- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 8, 2007


Finding love in Saudi Arabia is practically impossible, especially for young Muslim women.

That’s the premise 25-year-old author Rajaa Alsanea tackles in her novel, “Girls of Riyadh,” which already has created a stir throughout the Arab world.

“In Saudi, there are a lot of restrictions,” she says during an interview at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Dentistry. Miss Alsanea is pursuing a master’s degree in oral sciences before returning to Riyadh to live with her family, practice dentistry and continue writing fiction.

“We’re living in the 21st century, and there are still traditions from the 19th century, and that’s just insane,” she says. “And yet you have to go through all this pain when you want to get married.”

Dressed in black scrubs with a long-sleeved pink undershirt and matching hijab — a Muslim woman’s head scarf that signifies a strict code of behavior — Miss Alsanea says she wrote the book as a criticism of her homeland.

“It’s my obligation to try to fix things in Saudi. I’m not trying to fix the government or Islam. What I’m trying to fix is mentality, how people think. It’s the traditions,” she says.

The novel, her first published work, examines the love lives of four twentysomething Muslim women in upper-class Saudi Arabia. In the book, an anonymous writer sends a weekly e-mail to thousands of Saudis. The e-mails tell the stories of the writer’s friends — Gamrah, Michelle, Lamees and Sadeem — and chronicles their courtships, which are tied in to family approval, social class and religion.

Gamrah, from an ultraconservative family, marries a man her parents choose and follows him to the United States. She soon discovers he’s already in love with someone else and only married Gamrah to obey his parents. Gamrah returns home heartbroken, pregnant and unsure of her future.

Despite the buzz surrounding her book, which arrived in stores on Thursday , Miss Alsanea says she has no desire to pursue writing as a full-time career.

“I always say that writing is for my soul. Dentistry is a job, a skill, something that introduces you to people,” she says. “I don’t want to do writing as a job.”

She has not been writing while in dental school, something her family values greatly. Three of her five siblings are doctors; the other two are dentists. Even so, her family has been immensely supportive of her novel.

Her late father, she says, was her biggest inspiration to write. He would ask her to read the newspaper aloud in Arabic, and he would correct her pronunciation and grammar. Through school, she developed her creativity by writing plays and short stories, including one she wrote when she was 11 that was told through the perspective of a water droplet. When none of her teachers believed that she wrote it herself, she vowed to write a book someday.

She won an overwhelming response from well-known Arab writers in 2005 after the original Arabic publication of “Girls of Riyadh” in Lebanon. Then 23, Miss Alsanea also got death threats from critics who were outraged.

The novel’s content is far from salacious by Western standards; there are no explicit references to sex. However, for some in Saudi Arabia, where Saudi women are forbidden to drive and Islamic law limits the consumption of alcohol and discourages premarital sex, it has been considered scandalous.

In one part of the book, Michelle dresses as a man so she can drive her three friends to the mall for an all-girls outing. In another story, Sadeem sleeps with her fiance after their marriage contract is signed but before they live together. Another character drinks alcohol.

Miss Alsanea says these ideas caused the continued threats, and for several weeks, she was afraid to leave the house. “They said I gave a bad impression of Saudi girls and I’d have to pay for it.”

Some harassment came through anonymous e-mails, which criticized Miss Alsanea for growing up in a single-parent household. Her father, who worked for Kuwait’s Ministry of Information, died when she was a child.

The novel is based on true stories from women Miss Alsanea met at King Saud University in Riyadh, where she completed a degree in dentistry in 2005. During each summer vacation, she would pen versions of what she had heard at school and at social gatherings. Her goal was to write something local to which the young women could relate.

Miss Alsanea rose quickly to the national spotlight, giving dozens of TV interviews and drawing praise from well-known Saudi writers such as poet Ghazi al-Gosaibi, one of her favorite writers.

Once the manuscript was finished, she wrote letters and passed on manuscript copies to anyone who had even remote connections to Mr. Al-Gosaibi. It worked. He called her at home and told her he was impressed by her work. He even wrote a letter of recommendation to his publisher.

Experts on Arab literature say the style of the book and its content fueled the frenzy around Miss Alsanea. Moneera Alghadeer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, published an article this year in the Journal of Arabic Literature that analyzed Miss Alsanea’s novel.

“The fact that everyone can read the book and will not have difficulties in understanding it, that made it appealing,” Miss Alghadeer said. “It’s like pop fiction. This one became more appealing to a wider range of people.”

A devout Muslim, Miss Alsanea plans to live with her family until she gets married, but she also plans to keep writing. Her next book will again examine life in Saudi Arabia, but through a different lens.

“Some people say, ‘Just settle and get married somewhere else in another country.’ That’s not an option for me. I’m Saudi, and people have to accept that,” she says. “It’s my duty to shed the light on the things that I don’t approve of.”

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