The Clandestine Adventures of Alice in Saudi Land

At a discreet all-female book club in a shadowy Saudi café, women subtly push for societal change—with a little help from an imaginative heroine who turns 150 this year.

The Clandestine Adventures of Alice in Saudi Land

Since Saudi women still can’t take control of the wheel, I step out of the backseat of my shared family car, my long black abaya spilling onto the street as the call to prayer lingers in the cool Saudi air and the sun dips behind the horizon. I walk towards the sand-colored building holding a notebook, and adjust my headscarf with my free hand. The car drives away. The male workers inside the family-owned heritage store nod at me as I enter. I nod back. I go up the stairs alone, my abaya wiping away my footsteps as I climb higher.

Past a thick door, the second-floor café is decorated like an artsy Middle Eastern living room with large cozy sofas and coffee tables. A group of ten women, mostly twenty-and thirty-somethings, plus one teenager, all of different educational and occupational backgrounds, gather around. We simultaneously uncover our hair, and peel our abayas off, revealing colorful clothing — bold paintings hidden beneath dark curtains. Kisses fly onto cheeks as we introduce ourselves in Arabic. I do not know any of them, but as soon as I hug them, we are sisters, brought together by a love of reading.

Tonight, the Kalimat Literary Book Club, a not-so-secret feminist society of sorts, is meeting in the sleepy city of Dhahran in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Our guest of honor won’t be joining us tonight, but you may have heard of her. A hundred and fifty years ago a book was written about her — Alice, who resides in Wonderland.

On any given day in New York City — where I live now — I can take a stroll to a local coffee house and perhaps stumble upon a book club. But in my hometown of Dhahran, that’s certainly not the case. There are bookstores in malls, but all have limited business hours carved around prayer times. Public libraries supposedly exist in the country, though nobody I know has ever visited one. It’s an unspoken rule that women are forbidden inside anyway.

When I was growing up in the ’90s I spent summer vacations in Florida, where I’d use my allowance to buy books on the last days before flying home. My friends would either travel to the U.S. or the U.K. and pick up their own titles as well. We were mindful of the covers and tried to select books that didn’t have illustrated characters wearing shorts or sleeveless outfits. Although my mother was an English teacher who taught at my private school, our book hobby was entirely our initiative.

Back in Dhahran on the first day of school at my all-girls’ junior high, my uniformed friends and I would greet each other with announcements of the books we bought. We devoured R. L. Stein’s Fear Street and had an insatiable appetite for Stephen King. A few talked about their Sweet Valley High books and some liked romance novels, but those weren’t my thing. I preferred The Baby-Sitters Club. We all eagerly read the pages and then exchanged the books, discussing them later during recess or over absurdly long phone conversations on a landline. Nobody remembers who started the club; it just happened.

We had only one daily English class; all of our other courses were taught in Arabic, though we socially spoke accent-less English to each other. We knew better than to reveal our Western books to our Arabic teachers who considered what we were reading to be blasphemous because the stories depicted “unsavory” characters. Even our English teachers disliked those “trashy” series. They thought we should read the classics instead. We learned to tuck our books between folders and papers — the extent of our teenage rebellion. Daughters of powerful families attended my school, so we were all supposed to set a good example. We didn’t want to risk having our mothers called into the principal’s office to go over how we were wasting school time by reading scandalous titles. I certainly didn’t want to find my mother marching through the hallway to collect me.

Our library had a tiny selection of English books; I mainly just read Nancy Drew, but many of the pages, namely those that included explicit language and love scenes, were carefully removed. Some sentences were blackened out with a marker.

Saudi law dictates that the Ministry of Culture and Information has the power to censor publications, and the country has a history of banning books, citing “threats to the Kingdom’s security” and labeling them as “against Islam.” Just last year, the Annual Riyadh International Book Fair, a literary event held in the country’s capital, banned titles such as The History of Hijab and Feminism in Islam. More than 10,000 copies of 420 books were confiscated during that event alone, according to numbers released by the organizers themselves.

Now, more than a decade after high school, I return to another book club. This time I am delighted to dust off that copy of Alice in Wonderland from my childhood room and take it to the meeting. Teenaged me would have been so proud.

Reading Alice as a child was transporting, on many levels. Since getting around town was so difficult, we Saudi women savored stories that took us on creative journeys, more fluidly traveling through the pages. Many of my classmates read Alice in the privacy of their own homes too, though we didn’t need a guardian to go to Wonderland.

My parents were both supportive of my book collecting and some teachers gave me books as gifts, later asking me which series I was reading at a given time.

I found out about this new book club from a high-school friend who sent me an online invite just days after I happened to arrive in Saudi Arabia to visit my parents. Each month, the group members come up with title suggestions and take a vote. They decided to dress up in colorful outfits during this particular meeting, in keeping with an Alice theme.

