It's not clear if Rajaa Alsanea's first novel, "Girls of Riyadh," was banned in Saudi Arabia because it became a Middle East best seller or if it became a best seller because it was banned.
Either way, it was a surprise for Alsanea, a soft-spoken 26-year-old Saudi who is studying dentistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
She wrote the book, which follows the lives of four upper-class young Saudi women who struggle to find love in a restrictive society, in her spare time. She said she hoped that by holding a mirror up to Saudi society, she could in some small way "improve" that society.
What she didn't anticipate was 1,000 e-mails a day—vilifying her, praising her, asking for her advice on matters of the heart or for her hand in marriage.
"It was a magical experience," she said. "Something like this had never happened to an author in the Arab world. It changed my life overnight."
"Girls of Riyadh" has been translated into 20 languages. The U.S. hardcover edition was published last year. The paperback came out last month. Royalties in Arab countries are minimal, but Alsanea has made about $500,000 from sales in Europe and America, she said.
In this country, the book has been promoted as a kind of "Sex and the City," Saudi-style. It isn't, unless you consider the Bronte sisters to be "Sex and the City" Victorian-style. It also has been dismissed by some reviewers as chick lit. It isn't that either, especially because in the Middle East the book has drawn more male than female readers, Alsanea said.
At UIC's College of Dentistry, she has become a minor celebrity, her literary achievement trumpeted on the school's Web page.
"Here, I'm just getting the good side of it," she said. "Back home, there is a lot more pressure. There is still a lot of controversy."
Alsanea, who comes from a family of doctors and dentists, already has her degree in dentistry and is pursuing certification in endodontics, the specialization that deals with root canals. She plans to return to Saudi Arabia and open a practice next summer. She also plans to continue writing.
"I chose dentistry because I didn't want to have to write for money," she said. "I didn't want to make a career out of writing. I wanted to have a steady job that would allow me to write as I pleased."
Alsanea appears to have no trouble balancing two careers, said Chris Wenckus, head of the UIC endodontics program.
"We've made some accommodations, for instance when she has had to go on a book-signing tour, but she's always been very careful that she doesn't leave at a key time for classroom work," he said.
"Girls of Riyadh" was effectively banned in Saudi Arabia; it couldn't be legally sold or imported there. To avoid Saudi censors, Alsanea had the book published in Lebanon. As enthusiasm spread by word of mouth and the Internet, smuggled copies of the book traded under the counter for $500 a copy, Alsanea said.
The Saudi government eventually relented and allowed the book to be imported, but many bookstores still refuse to carry it.
Alsanea is a gifted storyteller. She has an eagle eye for the revealing detail, such as Saudi males' penchant for traditional desert thobes (white robes) and head scarves—but with Gucci or Givenchy labels.
The four women in "Girls of Riyadh" have been friends since their school days. As they pursue love in a society dominated by men, social convention and tribal tradition, they also spend a lot of time shopping and discussing makeup.
The book's real value lies in the rare glimpse it gives Western readers into the normally sequestered precincts of Saudi Arabia's "velvet society," the class of affluent Saudis who glide from Riyadh to London to Chicago, floating on the surface of modernity but anchored to the desert mind-set.
She writes about the yearning of young Saudis to escape the constraints of the rigid tribal and religious strictures of their parents. At the same time, she is attuned to the profound sense of obedience and conformity to tradition that govern relations between men and women.
Knows her subject well Alsanea grew up in the society she writes about, a society in which Islam suffuses everything, and ruinous scandal lurks around every corner.
"Even for people who are not religious, religion is part of everyday life," said Alsanea as she sipped ice tea at a Starbucks on the near North Side. "When a girl decides to tweeze her eyebrows, she consults a sheikh to make sure that what she is doing is correct. It's a kind of weakness. We are afraid to do anything on our own."
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may be built on oil and Islam, but everyday life revolves around the Internet and mobile phone. That reality is woven throughout Alsanea's book as romances bloom and wither in cyberspace, and young people in Riyadh shopping malls furtively exchange glances and phone numbers.
Alsanea knew from the time she was a teen that she wanted to be a writer. She began "Girls of Riyadh" when she was an 18-year-old student at a women's college in Riyadh.
Aided by openness She said that an openness with her family and friends that is unusual by Saudi conventions enabled her to tackle subjects that most Saudis feel should not be aired in public.
"My family was very understanding," she said. "I'm talking about a family that didn't ask me what I was going to write about, didn't argue with me about publishing it, didn't try to stop me from publishing it under my own name." Although Alsanea wrote the book for a Saudi audience with no expectation that it would ever be translated into English and sold in America, she hopes that Americans who read it will come to understand a dimension of Saudi life that transcends the stereotypes of bearded sheikhs and veiled women: "To see it as it is, even if it is not a perfect place," she said.