Girls of Riyadh caused a stir when it was published in Lebanon in 2005 in the original Arabic. Through a series of emails, released weekly, Rajaa Alsanea chronicles the stories of her narrator’s four friends Sadeem, Gamrah, Michelle, and Lamees. These women are well educated and well traveled, but they live in the Saudi Arabian society where marriages are arranged by families. They have little to no say in whom they will marry, but that does not stop them from falling in love, often with someone whom they cannot have. Throughout the novel, the girls try to love in the context of their society, some with success and others with heartbreaking failure.
The culture of this story is so far removed from my American understandings, and that makes this book all the more fascinating and all the more heart-wrenching. I take for granted my abilities to make my own decisions and not be ostracized by family or society. One of the most fascinating things about Girls of Riyadh was the lack of direct commentary from the author. Alsanea does not pass judgment and say this way of life and this culture are good or bad; instead, she shows the effects of this culture on these girls and lets the reader judge. Though it is fairly clear the narrator does not like seeing her friends hurt by their families, their lovers, or their society, she also comes to the defense of the culture at times and acknowledges instances when things have turned out for the better because of this system in which they live.
Unfortunately, the English is only a translation, and both author and translator mention the difficulties involved in carrying the dialects over to the English version. With even my limited knowledge of Arabic, I know this would be a challenge, so I think there is some level of information that is lost on the reader in the English version. Despite that, it is a beautifully written book and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
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