The café coffee table is populated with an island of edible goodies, delicately placed between the copies of the book and printed notes. One of the members brought along mini cupcakes with tiny flags reading “Eat Me,” inspired by the concoctions in the story.

The Desert Designs store hosts the girls each month in the café on the top floor. Since shared public spaces are scarce in the country, this location is especially perfect. Malls and restaurants are too noisy. Most females who gather meet at a home, but describing directions to a residence can be tricky and frustrating. Street names frequently change and identical-looking mosques are at every corner. Most homes are also heavily guarded with high walls or plants, which makes doors even more difficult to find. Nearly every driver in the city knows the main road Desert Designs is close to. It also offers a private space in a public setting.

Saudi Arabia is still very much a sheltered society, but Saudi women are ready to talk about things, and in our own voices. There is a possibility of risk with the Internet at our fingertips. The book club could be shut down and the café’s employees might face deportation if a person who finds the club objectionable reports its existence to the authorities. Connecting to others and having our side told is more important than living in fear.

At this meeting, we open up about our lives. One talks about her office job. Another talks about her recent engagement. A woman with sparkling brown eyes tells us that she graduated from college on this very day, and another reminiscences about her recent trip through Europe. I talk about my jetlag. We order tea or coffee and switch to English.

No boys are allowed tonight. Inspired by the book, a large shopping bag with flamboyant hats is passed around, and several playfully place them atop their now veil-free heads. If you remove your headscarf in new company, it signifies that you feel comfortable with the group and plan to stay for a while. The small open window on the side brushes us gently with a breeze, and everyone enthusiastically plops down on the various cushions in unison. Like clockwork, each of us glances at our mobile phones to check the time. As soon as it hits six p.m., the group sits alert and attentive.

The meeting begins.

“Do you think that Alice seems Saudi to you?” asks book club president, Haifa AlOwain with a mischievous smile. A few hushed moments later, answers morph from a definite “No, she is not at all!” to “Maybe she could be, in certain ways.”

Whimsical and curious, Alice is a heroine who is in charge of her own destiny. The story drifts from dreams to reality. Many Saudi girls are daydreamers, escaping into books or the world wide web to cope with our social and cultural restrictions.

Alice decides to go on an adventure, without a man, without any hero to save her. She creates her own future and doesn’t seem bothered to have to do it alone. Don’t we all want to be in charge of our own lives — or at least of our imaginations? Aren’t we all Alice? I know that I am Alice.

We each eat a cupcake.

“Did you know that Carroll was a math teacher?” says one member about the book’s author. “Oh, that explains a lot,” responds another. The story is calculated and carefully mapped-out, the girls say, much like the writer. The beginning of the meeting mostly focuses on why the author chose to conceal his identity — the irony is not lost on them. Saudi women are masters of this because most people on the outside don’t get to see their true selves. Saudis are taught to talk about communities, not individuals.

But Carroll was a man living in England. Why would he choose to hide who he was? Was he really Alice? Was he in love with young girls? Why would he write a story centered on a female? We’re not afraid to ask difficult questions.

Many Arabic versions of Western books skip key scenes and some of the translated dialogue is inaccurate. Humor seems to get lost too. So the club’s organizer decided that all the books to be discussed would be read in their original language.

There are no silent members in the group tonight. Every girl expresses her opinion of Alice, and always by choice.

“Any part of the book that you’d like to be in?” AlOwain asks. “The Tea Party!” everyone squeals with unwitting irony. One of the members reads a typed page full of the double and hidden messages that are commonly associated with the story, how every object or creature along her way symbolizes something else. At some point, the member starts rapidly speaking in Arabic, then catches herself and repeats it all in English. Another reads her favorite quotes from a neatly typed page. We’re having our own tea party.

“When it comes to relating to Alice,” AlOwain says, “I think just like everyone else does. Her search for identity in a world full of mad people sounds somewhat familiar. We believe that book clubs are incredibly relevant. Where else would we discuss Machiavelli, The Big Bang and Wonderland? This is the start of social change.”

We are the lucky ones. The longest trip most conservative Saudi women take is from their parents’ house straight to their husband’s after a wedding.

AlOwain packs the hats once we realize that time has run out. Our drivers or fathers are outside in the parking lot, and we know better than to keep our rides waiting too long. Each woman shares the same driver with their sisters and mothers. If one of us is late, it disturbs the entire house’s schedule. So we hastily kiss each other on the cheeks again.

A continent away, I sit at Alice’s Tea Cup in Manhattan and think of that night. Change can be subtle, but history is being written. Reading Western stories are important for us in the Arab world because when we truly engage in the story, we find that we are all more alike than different. Those across the pond — or the desert, rather — can identify with Alice, just as little American girls can, to this day, 150 years after her tale was first told.

We wish for Westerners to understand us, but we need to understand them too. Many outsiders view Saudi Arabia as a world unto its own, but just like Alice, each woman in that discreet book club is trying to decipher and discover their own worlds, having our own adventures — one page at a time