Girls Of Riyadh Spurs Rush Of Saudi Novels


Rajaa Alsanea’s insight into the closed world of Saudi women and their disappointments in love caused a storm in the conservative Islamic state where the Beirut-published book was at first banned, although it is now available.


But strikingly, Saudi Arabia’s literary output doubled in 2006, with half of the authors women, and publishing industry insiders suggest the growing interest is partly due to Alsanea’s book, which centres on four women from affluent homes who must navigate a minefield of rules and taboos on sex, marriage and social caste to get and keep their men.


"I see ‘Girls of Riyadh’ as a turning-point for readership in Saudi Arabia," said Hassan al-Neimy, a short story writer who heads a group of Saudi literati called Hewar, Arabic for Dialogue. "The boldness of the book got women writing in the same style, publishing their own daily experiences."


Around 50 novels were published in 2006 compared with 26 in 2005, al-Neimy said. Exact figures are hard to establish since some were published outside Saudi Arabia and are hard to obtain.


Novelists publishing inside Saudi Arabia normally submit their work to the ministry of information in advance. Only a handful are technically banned, but many writers resort to Arab publishers outside Saudi Arabia and leave individual bookstores inside the country the choice of whether to risk importing them.


The increase is telling in Saudi Arabia, where modern literature itself has been viewed as suspect by a powerful clerical establishment in an austere religious society that practices strict gender segregation.


Women grow up cocooned — facing great barriers to mixing with unrelated men in public, prevented from driving cars and prodded into arranged marriages. So their private worlds are fertile ground for literature. 


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