Analysis

This Best-selling Saudi Novel Sheds Light on the Prospect of Normalization With Israel

Everyone expects a meeting between Bin Salman and Netanyahu – but public opinion in Saudi Arabia has not been won over yet

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A woman sets under a banner with Arabic letters during a cultural and educational event at the Water Front Park in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, January 15, 2020
A woman sets under a banner with Arabic letters during a cultural and educational event at the Water Front Park in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, January 15, 2020Credit: Amr Nabil,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Rajaa Bandar's first book has reached the bestseller list in Saudi Arabia in the space of a few weeks, riding on controversy and a social media storm, which has seen the young writer face accusations of writing "implied messages calling for normalization with Israel."

Her book, "Ghurba Yahudiyah," (Jewish Expatriation) tells the story of a young, lower-class woman from Yemen, who, after her marriage to a wealthy Saudi man collapses, goes to live with her Jewish mother. She embraces Judaism and its rituals; when her father urges her to go back to Islam, she refuses, opting to live as a Jew, with independence of thought and religion.

The book was pulled into the spotlight after another Saudi writer, Salmih Al Mushi, claimed Bandar copied the outline and whole portions of her book, “Yahudiyah Mukhlisa" (Devout Jewess). The rivalry between the two authors has split the literary community in Saudi Arabia.

In an interview with the Lebanese website Raseef22, Bandar explained that she chose her subject because of her deep interest in the lives of Jews and especially those who lived “in our villages and our cities, until they disappeared and reappeared defined now as enemies.”

But other voices have also accused Bandar of presenting the Jewish daughter as a positive symbol, and of promoting “deviant” liberal ideas by describing the heroine’s assertiveness and determination.

“It was not my intention to publish a political manifesto," Bandar says. "I wanted to spark the reader’s curiosity so they can get to know the difference between Jewishness and Israeliness. I intended to shed light on the married life in mixed couples, and how children become involved in two completely different worlds.”

The reaction to Bandar’s book recall those that followed the publication of “Girls of Riyadh,” the groundbreaking book by Saudi writer Rajaa Alsanea, which received international acclaim and is distributed in 40 countries, including Israel.

In her book, Alsanea, who is both an endodontist and neurologist, and once won an award for her research on stem cells, clearly describes, using literary, spoken and email Arabic, the chauvinistic complexes of Saudi society. She casts every possible stone at societal conventions that restrict the lives of woman and men in Saudi Arabia. Alsanea, who was just 24 when the book was published, revealed in print the familiar reality of Saudi society.

When it came out in 2005, the book was published in Lebanon and banned in Saudi Arabia. But the country is now trying to present itself as more Western, more liberal and progressive, and Bandar has been able to take feminism a big step further. She does not just deal with women’s status and rights in general; she focuses specifically on a singular issue with mixed marriages, the fact that Saudi women can not pass on their nationality if they are not married to Saudi men.

But the decision to build her story around a Jewish figure, and her the distinction she makes between Israeliness and Jewishness, threatens to delegitimize her social critique of Saudi society, by writing positive things about Jews, not to mention Israelis.

Saudi writer Rajaa Alsanea, author of "Girls of Riyadh" at the International Festival of Literature in Dubai, February 27, 2009
Saudi writer Rajaa Alsanea, author of "Girls of Riyadh" at the International Festival of Literature in Dubai, February 27, 2009Credit: HAIDER SHAH / AFP

Much ink is now spilled throughout the Middle-East on the prospect of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Reports of secret and public meetings between senior Israeli officials and their Saudi counterparts still spark enthusiasm. Commentators are expecting a meeting between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Saudi journalists have visited Israel and positive commentary on Israel by columnists, and on social media, is no longer rare..

Whatever Riyadh's official position is, the public response to this kind of commentary can still be scathing. In December, Saudi blogger Abd al-Hamid al-Ghabin was stripped of his citizenship after he wrote about the need for normalization of ties with Israel, and outlined its economic benefits. Saudis still do not accept Israel as an ally, despite the sweeping consensus that the two countries have a common interest in countering Iran’s influence in the region.

Israelis have become used to seeing Saudi guests, who support normalization completely, on their televisions, but back home, some still accuse literature that promote any kind of normalization with the hostile Zionist entity of containing “toxic hints,” as one wrote of Bandar’s work.

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