Rajaa al-Sanea, Saudi author of the highly debated book Girls of Riyadh, is today a practicing dentist. She is weary of labeling her book a feminist or controversial work and does not think people in Saudi Arabia have reason to revolt the same way people in neighboring countries do
Six years have passed since Rajaa al-Sanea’s novel Girls of Riyadh (Banat Al-Riyadh) was published, bringing her unprecedented fame. The young Saudi writer (b.1981) joined last week’s Beirut International Film Festival as a member of the judging committee. I caught up with her at the festival to find out more about her story and personal journey.
The young author’s book, first published in Arabic and then translated to English in 2007, caused a ruckus in Saudi Arabia. The novel was banned outright by Saudi courts because it “incited vices” and subverted the foundations of Saudi literary tradition. Girls of Riyadh tells the story of a young woman who relates her girlfriends’ stories via e-mail messages. We read about Qamarah, a divorcee, and Sadeem, whose fiance abandons her after an intimate night. The novel was banned for a long time in Saudi Arabia and was translated to several languages other than Arabic.
Al-Sanea had always wanted to become a writer, but she grew up in a family of physicians and was always concerned that her passion for literature might hinder her medical career. Still, she does not regret her absence from the literary scene, especially given the uproar that her novel sparked. She traveled to the US to escape the fuss surrounding Girls of Riyadh, enrolled in dentistry school and published a number of medical research papers, which she calls a very different type of writing.
Today, al-Sanea still must answer questions about her novel, even since she has taken up her clinical practice. Readers critique her writing as less of an “artistic literary work [than] a personal critique of society.” Despite her fame, she does not hide her frustration at the possibilities of a successful literary career in the Arab world. “Even the monetary compensation is absent; I only receive my royalties as a writer from the translations, not from the original Arabic version.”
The young writer responds with a smile on our passing mistake of calling her Raja Alem, her compatriot and literary colleague. She respectfully distinguishes herself from Alem, author of the Ring who is of a different age group and cultural identity. “Raja Alem is preoccupied with the Hijazi sense, the royal heritage, and popular legend. Whereas I write on the shocking realities of Saudi society in recent years.” Al-Sanea also rejects labeling her work under the banner of feminist literature, because “it normalizes a rift that we suffer from in Saudi Arabia in particular.” Al-Sanea sees that “there are many things that we mistakenly gender.” She prefers characterizing her work as “humanistic literature” that readers can easily and often do enjoy.
She finds that classifying her work as “courageous” or “controversial” literature is not a fair depiction of her novel, that received impressive regional and international reviews. Being “controversial” was not her goal, and she says that a desired “courage” would not guide her future work. Her real passion is for alternative literature.
Six years since Girls of Riaydh (Dar Al-Saqi, Beirut), now in its seventh edition, al-Sanea says that she has grown past her novel. But she thinks that other novels published after hers have not received the same success, because they followed her footsteps too closely, losing the element of surprise. She says, “there is no school or a cloak for the Girls of Riyadh.”
In Girls of Riaydh, al-Sanea writes using transcribed emails that tell the stories of her friends on a website. In the story’s narrative, the emails are sent each Friday. But in these times of change, how does the Saudi writer conceptualize the “Arab Spring?” She emphasized that she “chose Friday in Girls of Riyadh [for] the same reason that led the Arab masses to stage the revolts against their regimes.” But al-Sanea doesn’t see the idea of ‘Friday’ as equally relevant to her context. “We [in Saudi] have nothing to revolt against like neighboring countries.” She hopes that legitimate rights are restored to all those deprived and believes that Saudi Arabia is “on the reform track, most notably through the recent participation of women in the Shura Council and the municipal councils.” In the meantime, al-Sanea is preparing a new novel for next year, reflecting the changes surrounding her life these days.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.