This story is one of a three-part series on the Riyadh Writing Club, a group of young female writers in Saudi Arabia.
Shiny stilettos. Bursting diaries. Nervous laughter. The call to prayer. It's the first public gathering of the Riyadh Writing Club in Saudi Arabia, and the young women are ready to start.
It's February 15, just after Valentine's Day. The holiday is banned in Riyadh. Any sign of celebration is quickly noticed and squelched. Flower shops hide their crimson roses for 24 hours. The wearing of red is looked down upon.
Like Cupid's special day, free speech is also discouraged. This is why a poster titled "Literary Open-Mic Night" caught my attention and caused me to end up at the Sheraton Hotel in Riyadh stuffed into a crowded ballroom with nervous teens and 20-somethings scurrying around in their scarlet stilettos (a subtle nod to the forbidden). Abayas are left at the door because it is a female- only event. Like magic, outside conformity transforms into a semblance of individuality. These women, who dutifully walk around in their black uniforms while in the presence of men, metamorphose into beauty queens once the uniformity is shed. The club members are wearing "skinny" jeans and charcoal tops, but the attendees strut into the ballroom with their own high heels, sequined shirts, and movie star makeup. Without fail, I always feel underdressed around Saudi women.
Within a few moments of the first recitation, Valentine's Day takes a back seat as my head spins in themes of nostalgia, conspiracy, and the paranormal. References to Bokowski, Walmart, and rolling around in bed sheets unhinge my jaw. I scribble words down in my personal notepad: Did she just use the words "diabolical" and "paltry?"
The incessant chatter of the audience competes with the orators at the lectern. But I recognize that theater-going is not a learned skill in Saudi society. How would they know what respectful behavior looks like during a performance? The arts are not taught in public school. Music, dance, plays rarely happen, and if they do, they thrive at embassies or behind walls--out of sight and out of mind.
That is why this event feels like an important breakthrough for Saudis, male or female. Fortunately, the female sphere is immune to the male religious police, officially known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or Hay'a, short for "commission" in Arabic. Thus, women can create their enclaves of creativity and stay off the radar. That's why the female-only ballroom of the Sheraton is currently abuzz--and safe--with its cultivation of the literary arts.
Despite the roar of irreverent attendees, I focus on the poems and short stories reminiscent of the messy journals I kept during high school (only I didn't use advanced vocabulary like "ephemeral"). Throw in a mix of TV soap opera drama and references to sex and breakups-- things I thought teens weren't allowed to experience in the Kingdom--and you have an accurate summary of the night.
Halfway into the performance, I wonder, "Is there a Riyadh Writing Club in Arabic?" I review the printed program and look at one of the titles: "Roaming the Roads of Rome." Is there a "Roaming the Roads of Riyadh" anywhere? Metaphors of forests and rivers fill my ears as well as references to Jimmy and Billy. What about the sand dunes? Where are Ahmed and Khalid?
I start to wonder whether the teaching of the English language (my purpose for being in Saudi Arabia in the first place) is replacing a creative connection to Saudis' own culture and custom. Why else would they have a poem called "Pound Cake" instead of "Kanafeh," a well-known Arab dessert? Have they even tried pound cake?
My pride in these young women for their mastery of the English language conflates with my personal, English-teacher guilt. I struggle with the "Western," pop-culture nature of their prose. I want to celebrate their courage. Yet, I need to understand why they choose English as their creative conduit.
As the event comes to a close, I make a pact with myself to find the answers to my burning questions. I must find the brainchild.
Stayed tuned for the second part of this series.