Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Rajaa Alsanea : Girls of Riyadh

It's been taking me 1001 nights to read 1001 Nights , so I haven't posted here for a while.

But I've given Sheherazade a break to take up the love stories of a contemporary storyteller, Rajaa Alsanea.

Arabic culture seems to specialize in courtly love (was it also the source of the troubador tradition?) - although, today Love/romance is primarily a teenage thing
(since they're the ones with enough time to practice it) , and Rajaa has emphasized that by framing each episode within the perky internet chatter of her narrator, spiced with quotes that would probably seem banal if the authors were not so unfamiliar to me: Nizar Qabbani, Amr Khaled, Jassem al-Mutawa, Prince Bader Bin Abdulmohsen, and Norah al-Hawshan. The first is a famous Syrian poet, the second and third are Muslim televangelists, the fourth is a Saudi prince/poet, and the last may be entirely fictional. There's also a few a quotes from Kahil Gibran - but I'm afraid that he is already too familiar.

Indeed, I suppose most of her stories would seem banal/superficial except that the settings and habits are so unfamiliar to me.

For example, one character has a passionate romance with a man she has never touched and barely seen. Saudi society is so restrictive, couples can arrested by the religious police just for chatting in a coffe shop - which indeed happens to one of the characters and terminates her relationship.

It was just like this love story
from the puritanical years of China's cultural revolution.

Another example is first cousin marriage, which is not only permissible, but would seem to be preferable as the only circumstance that allows a couple to know, love, and respect each other before marriage.

And then there are those numerous periods of obligatory daily prayer, and the many restrictions on the dress and behavior of women.

One thing that is absent (but so important in some other pre-modern societies) however, are the obligations a bride has to her mother-in-law

It should also be noted that despite the censorship of this book by Saudi authorities, there is no illicit sexual activity in this story, other than the time when an unwise girl allowed her husband to take certain liberties before their wedding ceremony.


Here's the reasons that their romantic relationships fail:

*sex after marriage contract but before marriage ceremony disturbs the boy
*husband felt forced into marriage by parents and resented the wife
*girl can't stand the husband which her parents arrange for her
*boy's parents felt the girl was from unsuitable family
*girl's parents felt the boy was from unsuitable family
*religious police humiliated couple for chatting at coffee shop
*ambitious man needed to marry a better connected woman

And there are even some breakups among the girl friends, most conspicously between the narrator and Gamrah, the character who has taken the hardest knocks and ended up being as a single mother with a bad attitude.

It's notable that none of these girls are committed to anything beyond the excitement of romance, doing well in school, or having a fun career. Their religious and family life is just one of observing obligations. Their intellectual life is limited to astrology or categorizing boys, and as it will turn out, their aesthetic life will center on organizing wedding celebrations.

A potentially more interesting character might have been Um Nuwayyir - the mother of Nuwayyir, who is actually a boy named Nuri, but who is so effeminate his name has been feminized to humiliate him. Um Nuwayyir is a school administrator from Kuwait who offers the girls a place to meet away from the eyes and ears of their restrictive families.

This is a charming collection of stories - especially so because rather than having intellectual or commercial ambitions, the author just seems to be writing people she has known.

Here are the 7 times that non-arranged couples met each other:

Sadeem: party at a bar in London - cousin she grew up with
Michelle: cruising - distant cousin in america
Lamees: brother of a friend - fellow student
Gamrah: internet