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We in the West hear about the Middle East all the time, but for most of us it remains unknown and unknowable.Our ignorance is pitiful, our prejudices more so, and so here is a debut novel worthy of attention: an exposé of the life of four girlfriends, looking for love in Riyadh.Teenagers Gamrah, Lamees, Michelle and Sadeem are part of the Saudi 'velvet class', their days filled with texts, designer clothes and boy-chat.
Only Michelle escapes the constraints she abhors, carving out a high-flying media career in Dubai.The quartet remain within the faith, yet all four dream of marrying for love. This is topical chic-lit, even down to the requisite embossed dust-jacket, although one of glamorous black and gold rather than the British standard of baby pink.The diet of girl-longs-for-boy palls, largely because many of the chapter endings are limp, the translation from Arabic is often clunky, and few characters possess a credible interior life.And yet Rajaa Alsanea raises important questions about self-respect, tolerance and emotional maturity.For all the cultural and religious differences, these teenagers are seen to echo educated girls the world over: they giggle, they bitch, and their dreams are often thwarted by social constraints.
There may be more polished novels on this theme to come, with more emotional texture, but Alsanea has had the courage to lift the veil of an obscured world.