead of four. "Everyone seems to forget the narrator," she wrote.
The narrator is unidentified, except that she is in her early 20s. She is a modern Scheherazade who tells the stories of the girls' weekends. Her motivation is to end society's tyranny over her friends.
The four girls are bound by a strong friendship despite many differences. Each one of them experiences failures except Lamees who succeeds in both her professional and personal life. She marries the man of her choice and goes with him to Canada to study for a degree in medicine.
Lamees is the group's fortune-teller. She always is consulted by her friends about future matches and emotional relationships. At one point in the novel, she ends her friendship with Fatema because she is a Shia, and Lamees is a Sunni. Lamees likes Fatema's brother who is studying medicine, but the relationship ends abruptly after they are caught in a cafe by members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
Lamees has a kind heart and helps her friends in resolving their problems. She supports them in times of need. For example, she teaches Qamrah, who has been ill-treated by society, how to use the Internet, send e-mails and to chat online so that she can come out of the isolated world she finds herself in. Qamrah is a divorcee with a baby.
Qamrah's story is typical. She married Rashed after an arranged meeting at which the two families allowed the prospective husband to see the girl once to decide whether he liked her. There was no exchange of ideas or thoughts. "See the girl once and make up your mind." Qamrah also had the same chance to see the man and give her opinion. Since they both agreed, their families proceeded with the marriage. After marriage, the two go to Chicago so that Rashed can finish his postgraduate studies. The novel discusses their marital discord.
Rashed forces her to give up her hijab. And she does so in the hope of winning his heart. But when he sees her without hijab he thinks she looks ugly. He asks her to wear the hijab again to hide her ugliness. Qamrah loves Rashed despite all his cruelty. Matters come to a head when she learns of Rashed's betrayal. He has a mistress: A Japanese-American woman. Qamrah insists on meeting the woman and leaves seething with the desire for revenge. She stops taking her contraceptive pills and becomes pregnant.
When Rashed finds out that she is pregnant, he slaps her and sends her back to Riyadh. He then sends divorce papers and she becomes a single parent. She lives at her father's house completely isolated. Her family members prevent her from going out. They fear she will stain the family name and honor if she goes out but her friends nonetheless manage to get her out from time to time.
Sadeem's story is no less tragic. She is raised by her father because her mother dies soon after giving birth to her. She loses her first love and then her second. Her first tragedy is caused by Walid when he deserts her after a few months of marriage. She gives herself to him one night considering that he is her husband even though the wedding had not taken place yet. Walid disappears and is never seen again. He eventually sends divorce papers which come as a shock; she blames herself because she did not wait until after the wedding. Sadeem never tells her family about what happened. She believes Walid divorced her because he thought she was girl with loose morals. (In the Muslim world, engagement norms are different from those in the West. The man and woman are considered officially married when their marital vows are exchanged and the documents signed. However, the period from the time of signing the documents till the night of the wedding is the engagement period. There is nothing in Islam to prevent them from having sex before that night as they are officially wed, but to do so is considered a mistake by society and men may get the impression that the girl is too easy or that she has had a premarital relationship.)
Sadeem's second tragedy is caused by Firas. She meets him in London while recovering from her first tragedy. She falls in love with him and he with her. But the fact that he has never been married prevents him from marrying a divorcee. Firas then marries one of his relatives and later calls Sadeem and offers to continue the relationship without leaving his wife. Sadeem refuses. Her suffering increases as Firas continues to call her. She finally decides to forget all about him and she is left with no choice but to marry her cousin Tareq. She never wanted to marry him even though he had strong feelings for her.
Mashael is more realistic and more liberal. Compared to her friends, she has had more freedom. She was born to a Saudi father and an American mother. One day, she meets Faisal when he asks her and her girlfriends to allow him to enter the shopping mall with them as a brother. (Single young men are not allowed to enter big shopping malls in order to prevent them from flirting with women.) This brief encounter is the start of mutual love. Their attraction lasts a year, and when Mashael asks Faisal to marry her, he refuses since his mother will not allow him to marry a girl who was not chosen by his family. On top of that, there are objections to Mashael's American mother. The upshot is that Mashael loses her faith in men and travels to San Francisco to study with an American cousin. They are attracted to one another, but things never progress to love. Faced with this confusing relationship, she travels back to Riyadh. Her father decides to move the whole family to Dubai in order to escape the gossip about Mashael as well as what has become her bad reputation.
In Dubai, Mashael works for a satellite TV channel. She succeeds in her work and lives freely. She admires a TV director who works with her, but she remains confused about whether she loves him. She asks her father if he will allow her to appear on TV as there is an opening for a TV hostess, but he refuses and convinces her that her appearance on TV would lead to problems in Saudi Arabia and with his family.
The novel has one encouraging story and that is the marriage of Lamees to the man she has chosen. It seems that Lamees learns from the mistakes of her friends and never repeats them. In fact, she formulates a strategy to win her colleague's heart after falling in love with him at first sight. She uses everything to make the relationship succeed. Her plans culminate in a happy marriage and a trip to Canada to study medicine.
"I try all the time to distance myself from motivated writings since, in the Arab world, this kind of writing is more or less a form of propaganda that transfers a distorted image of reality to the reader," Al-Sanea told Arab News when asked about her motive for writing the book. "I write because I enjoy this kind of art; I'm not sure if anyone has to give a reason to write or to paint."
During her interview with Arab News, Al-Sanea said she was surprised by the amount of attention the novel has generated. "I did expect some controversy - but not to this extent," she said. "About 200 articles have been written about the novel in the Arabic media and about 50 in English. I never expected that. It is important to listen to both parties. Any creative act usually leads to controversy, but what is important is the end result - positive progress, I hope."
She also is quick to remind people that the book is a novel - a work of fiction. "I hate to disappoint you but the characters in the book are not my friends," Al-Sanea said. "The novel is based on events I've heard about; they have added authenticity to the novel."
Al-Sanea considers herself an author, not a firebrand. "I am just a member of this society who is giving the reader a chance to look through my small window and share the same scene with me," she said. "Any successful work should have a creative idea behind it, and I do believe the issue is not to write about different aspects of society, but to catch a creative idea and put it on paper."
The young woman is fascinated by the works of Dr. Ghazi Al-Gosaibi and Ihsan Abdul-Qudos. "I also read non-Arabic works in their original language. I have always admired 'The Old Man and the Sea' by Ernest Hemingway. In that novel, the writer uses his enormous talent and expertise to impress the reader with an environment that is abstract: The sea and one man."
Al-Sanea hopes to continue honing her craft and, at this point, expects it to be a lifelong pursuit. "I want to continue to write and produce novels of the same caliber. I have a book in my mind already, but I would like to keep it to myself for now," Al-Sanea said, noting that her family and friends have been supportive of her. She has no regrets about "Banat Al-Riyadh." "I am proud of it. I would hate any change to be made to its content."