"At 3:54 flight number FR24 LH1353 from RUH to STO crashed into the ocean.
Most of the passengers were sound asleep.
There were no survivors.
The sky was bleeding."
Brief silence. Gasps of disbelief. Then, thunderous applause. The young, slightly edgy Saudi women look around the living room at each other as they clap, terrified but clearly delighted by the morbid direction the story took.
"My heart hurts!" one exclaims.
"Why would you do that?" another cries.
"I hate planes!" a third declares.
Then, the accolades come. The group showers the two writers with compliments on their creativity and captivating plot twist. Enthusiasm circulates through the room as the pair of writers basks in their success. The air drips with positivity. As the buzz continues, the next duo props up their iPads in anticipation of their turn to read. The chatter eventually quiets and the dozens of women return to their relaxed state on the comfortable, tweed sofas and lounge chairs that create a cozy perimeter for this writers' circle--the Riyadh Writing Club.
Dressed mostly in blue jeans and loose blouses, these Saudi youth could pass for any group of talented high school and college students in the United States with a passion for poetry and prose. Yet, they are sitting in the basement den of a house in the middle of Riyadh, the conservative capital of Saudi Arabia. There are various clues: bowls of dates placed on end tables and the monstrous coat rack of abayas--the long, thin black cloaks that women are required to wear-- resting in the doorway. If it weren't for those two reminders in the room, I would forget where I was. I could easily be in a newly built villa in the heart of L.A. Just around the corner from the couches is an indoor swimming pool. A dry, warm breeze wafts through the doorway every time someone enters the secret lair.
At that point, I am hooked. I sit on the edge of my chair, eager for the next story. The 30 or so members voted on the theme "wanderlust" in their previous meeting. Each poem or short story (no more than 1,500 words, please) must include "wanderlust" somewhere in the text.
The storylines range from death to unrequited love. Others take a less literal approach of "wander" and "lust" and deal with bipolar family members while another discusses literature and the art of writing.
Each member is required to read her piece out loud to the group. The young women narrate their stories from laptops, smart phones, iPads, and old-fashioned paper. They respond in unique ways after they read. Some transform from tense, controlled body language into a huge smile of relief. Some slap high fives. Others hug. One or two shrug back into a chair and become red with embarrassment.
The strict rules of the club demand that no pieces be shared with each other beforehand. Also, if a member is more than 30 minutes late (a typical "on time" by Saudi cultural standards), she gets a strike. Three strikes and you're out.
Other rules include zero tolerance for plagiarism and incomplete pieces. "Good grammar is a must," according to the club's bylaws. Rudeness is outlawed and only constructive criticism is allowed. Finally, writing activities are not a contest. "Competitiveness will be a problem," the rules state.
The rules clearly work because the living room feels relaxed, safe. Timid teens open up. I am sitting next to a Palestinian member of the group who admits her initial anxiety. She thought the group would think differently of her because she wasn't Saudi. She realized her fears were unfounded. In fact, after reading her writing out loud for the first time, she immediately let her guard down.
Another member, who is attending for the very first time, tightly clutches her homemade journal as she witnesses the vulnerability unfolding around her. By the end of the meeting she has loosened her grip. She clearly feels the magic in the room.
I finally ask a few of the members why they don't write on Arabic or Middle Eastern themes, something that has bothered me since I attended their live reading more than a year ago. One young woman, Alla, responds to my question with a head nod. She has a publisher and he encourages her to write about Saudi issues and topics. He says that is the kind of writing that will sell, given her identity as a Saudi female writer.
However, others respond more defensively. One says she comes to these meetings to "escape all that and be imaginative." Another confesses she gets tired of answering questions from Americans about whether Saudis have AC units or ride camels. The third woman states poignantly, "Why should we focus on that when, actually, we aren't any different from other people?"
And that's what this intimate meeting of 30 young Saudi writers of English poetry and prose teaches me: they aren't all that different. They experience love, hurt, and drama just as we all do. The veneer of their pious culture showcases a different reality, but their soulful prose reveals the truth behind closed doors. The act of writing--and sharing that writing--has become a vital conduit for each member's self-awareness. I suddenly start to care less about whether that act is in English or Arabic.
At the end of the meeting, the club's founder, Hala Abdullah, initiates the conversation about what the next one-word theme should be. Members shout out possibilities:
After some sideline conversations and quiet protests, all of those suggestions are voted down.
"What about SPEAK?" Hala asks.
A quiet stir of agreement spreads. After a quick unanimous vote of hands, it is officially decided: SPEAK.
The meeting ends, a few more sticky dates are gobbled down, and the young women start chatting in Arabic. One by one, they cover themselves in their black abayas, hide their hair in headscarves and hurry out to their idling drivers.
(To read the poetry and prose of the Riyadh Writing Club, click here.)