Rajaa Alsanea

OK. I had begun this post with a long-winded preface about SOF’s coverage of Islam, how much I’ve learned, the good I hope it’s doing, and all the rest. Nix that.

The fact of the matter is I long for a complementary, not-so-academic vision of Muslims — people I can relate to as a Westerner rather than continually being aware of that sense of otherness. For me, there’s no better path to this understanding than through pop culture. When it comes to the Middle East, in particular, Saudi Arabia, Rajaa Alsanea’s book Girls of Riyadh does exactly that. Her writing is not heavy-handed or overly didactic, but lithe with impact through colloquial language and subject matter that all blossoming young adults can identify with.

Although it’s fiction, one learns more about the lived reality of youth culture and the integration of Islam among the upper crust of Saudi socialites than the many news reports and documentaries that are “good for you.” In some ways, I found myself identifying with the plights of these four (five counting the narrator?) young women, their longing for independence and community of family, love, and career.

The cultural differences are vast and deep, but tellingly so are the similarities. I only wish I could read Arabic so that I could savor all the subtleties of language and slang used in Alsanea’s original text Banat al-Riyadh. The book’s a clever, fun, page-turning expedition. You’ll buzz through it in no time.

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He he he, Trent, you don't want to see the lived reality of my sink full of dishes :) Then again, at least I dusted once...

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"I only wish I could read Arabic so that I could savor all the subtleties of language "

Here's your first step to Arabic:


Now, what do you think of this:

It was noon of the third Tuesday of Ramadan when the Qadi fetched up at the southern bank of the wadi. All five young men flocked round him as he slowly made his way towards the terebinth-tree. The tree gave little shade at this time of day, but the young men seemed so filled with concern they would not shy away from sitting on a brazier.
Within moments of their sitting there, the Qadi looked up at one of the young men. Innocent as his look was, it only sparked envy, suspicion and anxiety. But that man the Qadi had looked at just now exuded a charm which would captivate even cats and dogs, let alone a thoughtful, sixty-year-old Qadi. Besides, at that very moment, that very young mad had just winked a tear back.
“You look sad,” said the Qadi to that young man, grinning at the other four.
“We are all sad, Qadi,” protested one of those rather quaveringly.
“I know. I know,” said the Qadi, looking as if he had made a blunder. “I know. That’s why I am here. I want to help you. I don’t want you to be sad. I want you to be happy. But, you know, it’s hard –if not impossible– to make you happy all of you. Because you all want the same thing. You all want the same woman, but only one of you can marry her. Each of you says he loves her. Each of you says he deserves her. No one of you is prepared to choose another woman. You said you’d lay down your lives if you don’t get her. Her father has threatened to marry her off on the same day as all the other village girls, and that day is only months away. I have thought and thought about your problem. I have spoken to so many sensible people and they all repeat that I should not have agreed to help you. I agreed and I’m not sorry I did so, but please help me to help you.”
“How can we help you?” said one of the young men ungraciously.
“You can help me by being a little bit more sensible. I’m going to make a suggestion, right? Think about it. If you agree to it, we’ll go ahead. Otherwise, I shall not be able to help.”
Nobody spoke, but all eyes were on the Qadi’s lips.
“My suggestion,” said the Qadi, stroking his white beard, “is this. I will give the woman you all covet to the one amongst you who resembles her most in her goodness or wickedness. If she is a good woman she will get a good man; if she is a wicked woman she will get a wicked man.”
There was a chuckle, after which one of the young men asked, raising his eyebrows:
“Who would decide who of us is good and who’s wicked?”
“I’ll find four men who’ll be spying on you,” said the Qadi gravely. “They’ll be watching each of you without your knowledge. And they’ll be monitoring the woman at the same time. It’s they who’ll decide who should marry the woman. They’ll make their decision within the next few months. Now let me hear from you. What do you say to that?”
“And what about our weekly meetings with the girls down the valley?” said the charming man. “Shall we be allowed to meet up with Zina during that period of time?”
The Qadi could not help sighing as he turned to that man, and said with a knowing smile:
“You can see her, no problem. But, remember, Tahar, only one man will marry that woman.”
“And that man might not be me,” said Tahar in a muffled voice. “I’ve got it!”
“So let me leave you now,” said the Qadi, rising to his feet. “See you soon!”

* * *

The five young men looked at one another. Each seemed to use the other’s eyes as a mirror to find out whether he was “good” or “wicked”.
Suddenly, Tahar turned his gaze to the opposite bank. He sighed. Then he looked down and moved away.
“Where are you going?” said one of the other four.
“I’m going home,” said Tahar simply.

