Rajaa Alsanea, the young author who penned the controversial Girls of Riyadh talks about culture, love and dentistry.
Beyond the book
The demure young woman with her charming manners and friendly smile was something of a shock. Dressed from head to toe in abaya and hijab, surely this could not be Rajaa Alsanea, whose debut novel was banned by her government, denounced in Friday prayers and who received death threats from outraged countrymen for bringing her nation's women into disrepute.
Surely the author of the 2005 publishing sensation Girls of Riyadh would be some sort of rebel cocking a snook at Saudi Arabia for forcing its women into living a submissive and repressed lifestyle in a male-dominated society. It is quite the reverse, actually. In a quiet corner of a Dubai hotel, the 27-year-old explained that she loves her country and intends to settle down and live there after she completes her specialist studies in endodontics in America. Another shock. How could the author of a bestseller that is now likely to be made into a movie, not want to be a writer? Why would she want to fix people's teeth for a living?
"I may be a good writer, but I'm also a very good dentist and that's what I am going to be. It's a part of my life that the public don't know about," she says, laughing. "I'm getting the highest results in my specialisation, root canals. Dentistry balances my life. Going to work knowing that you're not famous puts your feet on the ground. Dentistry is my job and writing will always be my passion," she says firmly, insisting that in her world it is perfectly possible to do both.
Alsanea, whose three older brothers are doctors and whose sister and another brother are orthodontists, studied for her Bachelor of Dentistry at King Saud University in Riyadh before moving to Chicago to do her masters at the University of Illinois. She gained her MSc last year and is now studying for her specialist American Boards degree in endodontics. "It's a big thing to get onto the course. I went to Chicago because it's an excellent dental school and one of my brothers and my sister studied there," she says with some pride.
She is also working on her second novel and starting to think about a screenplay which she intends to write herself. She is currently considering offers from several film companies and is reluctant simply to turn the project over to somebody else. The prospect of a fat cheque from a big Hollywood studio doesn't appear to be a factor in her decision-making process. "If I do the movie, I will be writing the screenplay. I am in love with that work. It's my baby and I don't want it to be misinterpreted. I haven't signed anything but it will probably be an American film. It's a very difficult thing because we don't have a movie industry in Saudi."
Writing the screenplay will postpone publication of her second novel, as yet untitled. She says it is a more mature work than her first, which she started writing at the age of 18. "People will definitely have the feeling that I have grown up and matured. I have lived outside my country and experienced a different culture and all of this reflects on the person that I am today. Hopefully, it will be published next year or maybe in two years. Over there [in Chicago], my book has a 'local author' sticker on it. People are very proud of me there. They even asked me to do Girls of Chicago," she says.
As the author of a controversial bestselling first novel, she is much in demand as a speaker at international literary festivals and book fairs all over the world and will speak at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which starts on Saturday. She also spoke at the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature in Dubai last month. Girls of Riyadh tells the stories of four young Saudi women from wealthy families growing up in a closed society.
The book chronicles the love lives of the girls, Gamrah, Lamees, Michelle - who is half Saudi and half American - and Sadeem. It is told in the form of a series of e-mails from an unnamed narrator and describes relationships between young men and women in the conservative Saudi Arabian Islamic culture in a way that had never been dealt with before, touching on tricky subjects such as infidelity, homosexuality and domestic violence.
When it was first published in Beirut in Arabic four years ago, it was immediately banned in Saudi Arabia because of what was seen as inflammatory content. Black-market copies were smuggled into the country and soon the internet was abuzz with excited chatter about the new literary sensation. Alsanea was eventually given permission to publish it in Saudi Arabia and it became a bestseller there. It was translated into English in January 2008.
Safely ensconced in the classrooms of her Chicago dental college, Alsanea was largely but not altogether cushioned from the storm her novel caused back home. "I lost friends over the book. It was sad. The book was banned for six months. My scholarship was threatened. I was mentioned in Friday prayers and you can guess what they were saying. It was not pleasant. I received life-threatening e-mails and letters and it affected my life," she says.
At the height of the controversy she was receiving more than 1,000 emails a day, which she attempted to answer personally, many supportive but many angry and threatening. A group of furious citizens filed a lawsuit with the Court of Grievances in Riyadh against the Ministry of Information for giving the author permission to distribute the novel and demanding that Alsanea be punished for tarnishing the image of Saudi girls. The court rejected their claims.
Alsanea's close-knit family backed her fully and she says she would never have dared publish without their support. "You can't publish in a very conservative country without a circle of protection. One of my brothers suggested that I published under an assumed name but I refused. The good thing was that after the book was published in Lebanon, it was allowed to be sold in my country. With the internet you can't control censorship. The internet has challenged the myth of censorship," she says.
