The Girls Of Riyadh

Have you read this book yet?  I inhaled it in about a day.  There were some facets of the life that it depicts that were totally alien to me – imagine being in college and texting a male being taboo and risqué, or talking on the phone with a man you had not met yet being haraam.  On the other hand, despite cultural differences to courtships, people (ahem, men) behave basically the same all over the world – they say they’ll call you but well, you all know how that story ends.  An “Aunt” to the women of the book basically advises them to follow The Rules (it’s set in the 90s so this makes complete sense, I knew predatory blonde sharks swimming around Manhattan who carried that book around with them then. . . )

This book covers the lives of four female friends in and out of Saudi Arabia, looking for love. It gives really good insight into the process with the parameters of Islam.  And to me, it seems like everything was felt to a higher degree than it would have been in the West, because there was so little interaction prior to setting off in some form of a relationship. Honestly, there was not enough Ben and Jerry’s out there to cure the break up blues in the book.   That being said, I cried, at times, over the way these women were somewhat more discard-able within their society than I would like to think I am in mine.

Two things really intrigued me about the book.  The first was the distinctions drawn as to what was a truly Islamic nation versus what was a Muslim nation (some of the women felt that only Saudi Arabia was a truly Islamic Nation, others felt that the whole Gulf, an area of more fundamental Islam than some other Muslim countries were true Islamic countries.)  The narrative examines the many levels of Saudi society and its almost caste like structure (something I think I’ve seen in Egypt as well), and how much a cognomen can say about a person.   These names indicate far more than the region or religion (as an example, to some, my own last name can indicate specific countries in the British Isles and Catholic or Protestant) we can derive from Western names, but almost a complete socio-economic history of the family.  Yikes.

I read the book while watching the BBC cover what it was calling The Arab Uprising, and including parts of the world formerly known as Persia. And not to sidetrack too much into the false geopolitical constructs that resulted from the Great Game, but there is an extra level of irony that it was the BBC  using these vagaries. The juxtaposition between the BBC’s blanket reference to a part of the world that covers at least two continents (I’d argue three, because Turkey is secular and European, but also may qualify as part of this world culturally) with the detailed inside view of society offered by The Girls of Riyadh made me realize how much of the social nuances in this world are being missed, even by some of the premier news agencys of the West.

The other aspect of the book that struck a particular chord in me was  how many of the footed cultural references referred to Egypt.  While Saudi Arabia may be the Islamic of Islamic countries, it is clear that for most of the Muslim world Egypt was providing the best in arts and culture.  Along with the slogans calling for Mubarack to resign and leave, the protestors during the recent revolution also held signs urging Egypt to “Show The World What Egypt Can Do Again” – referring to a revival after 30 years of cultural decline under Mubarack as well.  Walking around Cairo, you see old movie theaters converted into automotive repair shops, dance halls in decline and various other signs of cultural neglect in a city that was one of the first to bring the world arts and culture.  Hopefully, a new regime can restore its glory.

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