Novelist Rajaa Alsanea's Girls of Riyadh, a tale of four young Saudi women and their romantic intrigues, is popping the lid on the lives of well-to-do women in one of the most closed societies in the world. Organized as a yearlong series of juicy, tell-all e-mails sent out on Fridays after prayers, the novel takes on intimate family matters, including sex and the complicated marriage arrangements in which mothers work to improve their family's social position. Interestingly, the girls' most fearful challenge day to day is neither religious authority nor government rules but the omniscient threat of gossiping potential mothers-in-law eager to blacken a girl's marriage dossier. With its candid approach and loose mix of Arabic slang and text-messaging lingo, spiked with citations from Sacha Guitry, Mark Twain and the Koran, the book was a runaway success and hugely controversial when it hit bookstores in September 2005. Initially banned in Saudi Arabia, it was first published in Arabic in Beirut. But the Saudi government intervened on Alsanea's behalf to allow distribution. "We have a Minister of Culture who believes that such controversial books should be permitted in the society to allow for a healthy dialogue of change by the young generation," says Alsanea, 25. That took care of the legal problems, but it didn't solve the hate mail, included in the 500 to 1,000 hits daily on the website created for readers' reactions. Along with the four main characters, the Internet and cell phones are the heroes of the novel. "The Internet has changed Saudi Arabia beyond anybody's wildest expectations," says Alsanea, who attends dental school in Chicago. The text messages exchanged during the night and the chat rooms are beyond the control of even the nosiest mothers. "The virtual world of the Internet provided my generation with a perspective on the world that the old generation lacks, especially for women," she says.
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