Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- “Banat al Riyadh” is the first novel by female Saudi author Rajaa al Sanea. Published by Saqi Books, it tells the story of four upper class Saudi girls living in the Saudi capital, named Sadim, Lamis, Qamra and Michele (or Mashael) by way of emails sent that chronicles the trials and tribulations of the young women and their successes and failures in love.
The cover of the 319-page novel was written by the prominent Saudi writer and current Minister of Labour Dr. Ghazi al Gosaibi, who said, “This work is worthy of being read. The novelist is very promising” and explained, “Rajaa al Sanea embarked on a great adventure that reveals the exciting world of young women in Riyadh.”
For her part, the author says, “My writings were not a response to a specific situation or feeling. Most of what I remember about my father who passed away when I was still a child is him always calling me the “little writer”. The teacher I was most fond of at school was my Arabic teacher. The lecture I enjoyed the most where the ones where the professor did not irritate me with a question on the lesson while I was writing down thoughts that crosses my mind.”
Written over a six-year period, the novel includes a mix of classical and colloquial Arabic and is peppered with transliterated English phrases. It deliberately uses an informal writing style, common in internet forums. It also alerts the reader than thousands of accounts are posted on the internet each year but are never published.
Focusing on the opinions, situations and beliefs of women in Saudi society, the novel exposes a section of society previously hidden, because of culture, traditions and religion. Perhaps young men will flock to the novel in an attempt to discover details they ignore about their female compatriots. Al Gosaibi said, “When the curtain is removed, the scene is exposed to us with all its funny and sad elements, with all the details unknown to those outside this enchanted world.”
Asharq al Awsat caught up with the rising soon after the publication of Banat al Riyadh as novel was increasingly being discussed in social and academic settings, with many wanting find out who the intrepid writer, currently a trainee doctor in a hospital in the Saudi capital, is.
Q: Why did you choose Ghazi al Gosaibi to write the introduction to your novel?
A: His contribution represented a dream come true! Ever since I was an adolescent, I was always impressed with Dr. al Gosaibi. I used to avidly read everything he wrote and follow his interviews on television and in the newspaper. I always sought to understand how one person could gather all this knowledge, diplomacy skills, self-confidence and charm. All my girlfriends knew he fascinated me. They used to hide his books away because they knew I would immediately start reading them.
When I started writing, I’d dream that he might one day read it. I never told anyone about this because I feared they would mock me. After I sent the final draft to al Saqi, I sent his Excellency a copy, just so I wouldn’t blame myself later for not trying to realize my dream. I was pleasantly surprised when I received his phone call a few days later. He had read my novel, despite his busy schedule and praised it!
It is hard to describe how happy I felt then, almost as if I’d received more than I had ever wished for. If the novel would result in nothing but Dr. al Gosaibi’s kind words, it would have been enough. Undoubtedly, the introduction to my book, by such a distinguished writer as Dr. Al Gosaibi was one of the main reasons the novel became popular; who had heard of Rajaa al Sanea before? His admiration for the novel is a source of great personal pride. I hope I can maintain this achievement and improve in my upcoming writings.
Q: Critics have said that a woman novelist needs experience to be able to put her ideas into writing. What is your reaction to that since you are only 23 years old?
A: Many people think I am forty of fifty. I hope readers don’t get the impression I am 60 or 70 from my next novel, because, at this rate, I will only be able to publish two or three novels before I supposedly die of old age! I may be mature but only in my thoughts and spirit, not my age. This is because of the way I was brought up and being around older people. I also enjoy listening to others’ problems and analyzing them according to the social circumstances.
Q: Your novel mentions some of the problems that Saudi women face.
A: Yes. My concerns are identical to those of many other women in Saudi Arabia. In fact, I aspire to be the first to signal the beginning of change. These are social changes that are not connected to religion. This is why I am not anxious about discussing them through my writings. Silence is evil. I hate negativity and refuse to wait for others to act on my behalf. It is my duty to myself and to my children in the future. I fear I will mellow out with age and lose my motivation and courage, as has happened with others.
Q: Why did you restrict yourself to writing about the upper class in Saudi Arabia?
A: If someone wrote about another person, does it mean that he believes the rest of humanity is irrelevant? I took the decision to write about characters that I am familiar with so that I could depict their characters and delve into them, in order for the final work to be truthful and convincing. Readers will notice that the majority of issues are not restricted to the upper classes. I used my personal knowledge of a specific class as a tool to communicate with readers of all classes. I am certain that I will discuss another segment of society in my forthcoming works, after I gain more experience by mixing with different groups in society.
