Interview with Rajaa Al-Sanie

"Change Is Inevitable in Any Society"

Although the book stirred a scandal and is officially banned in her home country of Saudi Arabia, Rajaa Al-Sanie's "Girls of Riyadh" has become the number one best-seller in the Arab world. Friedhelm Hartwig interviewed the 24-year-old

Rajaa Al-Sanie (photo: AP)
Prominent writers have lauded "The Girls of Riyash" as part of a new trend in Saudi literature which, through focusing on the psychology of the individual, suggests that human needs come above the demands of society and religion

​​What were your main motives for writing this novel?

Rajaa Al-Sanie: I think a great deal of the Arabic literature is [politically] motivated, which tarnishes it with a propaganda type of look. I want to distance myself from such [politically] motivated writings. I just enjoy writing and want the reader to share with me the view from my window. He or She can make their own conclusions.

Your novel is part of the new Saudi Arabic literature which became prominent within the last couple of years. The topics of this literature are everyday life as well as the problems of radical change in Saudi Arabian society. How do you explain the popularity of this literature? Saudi Arabia is, after all, a very restrictive country.

Al-Sanie: The Saudi society shares with all other societies the human experience. And the country can not isolate itself from this experience in the era of modern telecommunications, the Internet and the globalization of markets. Change is inevitable in any society and it is a sign of vivaciousness.

The novel was so popular because it touched real issues that people related to in their lives. It is not a philosophical message or propaganda type of writing that wanted to convince people of a certain idea. It is merely a mirror or a window through which the society sees itself. Moreover, it is an enlightening experience for many readers who discussed those issues among themselves, their families and friends.

Your book has also provoked some sharp criticism. Which statements have troubled you most?

Al-Sanie: The novel showed that we [Saudis] are only human, like humans from any other society. This means that the novel shattered an idealistic image of society that existed only in the minds of some of those who produced sharp criticism. Theirs was an unreal image that did not relate to reality.

I think, regardless of that, we need to respect the other opinion and have a fruitful dialogue that is beneficial to all parties. This is why a national conference was arranged by the King about "The Other Opinion" which was welcomed by most scholars in the country.

Heavy criticism was formulated on the basis of Islamic religion and belief. Have you met with Islamic scholars who support you and regard your novel as an important contribution to the development of Saudi society and Islam?

Al-Sanie: Yes, in fact I did an interview on Orbit Satellite TV and on the other side of the table was an Islamic Scholars who welcomed the novel and did not see anything in it that violated the religion.

Do you have any Arabic or non-Arabic literary role models? Are there Arabic or non-Arabic authors who have a lasting influence on you or who have inspired you?

Al-Sanie: I am impressed with Dr Ghazi Al-Qusaibi and his writings. Dr Al-Qusaibi is a famous Saudi writer; he also worked as Professor of Business Administration and is now the Minister of Labour.

Did your life change much after the publication of the novel and its tremendous success?

Al-Sanie: I was suddenly a celebrity which was nice at first, but draining in the end. My life has changed dramatically because of that. My perception of the society has not changed though. I expected the mixed reaction the novel received.

My life professionally did not change as I will continue to pursuit my career as a dentist. I am moving to the US to finish my studies in that field. However, on the literary level, I think I will be under tough scrutiny with regard to my next written work.

Friedhelm Hartwig

© Qantara.de 2006

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