A new tide of Saudi fiction has risen in the wake of Girls of Riyadh, with young writers clamouring to flout the Kingdom's taboos. But, Kelly McEvers reports, some Saudis realise there's more to literature than crossing lines. Years ago, the store was hidden and remote. If you asked someone how to find it, they'd wave a hand and say something vague like: "It's over there, on the eastern ring road." Back then it was called The Heritage Bookstore, which imparted a kind of legitimacy in Riyadh's conservative, religious society. Now it's called, simply, The Book Club. The once-underground book store is not so underground any more. Located on one of this city's main thoroughfares, the store's glass front and bold marquee have little to hide. It is the largest establishment on the block.
"I like to think of it as a club," says my friend Ahmed, a Saudi blogger and journalist who's showing me around the store. "They know their customers. They know we want intellectual books. Cultural books." Still, Ahmed and I whisper as we shuffle to a back corner of the neat, white-tiled establishment - which does, after all, get raided every once in a while. Most of the books here would never pass the Saudi censorship board at the Ministry of Information. So they're published outside the country, in Beirut or Cairo, then shipped in. The religious police - known officially as the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice - like to regulate this game after the fact. Bookstores are occasionally stormed by the long-bearded mutaween, who remove titles they deem immoral.
"This is where they keep the Saudi novels," Ahmed says and points. On the top shelf of the furthest corner is a row of thick books with monochromatic covers and simple fonts - the works of Abdulrahman Munif. An oil economist who turned to writing in his forties, Munif is arguably this country's greatest novelist. His masterwork, Cities of Salt, is an account of the first arrival of Americans on the Arabian Peninsula in search of oil - as told from the perspective of a Bedouin village. "It begins with what is possibly the best and most detailed account of that mythical event, a First Encounter, in fiction," writes Amitav Ghosh, "all the better for being, for once, glimpsed from the wrong end of the telescope."
The book was translated into English in 1987 by Peter Theroux, who argued that it was the first time an Arab novelist had written at length from the perspective of Bedouin desert dwellers. At the time, Theroux writes, Arab novels were mainly urban, and many writers felt they had to hide what they were trying to say behind signs and symbols. "Reading Munif was different from reading any other Arab author," Theroux writes. "He had a Tolstoyan gift for writing about people just like the ones you know. You never found yourself thinking: 'Ah - the sick old lady symbolises Egypt, the ungrateful daughter symbolises the new middle class, the old sheikh is the comfort of Islam.'"
Edward Said described Cities of Salt as "the only serious work of fiction that tries to show the effect of oil, Americans and the local oligarchy on a Gulf country". Unfortunately, the local oligarchy in question - Saudi's ruling class - was less pleased with Munif's withering portraiture. His Saudi citizenship was revoked in 1963, his books were banned here and he lived the rest of his life in exile. He died in 2004.
If he had lived a little longer, he might well have been amazed - if not exactly impressed - with recent developments in Saudi writing. Just below Munif's books are row upon row of thinner, glossier works on once-forbidden subjects like homosexuality and sectarianism. Many of the writers are in their 20s and 30s - most of their careers having been launched in the brief time since Munif's death. The last few years have witnessed what one critic has called a tsunami of Saudi writing: some 50 to 100 novels published each year, up from five to 10 in years past. That's partly due to the 2007 release of Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea, a diaristic account of four upper-class young women and their illicit love affairs, set here in the capital. Trashy? Maybe. But also a rare look into a once-forbidden realm of experience, and an undeniable catalyst.
"It's not good literature," Ahmed says. "But it did create a lot of controversy and encouraged people to write their own novels." That wave of writing has been matched by a wave of book-buying. That's because Saudi Arabia has both a large population and a high level of disposable income - one of the highest in the Arab world. Publishers in Beirut and Cairo are quick to publish Saudi works; they say they sell more titles at the week-long book fair here than they do in a year in other Arab countries. Yet do any of these books rise to the standard of Munif?
There is some promising work, critics say. Names like Raja Alem, Abdul Hal, Ahmed Abu Dahman, Mohammed Hasan Alwan and Yousef al Mohaimeed, whose book, Wolves of the Crescent Moon, was translated into English and published by Penguin in 2007. Slight and soft-spoken, Mohaimeed recently took to the podium at King Saud University for a lecture on Saudi novels. I watch the lecture via live video conference, miles across town, on the women's campus of KSU. In a large lecture hall, I am surrounded by eager young women, many of them literature students.
Mohaimeed speaks about Turki al Hamad, a political-science professor who is, arguably, the second most influential Saudi author. Unlike Munif, who wrote from exile, Hamad remains in the kingdom, despite bans on his books and a handful of fatwas issued against him by the religious establishment. Hamad's trilogy, Phantoms of the Deserted Alley, is set in three distinct parts of the country during the 1960s and 1970s. Some 20,000 copies have been sold over the last 10 years - a staggering number in the Arab world, where the average run is just a few thousand. "Where I live there are three taboos: religion, politics and sex," Hamad has famously written about Phantoms. "I wrote this trilogy to get things moving."
From the podium on the men's campus, Mohaimeed argues that, by taking such a risk, Hamad did a great service to the young writers of today. But then Mohaimeed lays down a challenge to the new generation of Saudi would-be literateurs: now that the red lines have been crossed, he says, there's more work to do. "Reaching a higher level of novel writing will involve some suffering," says Mohaimeed, who wakes at 5am each day to write for three hours, then heads to his job as an editor at a weekly magazine. "So many new writers are concerned with fame or financial gain, they will write about any forbidden subject just to sell books."
The literary critic Saleh al Zaid, seated next to Mohaimeed for the lecture, agrees: "The reader of an uninspired novel asks: 'What next?' The reader of a real work of art asks: 'Why?'" Hamad not only broke taboos, the critic says, he explored the nuances of everyday Saudi life in his books. Much the same could be said of Mohaimeed. Wolves of the Crescent Moon weaves together the stories of three Riyadhis and covers such forbidden subjects as forced sex between men, adoption, poverty and slavery. But it also tries to go a step further, matching a traditional Arab storytelling style with such modern literary techniques as shifting points of view.
Mohaimeed, 45, is viewed as one of Saudi Arabia's more exciting new writers - but many Arab and Western critics say his experiments don't quite work yet. Munif's heir, in other words, is still at large. "We are still nursing," says KSU senior Sara al Shubeili, who has been writing a novel of her own for the past two years. The problem for new writers, she says, is that publishers are so keen to release Saudi books that they rush them to press with little to no editing.
"The process is so fast sometimes, there are even errors in spelling and grammar," Shubeili says. She and the other female literature students complain that the university offers no creative writing courses. They say they are so desperate to write, they have resorted to watching YouTube tutorials on plot and setting. I tell the women I'll be seeing Mohaimeed later in the week at an embassy function. "Will you please make him promise to teach writing classes?" they plead with me, walking me out of the campus.
And that, I realise, is what people here mean when they say tsunami: hoards of young Saudis are clamouring to make - and consume - a thing called a novel, with only a fragile grasp of the form, its possibilities and limitations. But there's a flip side, too, says Saudi film director and screenwriter Hana al Omair. "I know good writers who are working on novels but don't want them to be published at this moment," she says. "They don't want to be seen as part of this fad, this tsunami. They would rather wait until things quiet down again."
These writers acknowledge that it takes time to make art, al Omair says. "Five, 10 - even 11 years!" Maybe, she says, the next Munif is out there, waiting, among this silent few. Kelly McEvers is a correspondent for National Public Radio based in Riyadh.