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Eat the Rich
on 9 November 2007
I have an interest in modern Arab fiction, so when I saw this Saudi novel was translated and published by a major press I couldn't resist checking it out. Unfortunately, the story is pretty thin gruel and fails to provide a particularly rich or insightful glimpse into the Arab world -- or rather, 99.9% of the Arab world. It revolves around the social life of the rich and pampered young elite of the Saudi kingdom, and the picture it paints is not very pretty. Framed as a kind of online serialization of a roughly six-year span in the lives of four young women of the "velvet class", the story is confined to soap opera antics that could occur among privileged teens in China, India, Canada, or any number of other places.
The four co-protagonists are Sadeem, Gamrah, Michelle and Lamees -- girls of roughly similar backgrounds (although Michelle spent a good deal of her childhood in the West) who become friends in high school. Though they are of varying temperament, they are like teens and young people everywhere, mainly obsessed with the opposite sex. Unfortunately for them, the oppressive social climate of Saudi Arabia makes actual interaction rather problematic. For example: shopping malls operate such that men and women cannot mingle, wooing consists of driving next to a carload of women and holding up signs with one's cell-phone number, and speaking of cell phones -- billing records are scrutinized by family and prospective in-laws to asses the wholesomeness of a prospective bride.
This separation of the sexes leads to a lot of daydreaming and romanticizing among the four women, which in turn leads to some predictably bad relationships. Some are so intent on getting married that they leap into marriage with the first man who comes along, and are then caught in bleak, loveless marriages. Others are so intent on "true love" that they ignore all the warning signs and become emotionally entangled with men who have no intention of marrying them. Many of these predicaments follow the familiar storylines of "love matches" vs. arranged marriages in a supposedly modern society -- a topic that's been more or less done to death by South Asian writers. In the same vein, relationships that cross class lines are pretty much taboo, a theme well-covered in British literature.
Ultimately, it's hard to care for any of these pampered, haute couture-consuming brats when their love lives crash and burn. Lip service is paid to feminism, and that's certainly a valid point to be made in terms of Saudi society, however these four women are awfully superficial messengers.