‘Girls Of Riyadh’, by Rajaah Alsanea, is a fictional story of four friends from Riyadh in the popular format of the ‘Sex In The City’ story line, except that it is set in a land that is far from providing the open freedom that the women in Manhattan enjoy and perhaps take for granted- and that is what makes the novel intriguing and fascinating at the same time. It’s not often that we, the people of America, get a bold insight into the life of Islamic women whose life seem to be a more intriguing than lives of women from any other culture largely because, quite literally, their lives appear to be veiled from our view.

Yes, Rajaah Alsanea’s book gives a bold peek into the life of young Saudi Arabian elite, but there’s so much more that you get out of the book-

  1.  You realize that various cultures around the world may differ widely, the personal choices of people may range broadly across the globe, but the dreams and aspirations of women is the same everywhere. We dream of being in a wonderful relationship, finding that perfect partner, living a life of love and contentment, and doing what our heart desires- be it a successful career, being a full-time at-home mother or even a blend of both. 
  2. You realize that men who truly love are the same in all cultures- they treat the women in their lives with respect and attention that they deserve, they support the love of their life to fulfill her dreams and achieve her goals, they stand up for what she stands for- a human being with equal right to freedom, justice and pursuit of happiness.
  3. You realize that there are men in all cultures who are very capable of behaving  like sleazeballs (pardon the language).
  4. But more than anything you are truly taken aback by the nature and the number of restrictions that women in certain parts of the world are forced to live with, the narrow mindedness and the hypocrisy that they are faced with, the inequality and the injustice that they are subjected to, and the incomprehensible treatment that is often meted out to them. Some of these are common knowledge, but most would still flabbergast you.
  5. Surprisingly, the book also offers some of the best relationship tips that you did ever find in any dating guide. Some of my favorite ones were- to stay vague and mysterious; to not answer too many of his phone calls; to not expect him to change and to not change for him; to not give up any rights and to not overlook any wrong; to not shut your eyes and ears to any signs of danger; and most importantly, to not live in a hopeless fantasy (if he does not give very clear indications about the future of the relationship, end it)!

Rajaa Alsanea’s book in undoubtedly gripping, a page-turner that is made even more interesting by the narration style. The stories on the four protagonists are told by an anonymous narrator via weekly emails sent out to an email list every Friday. Although the stories itself keep you interested, the unique narration style gives readers a feeling of being ‘let into’ the secret lifestyles of the Saudi Arabian elite and probably that is the reason why the book gained an enormous amount of attention and controversy when it was first published in Arabic language in 2005 (Dar Al-Saqi, Beirut), earning itself a ban in Saudi Arabia. Two weeks after the release of ‘Girls of Riyadh’ in Arabic, the book became a #1 bestseller. The book did circulate in Saudi Arabia thanks to the black market there, but Alsanea soon obtained the permission for legal distribution of the book there.  The controversy and the popularity continued when the English version was released in 2007. Alsanea, at 26, had gained global fame via her debut novel. The international bestseller drew critical notice, thousands of emails—and death threats—for its candid portrayal of women struggling with Islamic traditions and the realities of modern life.

According to an article in Forbes, Andrew Hammond, author of Popular Culture in the Arab World, believes the novel is largely responsible for a “genuine independent flowering” in Saudi literature. “It has led to a sudden jump in the country’s literary output, and half of the novelists are women.” The book is now in its seventh edition. This one is a must-read!

Today, Alsanea is an endodontist and researcher in the stem cell therapy program at King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Al-Sanea grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the daughter of a family of doctors. She received her bachelor’s degree in Dentistry from King Saud University in 2005. She obtained a Masters degree in Dentistry from University of Illinois in 2008 and was awarded the Alumni Achievement Award from the same in 2013.  Alsanea’s honors include being named among the Power 500 Arab figures in the world in 2012; 2008 Woman of the Year (Al Arabiya news channel); and 2007 Cultural Figure of the Year and 2006 Intellectual Figure of the Year in the Arab world by Elaph, the top Arabic online newspaper.