BOOKS TO READ BEFORE VISITING SAUDI ARABIA
Preparing for a visit to a foreign country can be overwhelming. Travel blogs and guide books are always useful sources of information, but fiction and non-fiction is as helpful in understanding the destination's history and culture, and will set a tone for the trip.
If you are are about to embark on a journey to Saudi Arabia, the following fiction and non-fiction books, including books written by Saudi authors, will help you learn about the kingdom's rich history and culture. We have also included some Saudi movies to watch.
For tips about traveling to Saudi Arabia, read our blog post here: TIPS FOR TRAVELING TO SAUDI ARABIA
BOOKS TO HELP YOU UNDERSTAND THE HISTORY OF SAUDI ARABIA
ON SAUDI ARABIA: ITS PEOPLE, PAST, RELIGION, FAULT LINES - AND FUTURE
BY KAREN ELLIOTT HOUSE
Written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, "On Saudi Arabia" explores the country's tribal past, its complicated present and its future. It covers society, politics, religion, leaders, dependance on oil, starting with the First Saudi State that was founded in the mid-eighteenth century to the current, Third Saudi State, established in 1932. The author explains how the 1979 attack on Mecca changed the society when in the aftermath, the shaken King Fahd gave the religious leaders a carte blanche over Saudi society—women's rights were restricted, cinemas were closed, etc. Since the book's publishing in 2012, the kingdom has gone through some positive changes. Women can now drive and do not need their guardian's permission to travel, cinemas and music are back for people to enjoy, and the country has opened itself to tourists.
The country fundamentally is a family corporation, call it Islam, Inc. The board of directors, some twenty senior religious scholars who theoretically set rules for corporate behavior, are handpicked by the Al Saud owners, can be fired at a royal whim, and have nothing to say about who runs the company. The Al Saud family members hold all key jobs down to the middle management.
SAUDI, INC: The Arabian Kingdom's Pursuit of Profit and Power
BY ELLEN R. WARD
Published in 2018, "Saudi, Inc." tells the story of how ARAMCO evolved from an American company in Arabia into the Saudi ARAMCO we know today, how the company’s success paved the way for Saudi Arabia’s modernization and urbanization. It is a concise history of not only the wealthy oil company, but also a story of how over more than a century, the al Saud family has navigated through shrewd leadership and a long-term strategy to maximize profit and strengthen their power, how it has come from next to nothing to rule as absolute monarchs.
Saudi Arabia maintained a largely traditional, pastoral, and religious culture through the 1940s. Political order was maintained through a tribal system. The Saudi royal family hails from one of the seven largest tribes, the Anaza. King Abdul Aziz considered powerful, nomadic, marauding tribesmen a threat to his rule. After subduing them militarily, he forced them to pledge permanent loyalty to him. In return, the king provided for their material well-being.
BOOKS TO HELP YOU UNDERSTAND THE SOCIETY AND CULTURE OF SAUDI ARABIA
DARING TO DRIVE: A SAUDI WOMAN'S AWAKENING
BY MANAL AL-SHARIF
"Daring to Drive" is a memoir written by a Saudi woman who unexpectedly became an activist and a women's rights leader. She grew up in a modest family in Mecca devoutly obeying the laws and customs of one of the most radical religious groups. However, education changed her views. Working in Aramco, she encountered numerous obstacles from difficulties finding a rental without a male guardian to having to hire a driver because the company shuttle only served the male section of its workforce. When she traveled to America for professional training, she took the opportunity and learned to drive. In May 2011, back in Saudi, Manal sat in her black abaya behind a steering wheel of a car. The video of her driving quickly went viral inside the kingdom.
The first school for girls opened in 1964, two years after the king officially banned slavery. It was not a universally popular decision. Soldiers had to protect the students. The schools were behind high solid walls. The school windows were bolted shut and covered so no outside eyes might gaze inside.
PRINCESS: A TRUE STORY OF LIFE BEHIND THE VEIL IN SAUDI ARABIA
BY JEAN SASSON
Published in 1992 by an American author, "Princess" is a story of a Saudi princess, a woman born into an enormously wealthy household. But behind the mansions, private jets and designer clothing is a woman who lives in a gilded cage where she has no rights and is treated as chattel. And yet, she remains profoundly proud of her country. The author writes in the first person, taking on the voice of Sultana, which she says is a pseudonym to protect the woman's true identity. Whether the book is fiction or non-fiction (the author claims it to be a true story), it is well written and there is enough truth to make it plausible. The book is sold in over 40 countries and spent 13 weeks on the NYT bestseller list.
