‘Revolutionary’ Chick Lit, Erotic Theology, and the Future of the Saudi Novel

Raja Alsanea, often praised/blamed for starting it all with her novel Girls of Riyadh.

Anglos have long been charged by a belief in Arab (hyper)sexuality. As Edward Said nods at in his pioneering Orientalism, this is in large part because of Anglo (hyper)reserve about s-e-x. Indeed, we might just as well talk about why Anglo writers can’t properly describe sex in their novels, and what they might learn from Saudi women.

This is in part because Saudis, Madawi al-Rasheed argues in The New Significance, have a history of healthy sex talk. Reserved Anglo women would be shocked by the talk of (married) Saudi women, she says, as Saudis “go in for elaborate ‘sexual’ talk.”

However, the sex talk doesn’t end there. It also, less healthily, extends to strict religious and government regulations. Al-Rasheed cites an elaborate “erotic theology,” through which scholars circulate how-to sex manuals and answer sex questions live on television.

And in the last decade, sex talk has found its way into young women’s novels.

Yes, the topic has been titillating for Anglo news editors. But also for Arab readers. According to the Oman Tribune, “London-based Saudi writer Zeinab Hifni’s latest novel Wesadat Le Hubbiki or the ‘Pillow for Your Love‘…is the talk of the [2011 Muscat International Book] fair.”

And why not? The novel, published by Al-Saqi, is one of a number of well-known Saudi women’s novels that talk about sex, international travel, and shopping. Are these novels revolutionary or reactionary? Are they good literature or neocapitalist fantasy?

Madawi al-Rasheed quotes novelist Badriya al-Bishr as saying that sexual themes in the new Saudi lit are just…sexual themes. Contemporary Arab literature, al-Bishr said, “is saturated with sexual scenes but critics do not concern themselves with this. Only when Saudi women write about sex, they are singled out.”

Saudi reporter Sabria Jawhar wrote about the issue in Arabisto last year:

Female authors like Al Bishr and Al Gohani may never cross gender lines and be embraced for their work as writers and not just women. But that matters less than the fact they are reaching a female Saudi audience who may be inspired to reach beyond domestic life for a larger piece of the pie.

Obviously, we’ve written about this too much already:

The New Saudi Novel (Again): Rebellious Pamphlet or Artistic Revolution?

The ‘Tyranny of Sex’ in the Saudi Novel

Laila al-Othman: Too Much Sex in New Saudi (Women’s) Lit

Although there’s probably no harm in this one:

A Primer on Saudi Lit, Abdulrahman Munif to Present