In a recent conversation with a young Saudi woman, I commented that Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf said he did not like to read Arabic authors because none of them had said anything interesting in the last 500 years.
Her response was to ask if I had read Binat Al-Riyadh (Girls of Riyadh). I hadn’t heard of it, but soon after stopped off at the Jarir bookstore to get a copy. The Arabic edition was (tellingly) sold out, but an English translation was available. It’s the well-worth-reading story of four young Saudi female friends and their adventures in life and love. The best thing about it is that it was written by a Saudi woman in her early 20's. This book could not have been published the last time I lived in Saudi Arabia from 1993-95. The fact that it was initially banned even when it first came out in 2005, but is now available in local bookstores in both Arabic and English, is evidence that changes are taking place in this society. The “Princess” trilogy written by Jean Sasson in the 90’s caused a stir, but this is different in that it was actually written by a Saudi and not by a foreigner writing about Saudis.
The only sad thing in reading it was the ever-recurring realization that I am and always will be a stranger to and in this society. Even though I live here and take more of an interest in the culture and the people than do many expats, I’m still a stranger. At least books like “The Girls of Riyadh” are now appearing to give me glimpses into a society of which I always stand on the outside.