Professor Menahem Milson on The Saudi Novel The Girls of Riyadh


In an April 14, 2007 interview on an Arabic program on Israeli TV, Professor Menahem Milson [1] discussed the novel Banat Al-Riyadh (“The Girls of Riyadh”) by Saudi author Dr. Rajaa Al-Sanie, which describes the lives of four young women in Riyadh. The novel is structured as a series of emails sent anonymously by one of the young women.

Banat Al-Riyadh, which was published in 2005, sparked much controversy in the Arab world, especially in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, with some praising it for its boldness and literary merit, and others condemning it as provocative.

The following are excerpts from the interview: [2]

Interviewer Nazih Khayr: “An [until recently]unknown writer, the Saudi author Rajaa Al-Sanie – who has now become very well-known – published her novel Banat Al-Riyadh [‘The Girls of Riyadh’]… which has provoked a storm of criticism, though there are also some who support her… It seems like a struggle between [supporters of]enlightenment and obscurantists…”

Professor Milson: “It is no exaggeration to say that the appearance of this novel is an important event in the history of Arab culture and society. I think it quite probable that, in the future, this novel will be seen as a historical turning point in [terms of]social reform in the region, and especially in [terms of]the achievement of women’s rights… particularly in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf states.

“The novel itself is a good novel; it is engrossing and well-written.”

Interviewer: “Some say that the secret of the novel’s success does not stem from its artistic value, but from other causes, namely, that the author dared to touch on matters that are considered taboo in Saudi society.”

Professor Milson: “A literary work is judged by various criteria, some literary and [others having to do with]its social and moral role. Let me give you an example taken from the literature [of another country]and another culture. Everybody knows the famous 19th-century American novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This book may not be considered one of the most brilliant literary works of American or English literature, but it played a very important role in social reform. Published in 1852 – that is, nine years before the American Civil War – it influenced public opinion and thus paved the way for Abraham Lincoln’s abolition of slavery. Abraham Lincoln later said that this little lady [i.e. Harriet Beecher Stowe] started this big war.

“Thus [Banat Al-Riyadh] is a good and engrossing novel, besides having great social significance, which in no way detracts from its literary value…

“The title of the novel is borrowed from a popular song, and it is something of a humorous borrowing. That is perfectly acceptable and proper.

“[As you mentioned] some have attacked the title “The Girls of Riyadh,” saying that it is a generalization because [Al-Sanie] does not [really]describe all the girls of Riyadh. This [criticism]is ridiculous. Do they want her to call the novel ‘A Study of a Sector among the Girls of Riyadh?’…

“There are those who ask: What’s the secret of this novel’s success? And they answer that the public went out to buy the novel because the author is a young woman – miracle of miracles! – or because the picture of the author was published… and other reasons of this kind. These are trivialities… This only shows that the people who give these explanations do not respect the reading public.

“Why don’t they give the simple and true reasons? The public bought this novel because it is engrossing, because it has characters with whom we empathize, and because it deals with… an issue that is very important. It treats this sensitive issue with honesty, candor, and seriousness… We must respect the readers’ taste.

“Her seriousness as a writer and thinker is evident from the fact that, in this novel, which runs to more than 300 pages, one does not find a single scene that could be described as provocative. The book is very far removed from what is considered sexually provocative. For example, there is no mention of [sexual]physical features. Naturally, she mentions love and thoughts about relations between men and women – that is normal. These are subjects that occupy the minds of young women and men… But she avoids what is considered provocative. The treatment [of the subject]is very dignified… It is also full of humor…

“The novel Banat Al-Riyadh has [internal]unity. True, there are four girls in the story, so that it has four plot lines, one for each of the girls. But these four plot lines are intertwined. They are held together by the narrator, namely by the writer of the emails. That’s from the point of view of the story. But there is a more important kind of unity in the novel, namely a unifying idea. Each of the characters strives to achieve stability in her life while preserving her human dignity and her human rights. These are things that make the novel cohesive, and this is another factor that holds the readers’ attention.

“As for the language, some criticize Rajaa Al-Sanie for using the spoken dialect – or, more accurately, a number of dialects. But that is not a flaw. Most Arab novelists use the spoken dialect when writing dialogue. This has been done in Arabic novels from the very beginning, starting with Muhammad Hussein Haykal’s novel Zaynab from the early 20th century. True, a minority of authors avoided the use of the spoken dialect. Naguib Mahfouz generally avoided it, as did Taha Hussein. But most authors do not avoid it – for example Fathi Ghanim and Gamal Al-Ghitani in Egypt, Hanna Mina in Syria, and many others. That is precisely what our author is doing: mixing literary Arabic with various spoken dialects – such as the dialect of Riyadh and the dialect of Kuwait – and she does so with competence and wit…

“[As for the criticism that Rajaa Al-Sanie writes only about the privileged class], a novelist generally describes the social environment familiar to him, and he does not have to describe every economic problem or every social problem. Some criticized Naguib Mahfouz at the time for not describing the lives of the felaheen. Mahfouz replied: I grew up in Cairo and I describe the Cairo environment, especially the middle class. This criticism [against Rajaa Al-Sanie]is unfair… Al-Sanie does mention the problem of Shiite-Sunni relations, inasmuch as it is relevant to the character’s crisis…

“We must distinguish between the author, Rajaa Al-Sanie, and the narrator, who is a character in the novel. Dr Al-Sanie rightly insists on this distinction. The behavior and the ideas described in the novel are those of the characters. The reader becomes acquainted with the characters in the story; he does not become acquainted with the author herself, except indirectly, through the characters. The author doesn’t have to reveal herself or her private life to us. She shows us the characters of the novel, she shows us a fictional world. This is not an autobiography or a personal diary. It is a work of the imagination, a work of fiction.

“As for the claim [that you mentioned]that the novel is influenced by Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, it is a false claim. The two novels are completely different. This claim is totally false, it is absolute nonsense.

“There is one final point I wish to make about this writer. We often hear people say of young writers that they are promising. Such an assessment is a little ambiguous, because, on the one hand, it praises the young writer and encourages him, but at the same time, it expresses some reservation, as though the critic is reserving judgment. With Dr. Al-Sanie, it is completely different, because she has already given us a literary work that is important and valuable. Therefore, we should characterize her as a writer who has already fulfilled expectations, and who continues to hold promise [for the future].”

[1] Menahem Milson, Professor of Arabic Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Chairman of MEMRI, is the author of several works on Arabic literature, among them Najib Mahfuz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).

[2] Israel Channel One TV, April 14, 2007.

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