In Saudi Arabia, the pride of a man's honor evolves from his women, so he must enforce his authority and supervision over his women or face public disgrace...Females in my world are reconciled to a stern society that frowns upon the voicing of our opinions. All women learn at an early age to manipulate rather than to confront.
THE BRO CODE OF SAUDI CULTURE
BY ABDUL AL LILY
According to the author, an Oxford-educated young Saudi university professor, "The Bro Code of Saudi Culture" is a set of rules meant as guidelines to live by and behave properly among Saudis and/or to understand its culture. It is written in a very simple language, sometimes comically so, and contains short, non-judgemental paragraphs about all things Saudi. For anyone who does not know much about the kingdom, this is an interesting insight into Saudi mentality, traditions and culture.
Rule #1 Saudi society is divided into two domains: a domestic 'inside-the-house' domain and a public 'outside-the-house' domain.
Rule#2 Women are responsible for and belong to the domestic domain. Men are in command of and are affiliated with the public domain.
Rule #3 When a woman goes outside her domestic domain to the public domain, she covers her whole body with a loose black cloak as an indication that she is not supposed to be there.
FICTION WRITTEN BY SAUDI AUTHORS
CITIES OF SALT
BY ABD AL-RAHMAN MUNIF
"Cities of Salt" was first published in Beirut in 1984 and despite being banned in some Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, it is recognized as an important work of Arab literature. The author was born in Jordan to a Saudi father and Iraqi mother. He worked in the oil industry and later focused on writing. Because of his opposition of the Saudi royal family, he was stripped of his Saudi citizenship. Munif is regarded by many as the most important author in the Arab world during the late 20th century.
Cities of Salt, which is the first in the series of five and is a monumental book of 600 pages, examines the effects of the discovery of huge reserves of oil in a once-idyllic oasis community in an unnamed country, seen through the eyes of a large cast of bedouin characters whose lives were disrupted and never the same.
It was a special kind of tragedy, like amnesia followed by long-belated remembrance in which the chaotic confusion and curse of things were made apparent.
THE SHELTERED QUARTER: A TALE OF A BOYHOOD IN MECCA
BY HAMZA BOGARY
Hamza Mohammad Bogary was born in 1932 in Mecca. He worked in broadcasting and served as Saudi Arabia's Deputy Minister of Information. In 1967, he became a cofounder of King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. His partly autobiographical novel, "The Sheltered Quarter," describes a bygone way of life that has now irreversibly disappeared. Young Muhaisin grows up in Mecca before the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia. Charming and mischievous boy living alone with his mother because his father had dies before he was born, he describes his school years, his troubles with bullies, his love of reading. The reader learns about the various aspects of Arabian culture—pilgrimages, beliefs and superstitions—in a light and humorous, easy to read manner.
By adopting the turban and cloak, I progressed from childhood and youth to a sedate maturity without having chosen this tradition. In this respect, I resembled Steinbeck's heroes in Of Mice and Men, who passed from nomadism to degeneracy without going through the intermediate state of civilization.
THE DOVE'S NECKLACE
BY RAJA ALEM
Raja Alem was born in 1970 in Mecca. She has published several plays and novels and she became the first woman to win the International Prize of Arabic Fiction for "The Dove's Necklace." A young woman's body is discovered in the Lane of Many Heads, an alley in a poor section of modern-day Mecca. Identification is complicated because of her disfigurement as well as collective shame of her nakedness. When Detective Nasser pursues his investigation, seemingly all Mecca chimes in. The author paints the world of crime, religious extremism, and exploitation of foreign workers by a mafia of building contractors, who are destroying the historic areas of the city.
