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Book 44 Completed

July 19, 2010

Okay. I’m going to rip into Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea. Then, I’m going to redeem it. So, stay with me until the end.

The negative reviews on Goodreads seemed to have this book pegged. It is HORRIBLY written. The English translation is nothing short of pure literary garbage. (I know there were issues between the author and the translator — leaving the translator to write a scathing letter (toward the bottom of the page) to the London Times.) So, now, I don’t know how much of this is rooted in a poor translation. But it was, at times, almost painful to read.

An example of a descriptive sentence? Here you go: “Gamrah refused to pick up her baby when she first saw it, all splattered with blood, its head elongated and its skin wrinkled in a really scary way” (pg. 148). Two pages later, we get a description of the internet as “seriously cool.” And then…for the next ten pages…”cool” is used as the main adjective six more times. The narrator is grating — her emails disjointed to the thread of the story (repetitive too — and immature). And on top of that, even though the narrator’s friends have fascinating lives, Alsanea forgets writing 101 — this story is told, told, told — there is no showing, no room for a reader to form an idea, relate to a character, realize something on his/her own. The entire book reads like this: “She wanted to be loved. But so-and-so was a jerk. He was a jerk because he never returned her phone calls. And he was a religious nut too — always making sure she was praying and stuff. She loved him anyway.”

Time in this book is oddly non-existent. Although, it is supposed to span six years, a year of a character’s life would get a paragraph of explanation that sounded more like a to-do list. “She met with her cousin, found a dorm room, decorated it, ate out at nice restaurants, studied hard, passed her classes, talked to her parents on the phone, met some friends. And the first year of college was a success.”

This book reads like what I would write as an OUTLINE for a novel. Character A will do this and this and this and feel like this. Talented authors then go back and paint a full picture — flesh things out; let stories take shape without the author’s plodding storytelling.

Subtlety? Doesn’t exist in this book. And I feel — maybe I’m wrong — that it’s almost like the author doesn’t have any faith in her Western readers to pick up on the intricacies of her book. Actually, in the introduction to the book, the author tells us exactly how we’re supposed to walk out of this reading experience. She says, “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 determinations and dreams.” (I really hated this introduction. Her depiction of her Western readers was so condescending — saying that she felt she could never penetrate the Saudi cliches of breeding terrorists and having oil wells in their backyards. So, that’s why she needed to rewrite a large portion, to pander to the Western audience. And, if we could please read the footnotes which explain the inside jokes, that would be great.)


But — now — I don’t read a lot of chick-lit. So…maybe it’s all written like a high school essay and I’m expecting too much. And, let’s not forget — Alsanea was a teenager when she started writing this book.

Just seems like this could be SO. MUCH. BETTER. And I believe that it probably is a lot better in its original Arabic.


Rant over.

Here we go.

If. (Big IF…but an important one.) If you can put aside the quality of the writing and the missteps with the translation. If you can do that. If you can look at this book as a genuine microscope into the lives of four Saudi Arabian girls. If you can see the social commentary and the delicate balance Alsanea sprouts between keeping her characters distinctly Saudi, even while prancing about the Western world. Then this book is, surprisingly, an interesting expose into a particular group of women. Does this book represent all Saudi women? No. But when has that mattered in literature?

The book isn’t afraid to shine a huge light on the issues women and men face in a conservative Islamic world. It deals with men having sex with their legal wives before their wedding celebrations and leaving them because they have proven to be “unpure”; it touches on how the Muslim world deals with issues of homosexuality. It shows how love — real, true love — is not a priority. Saudi Arabia is changing, but the old-school expectations for marriage still exist. It’s true — that “seriously cool” internet and “cool” cell-phones? Well, they are helping to connect boys and girls who have been purposefully kept apart for generations.

If you JUST look at the message — if you look at the author’s appeal — then yes, yes, yes — it’s fascinating stuff. Sad and, yet, hopeful.

Also, I have to give Alsanea MAJOR kudos to writing this book in general. Because she comes from such a conservative society, she took a great risk in talking about something that no one talks about: Sex, love, marriage, the dangers of religious fundamentalism. She was SUED for “tarnishing the image of Saudi girls.” Can you imagine?? It takes guts to write something honestly, even knowing that your own culture will try to hide the truth. She received death threats.

There is stuff in this book worth talking about and exploring. The writing may suck, but there is stuff here beyond the surface that begs commentary. I kinda wish Book Club had read this book — I can already hear the debates swirling. Alsanea said in an interivew, “We’re living in the 21st century, and there are still traditions from the 19th century, and that’s just insane.”

Maybe…ignore the writing. Blame it on the translation. And appreciate what the author was doing. I learned a lot and I talked back to the book a lot and I’m still thinking about how all the stories ended. There is something valuable in this book…even if the packaging is a little rough.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2010 10:03 pm

    I know I wouldn’t be able to handle this book, because writing style is the number one reason I’ll abandon a book. 😉 But I’m glad you were able to get a handle on it!

    I read a marvelous book set in Saudi Arabia earlier this year (the author was born in Eritrea but lived in Saudi for a number of years as a refugee): The Consequences of Love. I highly recommend it! 🙂

    • July 21, 2010 11:50 am

      Thanks Eva! I’ll check it out. Yeah, I felt like I should give this book a fair shot — especially after I read about the all the translation issues. Also, I haven’t abandoned a single book on this challenge so far — I’m afraid to!!!!!

  2. October 29, 2010 5:18 pm

    Had I discovered your blog earlier, I would have suggested to you to read this Saudi author:. Maybe you know him but in case you don’t and you like world literature, I highly recommend him.

    He writes wonderfully and masters the language. Because of the themes of his novels, Saudi Arabia stripped him of Saudi citizenship. If you like historical novels, his quintet “Cities of Salt” is absolutely amazing (five thick volumes!).

    I can read Arabic so if I ever get a copy of Girls of Riyadh, I will give you a feedback about the language and I will let you know if it is a translation problem or not 🙂

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