Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa Alsanea, trans. Marilyn Booth

Funny and chilling: sex in the Saudi city

Rajaa Alsanea's Saudi take on Sex and the City is an irresistible, and thought-provoking, confection. This cheeky and salacious portrait of the loves and lives of four privileged twentysomething girls in Riyadh, banned in Saudi Arabia on publication in 2005, has become a controversial bestseller across the Middle East. Unlike Bushnell's columnist heroine Carrie Bradshaw, Alsanea's narrator must remain anonymous, posting each chapter to a Yahoo group.

Like their New York sisters, the girls of Riyadh live lives of branded plenitude. They watch Hollywood blockbusters, carry miniature pedigree dogs in designer handbags, go to the gym, console themselves with rhinoplasty and chemical peels, drink daddy's secret stash of Dom Perignon and dance the night away in Badgley Mishka or Roberto Cavalli. However, sequestered under Sharia law with little in the way of basic human rights, they must display a great deal more ingenuity than their Western counterparts in order to meet men.

Contact with the opposite sex takes place in coincidental and transient encounters: quick glimpses, snatched moments, stolen glances, drive-by complicities. Seeing the tinted car windows that indicate female occupants, young men hold up placards with their mobile numbers, throw business cards, hand out roses with numbers wrapped around the stem. Repression breeds rather than suppresses desire. These Saudi girls fall in love at the drop of a Valentino shimagh (traditional male headdress). The Bulgari-scented Romeos of Riyadh woo the girls with gifts of diamond earrings, meals from Burger King, teddy bears that play Barry Manilow songs, laptops and mobile phones.

Most romantic exchanges are technologically-mediated virtual fantasies rather than real encounters. The actual business of marriage is usually a much uglier story. Sadeem and Gamrah are both swiftly divorced by their grooms for, respectively, being too keen on physical intimacy and being not sufficiently sexually responsive. When romance does flourish, the tribal nature of Saudi society and the need for a socially suitable allegiance makes a love-match impossible.

Alsanea's style is rendered chatty and demotic in English, and perhaps some literary gravitas is lost in translation. The original text moves between classical Arabic, several Saudi dialects, Lebanese-Arabic, English-Arabic and e-Arabic. The non-Saudi doubtless misses many regional jokes, although it's clear that the men of Riyadh are a rougher bunch with dusty feet in contrast to Jeddah sophisticates, plucked and pedicured to perfection with precisely groomed goatees. In her introduction, Alsanea says that she wants to challenge Western clichés about Saudi women's lives and to begin to articulate a new identity, "not the Western way, but one that keeps what is good about the values of our religion and culture, while allowing for reform".

Despite their education and potential careers, these girls seek fulfilment chiefly through romantic love. Sadeem regrets her inability to understand politics; she has no cause to defend or oppose to distract her from her heartbreak. The impossibility of independent lives does not politicise them, or alienate them from Islamic fundamentalism. Instead they congratulate one woman for the "bold spiritual step" of deciding to wear the full hijab. Alsanea's third way for Saudi women seems to eschew self-determination and autonomy and to favour lovelorn mooning over horoscopes or texting strangers under the abaya. This is an entertaining read: revealing, hilarious and chilling in turn.

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