* * *

At home, Tahar’s mother was preparing a tajeen, and a little way from her, on the right side of the courtyard, her twenty-year-old daughter-in-law was baking bread in an earthen oven. Between them stood a huge tree that shaded the whole place. The mud hut that served as a kitchen in the rainy season stood further away and no smoke was coming from it now. So the chickens roaming about the house could pop in and out of the kitchen without fear of being scared away. The only nuisance to the chickens, though, was Tahar’s three-year-old nephew, who was after the hen with chicks. So Tahar, who was sitting on a wooden stool on the other side of the courtyard, hailed him gently and the little boy ran to him and swung round and stood between his knees.
“What were you doing?” said Tahar, throwing his voice.
“I was playing with the chicks,” said the little boy.
“No, Salem, don’t do that! You are a kid, not a chick. And kids play with kids, and chicks play with chicks…”
Tahar talked on and on, first with his nephew, then with his elder brother, then with his father, and at foutour, with everybody. But only his tongue was talking with all those. His true talk was with himself, and it was in silence.
His heart was full of questions and his mind could not afford answers, or rather answers that would quench the fire that was raging in his heart.
“Am I good?” the questions went on endlessly. “How much of a good man am I? Am I wicked? How much of a wicked man am I? I have not put these questions before. But now I must know. The problem is that I don’t know what I should know. Should I go around and ask people what they think of me? Please tell me: Am I good? Please tell me: Am I wicked? Or should I sit back and count all the good deeds and misdeeds I did in the past? I might count the good deeds, but the misdeeds– there’s no counting them! I don’t say my prayers, to begin with. From time to time I drink with the boys. I spend hours and hours playing on my utar, and I keep on playing on it even when I hear the muezzin call for prayer.
“But is Zina any different? I don’t think she drinks, but I don’t think she says her prayers, either. I can’t say she’s a woman of easy virtue, but I can’t say she’s any more pious than her mates, either.
“But, Tahar, why are you thinking of Zina now? No, no, no. I love Zina. I can’t bear seeing her go to someone else. I was the first to talk to her, and she liked me so much– although she’s never told me she loves me. But I could see it in her eyes, on her lips, on her shivering hands. All those boys came down us simply because they were jealous of me. They know that Zina is the most beautiful girl. They just don’t want me to marry her, and that’s it!... But now, Tahar, just tell me: suppose Zina is a wicked woman, would you– No, no, no. I can’t– I can’t think of that. I love Zina. Stop this folly! Get out of here!...”

It was dark when Tahar left the house. He did not go to the berraka, where the village boys would meet up to have tea and play cards or listen to the utar. He went to the riverbank instead. He sat down under the terebinth-tree and went on musing until it was time for souhour.

* * *

Two days after Ramadan two strange men came up to Tahar while he was working on his family fields.
“Hi, kid!” said one of the strangers.
Surprised at the sudden warmth of the greeting, Tahar dropped the sickle, and mumbled:
All three men shook hands and bandied words, then, all of a sudden, the strangers introduced themselves:
“I am Issa. This is Mussa. We want a word with you about Zina.”
“Zina?” Tahar muttered, his eyes sparkling suddenly.
“Yes,” Issa hastened to add. “But not here and not now. We don’t want anybody else to know.”
“If not here, where? If not now, when?”
“Look here,” said Mussa, clutching Tahar’s hands, “we’ll be waiting for you at the Sidi Ali Crossroads just after dawn tomorrow. Don’t tell anybody. Now, goodbye!”

The next dawn found Tahar at the Sidi Ali Crossroads. Issa and Mussa joined him presently. They took him into a nearby vineyard and served him dates and boiled eggs.
“Now, what’s the matter?” said Tahar eagerly.
Issa and Mussa exchanged glances as if both waited for the other to speak first. Tahar was about to repeat his question when Mussa said:
“Calm down, man! And listen well. Qadi Allal (You know him?)– well, he has asked us to be his eyes and ears. Now, I think you know the rest of the story. What you don’t know, however, is that this meeting might prove very decisive indeed, and we hope earnestly you’ll not miss out on this golden opportunity.”
“Am I to understand that I should do something or other so that you’ll be saying something in my favour?”
“You’ve guessed it!” said Issa enthusiastically.
“Something such as what, I wonder?” said Tahar, whose face was beginning to tense up.
Once again Issa and Mussa looked at one another, before the latter said with a little smile:
“Well, we know you love Zina, but we also know that love alone is not enough. Yet, we can help you. But first you have to pay us.”
“Pay you? Pay you what?”
“Yes, you must pay us. Give us a yearling calf or three sheep or seven goats. It’s up to you to choose!”
Tahar sprang to his feet and shouted, tossing away the egg he had been peeling:
“You brought me over here to bribe you!”
“Shhh! Calm down! Lower your voice! Shut up! Get out of here!...”
But Tahar gave free rein to his anger so that the two men had to use a big stick to chase him out of the vineyard.

