GIRLS OF RIYADH by Rajaa Alsanea (Penguin), 320 pages, $31 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Rich young women in heavy eye makeup and tight abayas, the over-garments worn by women in some Muslim countries, cruise in a rental car with tinted windows, a car they were able to procure by posing as men.
The car is surrounded by men who, recognizing that tinted windows mean female passengers, hang placards bearing their phone numbers out of their cars. The boldest men ask the women for permission to pose as relatives so they can hang out with them at the mall. The women contact the men via text message, foiling the religious police as well as their own families in this most conservative of Islamic countries.
Welcome to chick lit Arabic-style.
The Girls Of Riyadh, about the lives of four members of the Saudi "velvet class," brought infamy to its author, now a 25-year-old dentistry student in Chicago. Originally published in Lebanon in 2005, it was banned in Saudi Arabia and became a samizdat sensation, circulating in photocopied form throughout the desert kingdom.
If you can get past the vapid dialogue about sun signs, the novel offers fascinating insights into, and sharp criticism of, Saudi society. The women's dreams of marrying for love are undone by tribal customs. The men date Westernized women, then wed traditional girls chosen by their mothers. Women raised in traditional families have trouble adapting to Westernized husbands.
Despite the verses from the Quran scattered through the book, the pampered protagonists seem more interested in jet-setting and chasing boys.
Chick lit is dismissed in the West for its supposedly trivial subject matter. But in a country where dating and reading trashy novels are forbidden as "haram," Alsanea's novel is both social protest and an enjoyable read.