She grew up as the youngest of six children in considerable comfort in an upper-middle-class Riyadh family. Her father, a journalist and editor, died when she was eight and her mother encouraged all her children to gain a university education and broaden their horizons. "Ours was a very liberal family and I have always known that I would become a writer. I won my first writing competition in a children's magazine when I was seven. I don't remember the subject but I remember the Mickey Mouse watch that I won. At school I was always writing and performing plays, so it wasn't a huge shock for people when I released the book because they have always known that I had this passion and talent for writing."
Growing up in a family of doctors and dentists, however, she developed a keen interest in medicine and dentistry. "I grew up thinking that I don't want to make a living in writing. I thought it would kill it for me and make me less creative. This will put pressure on me when I'm writing and I'm happy with this decision. It's not the same in the Arab world as it is in the West. In the Arab world writers don't make a lot of money out of their books."
An avid reader, Alsanea was always aware that in Saudi Arabia there was very little in the way of novels for young women of her generation. "There was always a gap between intellectuals and readers, whether it was due to the very sophisticated language used in the books or the fact that young people in Saudi preferred to read blogs. The more sophisticated you sound, the more intellectual you were. That was the attitude. Also novels written in Saudi were mostly written by older male authors.
"I was criticised for using Saudi dialect in the novel but I did that on purpose as I didn't have that urge to be distant from my readers. I wanted to write a novel that I saw myself in as a young girl in Saudi Arabia. I was also criticised for the title that was very general, but I wanted something that describes many of the different types of women I see on a daily basis in my country." People often ask her which one of the four girls, five if you count the narrator, represents herself. They also want to know if she is still friends with the others.
"Actually, there were no girlfriends in real life. It's all fiction. The stories do happen. These were more than four characters. The stories were gathered from 50 or 100 girls in Saudi. I did put parts of my personality in each one of them and I do relate with the stories that I wrote about. Most girls in Saudi relate to one or other of them. The book is not about a personal experience - it's about a generation's experiences."
Before she was published, Alsanea sent her manuscript to Dr Ghazi al Gosaibi, a prominent liberal author and politician, whose writing she admires. It reached him via a chain of about seven people and one day Alsanea received a phone call from him. "I nearly had a heart attack. He was a very humble and funny kind of a guy. He said he usually has a 40-page test for a book. He called me in 30 minutes saying that I passed the test and he was on page 100. That phone call changed my life for ever. It was a magical moment, a dream come true that your mentor and the writer that you grew up reading read something that you wrote. He got the book exactly the way I wanted people to get it."
Knowing that she was unlikely to receive permission if she were to submit her manuscript to the Ministry of Information, she contacted a publisher in Beirut. The novel came out in September 2005, three months after Alsanea graduated from dental college. "The day after it was published in Lebanon, I did my first Saudi newspaper interview which tells you how quickly the book reached Saudi. Many others followed and there were days when you could read 10 articles in one newspaper because there was such a debate."
Despite the controversy her book caused for shining a light on the seamier side of the lives of young Saudis, Alsanea is passionately attached to her culture. She always wears a hijab in public even at university in Chicago, although she doesn't wear an abaya in the States. In the clinic, she will wear a long-sleeved shirt under her medical scrubs. "It was an entirely personal decision. It reflects a generation or part of a generation of Muslim girls who are religious but at the same time open-minded and open to other cultures and experiences without losing their religious and Islamic identity."
When she first went to Chicago, she lived with her brother and sister. This year, for the first time, she has been living on her own in a small studio apartment. Looking after herself took a little getting used to. "I had to get used to doing my own laundry, driving a car, buying my own groceries, cooking and all those things that I hadn't done before. "It took me two and a half years to start cooking. I will cook the traditional kapsa: rice and chicken with raisins and caramelised onions. Sometimes I cook for friends, but I have noticed that American people are less open-minded towards food. They like traditional eggs and bacon, bagels and cheese. I tried to convince them to eat a few Saudi dishes but I wasn't successful, so I ended up eating everything that I cooked and I gained 15kg since I went to the USA."
Alsanea has a wide circle of friends, she says, dissolving into a fit of giggles when asked if she had ever been in love. She's clearly not unlike her fictional characters in some respects. Although she insists that she will marry for love, she is adamant that she will only marry a Muslim and it will be somebody of whom her family approves. "I don't have a boyfriend. I do have friends but I haven't had someone who I would consider closer than a friend. But my family would support me if I ever fall in love.
"A non-Muslim would not be an option because I would not be allowed religiously to marry him. We don't have civil marriage and I'm not the kind of person that would want to live totally away from my culture and religion. There are plenty of nice Muslim men, although you can't control your heart. I would like to be married and have children but I don't stress about it. I want to fall in love and I want things to happen naturally. I totally want to take this decision for myself and I want to blame myself if it goes bad."
She sees her future back in Riyadh, still writing novels but working as an orthodontist and staying close to her family. "I am very attached to my culture and my language; even though I sometimes write in English I think in Arabic. I know for a fact that I am not going to live outside Saudi unless something changes in the future. I love my country and being around my family. That's the most important thing for me."