* * *

On his way back home, Tahar was more confused than angry.
“Was this part of a scheme?” he thought perplexedly. “Or were they actually trying to swindle money out of me? What should I do now? Should I go and tell the Qadi? Would the Qadi believe me if he trusted these men? And what would be the result? Would he give me Zina? What about the other boys, then? No. I should wait. I must wait and see how they’ll behave in the coming days.
“And what if those men were genuine? What if I had to bribe them in order to get Zina? Bribe them? I, bribe somebody? And especially those two men? Should I bribe them in order to get Zina? And what about the love that has kindled my heart? Should I love her and, on top of that, bribe people in order to marry her? If her father asked me for a big dowry, I wouldn’t hesitate to sell everything I have to please him. But bribe, no! No, no, this would be a humiliation. I love Zina and I want to marry her. But if– No, no, no. I can’t think of this. Please stop this. Wait! Wait!...”

* * *
Wednesday came and the boys and girls from both villages met again, after five weeks of separation, because of Ramadan. Now they were down there humming, shrieking with laughter, clapping their hands, singing. There was no kissing, no necking– never. Nonetheless, some parents and coltish young men and women, who had not yet met partners from the opposite village– all were there, sitting on the higher parts of the slopes. They were up there sitting and watching in silence. Tahar, too, remained seated under the terebinth-tree, just a few yards from the southern bank. And from there he could see Zina and the other four lovers.
Zina was smiling to everybody. Tahar sighed again and again. Zina was listening to the boys, who were speaking all at a time. Tahar watched in silence. Suddenly, there was a cough and then a shadow. Tahar turned round in surprise and was on his feet.
“Oh, what a surprise, Qadi!” he yelled with a fetching smile.
The Qadi smiled too, and said in a kindly voice:
“You look sad, my son! Why all this gloom? Take it easy! Don’t worry!”
“What! Do you mean–”
“I just said don’t worry,” said the Qadi, moving away.
“Where are you going, Qadi?” Tahar panted out.
“I’m going down,” said the Qadi without glancing back. “Won’t you come along?”
“No, sir, I’ll stay here.”
And there he stayed, sitting under the terebinth-tree and watching in silence.

In the evening he was with the boys at the berraka. He had not brought with him his own utar, but someone served him a cup of tea and egged on him to play on the utar that was lying on the mat. Tahar put the cup of tea aside and picked up the utar and began to play on it. And while he played he now and then stole glances at his four rivals, those who vied with him for Zina’s heart.
Surprisingly enough, all those looked at him with gleaming eyes. They all broke into song and clapped their hands and rocked, and encored the utar player. But the utar player, having seen how gleeful his rivals were, was now beginning to feel a pang of anguish. He began to lose his grip on the utar. And before tears gathered in his eyes he dropped the instrument suddenly and left the berraka.
"Oh, my God!" he cried, flinging his arms up in exasperation. Above him was a sky studded with stars, in front of him a dark, winding pathway.
"What's the matter, Tahar?" asked an unseen passer-by.
Tahar composed himself, and said:
"There's nothing the matter with me!"
"But I heard you say 'Oh, my God!'?" said the voice, which turned out to be that of a close neighbour of Tahar's.
"Yes, that's right!" Tahar conceded with an embarrassed smile. "You know, we all go mad sometimes! Where were you going?"
"I was going to the berraka."
"Alright. See you! Good night!"
"Good night!"

* * *

That night was long, long, and horrendous. "Why, why didn't I agree to bribe them?" Tahar thought ruefully. "All those guys were cheerful tonight. At least one of them must have done it. Maybe they all gave generous gifts. And perhaps each thought he had paid the biggest price for Zina. Zina, my love. But how can she be your love when you were mean to her? Instead of jettisoning just one principle just one time, what you did was chuck out your love. It's too late now! It's a caddish thing to do what you did, my poor Tahar! Yes, sigh again and again, and weep! Your sighs and tears won't help you now…"

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