Sometimes I ask myself, what’s life like for my sisters? Even television is a novelty to them. Look…” Nasser looked over at the black triangles that huddled in the doorway of the Imam’s house: Mu’az’s sisters dressed in abayas that covered them from tip to toe, cones of black crowding one another to peek through the narrow crack in the door at the television in the café. “When they’re sleeping sometimes I wish I could see beneath their eyelids. I want to see how they make dreams without the help of a satellite dish…
WOLVES OF THE CRESCENT MOON
BY YOUSEF AL-MOHAIMEED
The author was born in Riyadh in 1964. He has published several novels and short story collections in Arabic but "Wolves of the Crescent Moon" is his first to be published outside the Middle East. It is banned in Saudi Arabia. This remarkable and gripping novel draws you in from the very first lines. In a Riyadh bus station, a man—a former bedouin highwayman—comes across a file containing official reports about an abandoned baby from two decades ago. The narrative moves from past to present, first person to third person, imagination to reality, giving it a dreamlike aura. The author has been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez for a reason.
She mourned her firstborn, who had been stolen from her by a genie and enthroned as king of the underworld. She grieved for her husband, against whom her second son had conspired and fed to the wild beasts of the desert.
BY SOHEIR KHASHOGGI
Shoheir Khashoggi was born in Alexandria in 1947 into a distinguished Saudi family. Her father, Muhammad Khashoggi, was the Saudi Royal physician for King Abdulaziz Al Saud, founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. She now lives in New York. "Mirage," the author's debut novel, is an engrossing story of Amira, a young girl from a wealthy and powerful family. She expects to be sold into marriage and to never step outside her house without being swathed in black veils and accompanied by an escort. But she's not prepared for the savagery of the husband she first meets on her wedding night, or the increasingly oppressive control he is allowed to exert over her. Finally, in an attempt to save her own life and sanity, she escapes with her baby to start a new life in the United States. She transforms herself into a Harvard-educated psychologist who specializes in battered women. But her past - and her powerful husband - won't give her up easily.
OTHER CONTEMPORARY SAUDI AUTHORS AND BOOKS
"Throwing Sparks" by Abdo Khal (b. 1962). His books are not sold in Saudi Arabia, because they touch the subjects that are taboos in the Arab world. His novel "Throwing Sparks," published in 2009, won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. It is a satire about modern day slavery, limitless wealth and abuse of power.
"The Girls of Riyadh" by Rajaa Alsanea (b. 1981). The author, sometimes called “Carrie Bradshaw of the Middle East,” published "The Girls of Riyadh" in Arabic in 2005 and in English in 2007. The book has been credited with starting a new wave of Saudi "girl-lit". Even though it is not great literature, it encouraged a lot of women who would be reluctant to write a novel do it. The book is tracing the lives of four "twentysomethings" from the capital's wealthy 'velvet class'-- the illicit drinking, women posing as men in order to drive cars, homosexuality, premarital sex and clandestine dating.
"Hend and the Soldiers" by Badriah Albeshr, published in Arabic in 2006 and in English in 2017, banned in Saudi Arabia. It is a novella about oppression, the soldiers symbolizing the social-control army, made up of relatives, co-workers, and men from the Committee for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue.
MOVIES FEATURING SAUDI ARABIA
Wadjda is a 2012 Saudi drama, shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first feature film by a Saudi female director, Haifaa al-Mansour. The movie was nominated for the 2014 foreign film Oscars. It is a story of a young girl living in a suburb of Riyadh, dreaming about buying a bicycle - something that is frowned upon in the society. "You won't be able to have children if you ride a bike," Wadjda is informed. She enters a Qur'an reading competition in order to raise money to buy the bicycle. The movie can be rented through several streaming services.
Barakah Meets Barakah was released in 2016 and is directed and written by Mahmoud Sabagh, a Saudi film director and screenwriter, and shot entirely in Jeddah. The movie was selected as the Saudi entry for the Oscars Best Foreign Language Film in 2017. It is a love story between a boy from a middle-class family and a wealthy girl and the challenges they face due to Saudi strict public policies. Available on Netflix.
A Hologram for the King, released in 2016, is a comedy-drama starring Tom Hanks as a corporate salesman who goes to Saudi Arabia to propose a business deal and oversee a holographic teleconferencing system presentation to the king. The film was shot in Egypt, Morocco and Germany.
The Kingdom, released in 2007, starring Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper and Jennifer Garner, is set in Saudi Arabia. During a softball game at an American oil company housing compound, a bomb is set off and a team of counter-terrorist investigators is sent to find the criminal behind the attack. The movie was shot in Mesa, Arizona.