This story is the second installment of a three-part series on the Riyadh Writing Club, a group of young female writers in Saudi Arabia. Read the first part here.
I'm sitting in Caribou Coffee, one of my favorite places to escape in Riyadh. The capital of Saudi Arabia is teeming with Western restaurant chains--KFC, Starbucks, Chili's. In the U.S., I rarely go to these places. But the good news about these eateries is they are "family" friendly, which actually means female friendly. Most local, Arabic-style restaurants are "singles" only, meaning male only. Leave it to corporate America to open their doors to women.
I'm here to meet Hala Abdullah, a creative and courageous Saudi woman in her 20s. She is responsible for starting the first writing group in her country, called the Riyadh Writing Club. It began with two members. Now there are more than 40. And the idea has spread to neighboring Kuwait and Dubai.
It has been exactly one year since I happened upon her first live event at the Sheraton Hotel. Women amassed in a female-only ballroom to hear the club's poetry and prose. As creative and intelligent as the performances were, I was troubled by the English-centric event. It wasn't only the fact that everything was written in English. The themes, places, and even names were American and British. I contacted Hala to find out why.
Hala rushes into the café and finds me quickly. In fact, there's only one other customer in the entire family section. We sit by a window. She decides not to order anything. She is sans headscarf. Her lip ring reflects the overhead light.
Hala jumps right into the conversation. She tells me she fell in love with writing in English at age 15. She was attending an English-language school and decided to process her teen traumas through poetry--in English. She wrote on scraps of paper or the sides of books. Her written words were things she could not discuss. So writing became her confidant.
"It saved me," she says.
"Why English, though?" I ask.
Although she has always loved writing in Arabic, she finds it easier in English. Her family expresses their disappointment in her worsening Arabic. You're Saudi! they cry. She calls her dilemma negative bilingualism. Although she feels bad about her imperfect Arabic, she doesn't apologize for her love of English.
Not totally satisfied with her explanation, I let it go for a while and ask her how the club began.
Hala founded the club during what she calls her "gap year." She had graduated from college and was taking a break from school. She wanted to be surrounded by other writers and forced herself to share her own writing.
"I know I'm not bad but I'm very self conscious about my writing so I make myself push it out there," she admits.
So she and her best friend, Meshael Alblehed, started the club as a way to get their writing heard and seen. They invited two friends, and the Riyadh Writing Club was born in 2011 with four members. Potential recruits email a piece of writing. Hala mainly checks for language skill because as the producer of the club's blog, she doesn't want to be burdened with editing.
Hala believes that writing is a form of expression and should never be censored. She encourages members to pursue topics and styles of writing that deviate from the norm. She also wants the writers to search deep within themselves for things they don't often feel comfortable communicating.
"I will be most impressed if they talk about what they're not supposed to," she says. "There are so many barriers here... We should have the freedom to imagine whatever we want to imagine."
The club's blog posts the members' writings under both real names and pseudonyms, depending on the author's preference. Hala is not concerned about being shut down by government watchdogs because there is nothing political in their postings.
The only backlash the group has received was from a high school teacher who came across the blog and approached one of the members--her student. The student had used the word "boobs" in one of her pieces and the teacher asked her if she meant to say "boots" instead. The teacher went to the principal of the school to complain.
Yet, the young women refuse to be reticent. They carry on with their club meetings every month, and typically they meet at public cafes, like this one. Hala describes their meetings as exhilarating.
"You get to be in that safe environment for a little while," she says.
"Can I attend one of your meetings?" I ask, doubtful that the members will accept my intrusion.
"Absolutely," Hala says with a grin. "The next one is at my house, actually."
I jot the date down in my calendar and we stand and say our goodbyes. Three kisses, right cheek first.
Stayed tuned for the third part of this series.