Q: The life of the Saudi woman is somewhat secret… Do you believe your writing will expose you to attacks?
A: I was expecting to be criticized and I included that in the introduction of each letter. Differences in opinions should open the door for dialogue and not aggression. We suffer from an inability to accept rival opinions. Deciding whether to support or condemn a certain point of view requires courage and self-confidence. The majority know that I describe real events but certain groups have attacked me. Strangely, a number of individuals who criticized the novel admit they have yet read it!
Q: In a number of internet forums, many people expressed their consternation at your portrayal of young men in Riyadh. By contrast you wrote that the men from Jeddah and western Saudi Arabia were in a model in love and rationality.
A: The Saudi male is the product of his social milieu and conservative society. He is very attached to the ideas he was brought up on and respects all social customs, including how to treat women. It is well-known that the character of the Saudi male changes according to his location, whether in the Eastern Province, Najd , or the Hijaz. I believe that what we studied in geography class about the dry interior doesn’t just refer to the climate!
Q: Isn’t this a generalization?
A: Of course, but in my view it is acceptable because the novel discusses general issues and does not revolve around a single person. When one is examining such matters, it is obligatory to rely on generalizations. The novel does not feature an imaginary world but depicts reality as is. In everyday life, we admit that we generalize sometimes. For example, we say that the man from Hijaz is more expressive than his counterpart from Najd . Conversely, what is shameful for a young man in Riyadh is not necessarily considered disgraceful for someone from the Eastern Province, the Hijaz, or the North. It is a deep-rooted issue that predates this generation.
Q: You use of a mixture of classical and colloquial Arabic in the novel was criticized. What prompted you to mix language styles?
A: People will pass judgment on all novels, let alone the first novel by a young writer! This is natural. I try and learn from all positive criticism. No one knows that, out of fear of being condemned, I wrote the first few chapters in classical Arabic, including the dialogues. But I modified them because I couldn’t convince myself that women my age would use classical Arabic to speak amongst each other. How then was I supposed to convince the reader?
I thought long and hard about the language to use in the novel. I edited a lot of passages. If famous writers such as Naguib Mahfouz and Toufic al Hakim used local dialects in their novels, then I do not believe I have committed a literary crime by incorporating the Saudi dialect in my writing. I used the colloquial language to improve communication with my readers.
Q: Where you not worried that your friends in real life might get distressed by the novel, which included details about their lives?
A: Unlike in the novel, my close friends have been very supportive. They celebrated my success and continue to do so. Unlike my fictional friends, we are still close. They are very excited about providing me with ideas and suggestions for my next novel… Even their parents sometimes call me to congratulate me and tell me they are proud of me and will stand by me because I wrote about reality in a transparent and honest style. I dealt with a number of issues that are important to us in Saudi society.
Q: Who do you credit for your rise as a successful novelist?
A: My sister Rasha, for sure. She has always and continues to believe in me, even more than I do myself. At one point, I was despondent about whether I would complete the novel. By chance, she came across the first few chapters on her personal computer. She read them without telling me and never stopped hassling me until I’d written the last few lines! Rasha helped me with my university assignments and research given that she is also a dentist. In the proofreading stage, which lasted a year, she re-read the novel and gave me all the moral support that I needed.
Q: Did you really send a weekly email as some local newspapers mentioned?
A: The weekly emails and the replies were a product of my imagination. But to be honest, I feel very happy when I see readers wondering about these emails and trying to subscribe to the list!
Q: Is your reliance on electronic messages a recognition on your part that the internet will become the main venue for literature?
A: The internet represents a virtual world that has already become intertwined with real life, despite attempts by some people to separate the world of literature and ideas from fact. However, I consider this schism as antithetical to literature and its real purpose. Most of us deal with modernity with fear. This applies to writers and readers. I see no problem in writing with a realist style, as long as it is well-thought of. Far from undermining the value of the text, it increases it.
Q: Will you write another novel?
A: Of course, this novel will not be the last. I have several ideas in the pipeline. However, Banat al Riyadh will make matters more difficult. I need to take my time and think carefully in order to be able to create something as impressive. I don’t think I will use poetic language as a basis for my next novel. I might try and combine a number of literary styles in order to achieve my own style whilst maintaining a simple narrative structure and avoiding pretentious expressions.
Q: In your own words, how has the novel been received?
A: I think it has proven rather popular. I expect more, especially regarding literary critique and social commentary. I am eager to listen to different opinions and want to benefit from this experience as much as possible in order to use what I’ve learned for my forthcoming works.