Girls of Riyadh and Desperate in Dubai : Reading and writing romance in the Middle East

Dr Amy Burge (University of Birmingham)
Session 8.4: Muslim and Middle Eastern Romances

The Middle East has long held a romantic fascination for the west, characterised by the popular sheikh romance. Yet, as myself and others have argued (Burge 2016; Jarmakani 2015; Teo 2012) in these novels Middle Eastern women are often depicted as helpless, veiled, and silent. This paper approaches romance, gender and the Middle East from a different perspective, analysing two novels written by Middle Eastern women that respond to and challenge the way western popular romance has represented women and the Middle East.

Desperate in Dubai by Ameera Al Hakawati (2011) and Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea (2005 in Arabic, 2007 in English), both ‘Arabic best-sellers’, describe the romantic lives of four women in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, respectively. The novels are influenced by western popular culture, most obviously the TV shows Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, and the romance and chick-lit genres. This has been controversial; Roger Allen criticised the ‘new phenomenon’ of Arab women writing for a western readership (2011) and Marilyn Booth (who translated Girls of Riyadh into English) claimed the novel became depoliticised through translation into English (2010).

Yet, by looking at these novels in the context of popular romance, we can see how each writer adapts these influences, blending them with references to Arab culture to critique approaches to gender in both the Middle East and the western world. [Burge argues] that these novels are responding, in their own way, to a global genre (romance/chick-lit) that has, for decades, monopolised definitions of the ‘romantic Middle East’. By globalising their own local forms of romance through international publication, Al Hakawati and Alsanea are developing a unique form of popular romance that offers a new perspective on the romance genre and the Middle East.
While chick lit is in decline in the Western world, it remains buoyant in Asia and the Middle East. Amy is looking at how the genre is defined / redefined as it moves across cultures.
Sheik romances:

  • silence Islamic women for the white heroine

Rise of Islamic chick lit:

  • Desperate in Dubai – Ameera al Hakawatia
  • Girls of Riyadh – Rajaa Alsanea

These books have the competencies of chick lit genre:

  • Urban setting
  • Focus on commerce
  • Multiple romantic partners rather than single partner
  • Cover design and palatte
  • Both books explore the exploits of a group of 4 friends
  • Both blend western Romantic culture with Arab culture
  • References to popular culture and prominent Arab personalities
  • Neither was written for a global audience initially
  • Both were actually banned for a while but now available
  • The novels celebrate the western heritage of the ‘chicklit foremothers’ but at the same time they are critical of it

Authors were very aware of the exoticism of Arab women in sheik romance, and wanted to make sure they weren’t doing the same thing

  • Author Amber Al-Hakawati acknowledges the influence of chick lit but specifically avoids writing sheikh romance and it’s problematic overtones
  • It takes away the exoticism, and gives characters depth.
  • She wanted to write a more thoughtful reflection on the representation of Arab men and women.
  • Girls of Riyadh has a more literary aspiration.
  • Author Rajaa Alsanea tries to position it against literary fiction while at the same time claiming not to be worthy of such classification.

What makes a romance ‘global’ or local’?

  • Genre?
  • Mode?
  • Audience?

Girls Of Riyadh and Desperate in Dubai are dual citizens – inserted in their own literary traditions in addition to western foremothers

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