RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has seen a literary explosion in the last two years after the success of “Girls of Riyadh”, a taboo-breaking novel that this month went on sale worldwide in English.
Rajaa Alsanea’s insight into the closed world of Saudi women and their disappointments in love caused a storm in the conservative Islamic state where the Beirut-published book was at first banned, although it is now available.
But strikingly, Saudi Arabia’s literary output doubled in 2006, with half of the authors women, and publishing industry insiders suggest the growing interest is partly due to Alsanea’s book, which centers on four women from affluent homes who must navigate a minefield of rules and taboos on sex, marriage and social caste to get and keep their men.
“I see ‘Girls of Riyadh’ as a turning-point for readership in Saudi Arabia,” said Hassan al-Neimy, a short story writer who heads a group of Saudi literati called Hewar, Arabic for Dialogue. “The boldness of the book got women writing in the same style, publishing their own daily experiences.”
Around 50 novels were published in 2006 compared with 26 in 2005, al-Neimy said. Exact figures are hard to establish since some were published outside Saudi Arabia and are hard to obtain.
Novelists publishing inside Saudi Arabia normally submit their work to the ministry of information in advance. Only a handful are technically banned, but many writers resort to Arab publishers outside Saudi Arabia and leave individual bookstores inside the country the choice of whether to risk importing them.
The increase is telling in Saudi Arabia, where modern literature itself has been viewed as suspect by a powerful clerical establishment in an austere religious society that practices strict gender segregation.
Women grow up cocooned — facing great barriers to mixing with unrelated men in public, prevented from driving cars and prodded into arranged marriages. So their private worlds are fertile ground for literature.
Critics have noted that sexual relationships dominate in the output of the new writers, with sensational titles such as “al-Hobb fil Saudiyya”, Arabic for “Love in Saudi” and “Fosouq”, which means “Debauchery”.
One example is “al-Akharun” (“The Others”) by a woman using the pen name Siba al-Harz. It has attracted attention because of its dark treatment of lesbianism, guilt and marginalization among Saudi Arabia’s minority Shi’ite Muslims, as well as its sophisticated use of classical Arabic.
Al-Harz described the book as “a long response to pain and alienation” in an interview with an Arabic newspaper.
Eschewing comparisons to Alsanea’s breezy read, al-Harz has said she thought of publishing on the Internet until the Lebanese publisher that put out Alsanea’s book in Arabic came forward to take it on. It remains unavailable in Saudi Arabia.
Her publisher, Saqi Books, says “al-Akharun” is one of the best novels from the young female writers of Saudi Arabia.
“We have offered the chance to lots of young Saudi writers, especially female writers. It’s a whole new phenomenon,” said Hassan Ramadan from Saqi Books London office.
“Though it’s not necessarily moving in the right direction in terms of literary merit, it’s a way of communicating with the outside world,” he said of the new Saudi literature, noting the quality was not always high.
Writer al-Neimy said treatment of taboo sexual topics goes back to the novels of Saudi writers Turki al-Hamad, Abdo Khal and Ghazi Algosaibi in the 1990s. The books made their authors the bete noire of Saudi Islamists although they were just as significant for their discussion of Saudi political life.
But the communications revolution since then has given a new push to literary expression, al-Neimy said. Saudi Arabia’s native population has doubled since 1990 to 17 million, and official statistics show some 60 percent are under 21 years old.
“Society has been opened wide to changes outside the region. It’s a generation that has opened its eyes to rapid changes and the novel is a reflection of these changes on society,” he said.
Few Saudi novels have made it into translation for world audiences but that could be changing, says Abdallah Hassan, project editor at the American University in Cairo Press, which this year published work by Saudi author Yousef Al-Mohaimeed.
“Foreign publishers have become interested in Arab fiction, especially from Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It’s become a window to the Arab world,” Hassan said, while adding that Arabic literature was generally a “tough sell”.
The interest has been fed by the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the September 11 attacks in the United States, carried out by 19 Arabs including 15 Saudis.
The success since 2003 of Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany’s “The Yacoubian Building” in Arabic, English and French has shown Arabic literature can garner a wide audience, Hassan said.
While Arabic sales for “Girls of Riyadh” are in the tens of thousands, “The Yacoubian Building” has sold several hundred thousand copies.
Some warn, however, that the “industry” of depicting Saudi Arabia is in danger of falling into cliches of representation.
Saudis and Westerners are cashing in on this mystique, Abdul-Aziz al-Khedr recently wrote on an Internet forum called Saudi Debate (www.SaudiDebate.com).
“Many publishing houses (are) clearly tempted to make large profits and Saudi novelists to earn sudden and huge publicity,” he said. “All these market-attracting titles exceeded all past sales figures, turning what was rare in this field of literature into something abundant.”