Sunday, November 25, 2018

Driving By Starlight by Anat Deracine

Driving By Starlight is Anat Deracine's debut novel about two Muslim teenage girls who live in Saudi Arabia and their struggle to balance their dreams and hopes with the restrictive society they live in while maintaining their friendships.

Leena Hadi lives with her mother Norah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Her father  is in jail for having protested against the government. Leena longs to make her own choices, to go to school and have a career. She has a reputation for breaking the rules and therefore has the nickname, "Leena Adhaleena which meant Leena who goes astray." Her best friend is Mishail, Quraysh whose father is minister of the interior in the Saudi government. Before her father was arrested, Leena and Mishail's fathers were good friends.

The two girls who are seniors at Nizamiyyah Secondary  are planning an act of defiance of Saudi Arabia's strict dress code for women when their class travels to a park. They don't want a class picture of three rows of girls in black abayas, with only their eyes showing. Instead they plan to take a picture of themselves wearing beautiful colourful dresses in the park. Since all women's cellphone cameras are smashed at the time of purchase, Mishail brings a pocket camera belonging to her brother.The seniors include Aisha, Bilquis, Mishail, Sofia and Leena. They wait for their supervising teacher to fall asleep and then race to the bathrooms to change into Western-style clothes. However, Bilquis decides to tell the headmistress what they are doing.

When they return to the school, Maryam Madam speaks to Aisha, Mishail, Sofia and Leena attempting to find out who is responsible. Getting nothing out of them, she talks to Leena alone who confesses to what happened. Before Leena's father's arrest, Maryam Madam had promised to take care of her.Now she allows her to make prints of the photos before destroying the digital files. Leena tells her that she is considering Princess Nora  University for law, but Maryam Madam tells her that this may be difficult due to her father's situation.

Because her father is absent, Leena must dress as a man to accompany her mother shopping - a practice known as boyat. They walk to the home of her father's law partner, Hossein so her mother can get some papers signed. While there they learn from the television that riots have closed the only co-ed university in the country. After a period of protests by Islamic fanatics, the government makes some concessions including the exclusion of women from KASP scholarships. Schools reopen and when Leena returns to her school she finds that there are new students from Najd National, a school that has been destroyed. Now in addition to new students, Leena's school will also have the headmistress from Najd, Naseema Madam.

Leena's relationship with Mishail begins to unravel with the presence of a new girl, Daria Abulkhair. Daria is half American and lives in one of the American ARAMCO campuses. She knows how to drive a car and unlike her classmates has experience: she's French-kissed a boy. Daria also knows how to meet boys at Faisaliyah, a mall in Riyadh, something Mishail is determined to experience. Leena is horrified as this is a serious crime under Saudi law. Mishail reveals that her father wants to marry her off by the end of the year, even though she's only fifteen. She wants to find her own boy, to have another option. Leena reluctantly agrees to go to Faisaliyah.

Leena is further upset by the presence of Daria when the new girl is chosen over Leena for the debate team. Daria was chosen over Leena because of the situation with Leena's father.This will have a huge impact on Leena's future because it now means she will have no chance of qualifying for a scholarship. To apply to another university requires the signed permission of her father, something Leena will not be able to obtain.

As Daria and Mishail's friendship grows, Leena finds herself on the outside, growing jealous. At a party at Daria's home, Leena meets Ahmed who is Daria's cousin. Only a few years older than Leena her reveals that he attended her father's shillahs. Mishail becomes jealous after seeing Leena speaking with Ahmed, telling her friend that she has been seeing Ahmed and believes he loves her. The two girls argue and Leena afraid for her friend and at the urging of Daria, informs the headmistresses about what Mishail has been doing. This fractures the two girls friendship and Leena realizes that they have been played against one another by Daria. Mishail is replaced on the debate team by Aisha and suspended for two weeks.

Meanwhile Leena begins seeing Ahmed and his rebel friends almost every night in the desert, dressed as a boy, learning to drive. She comes to realize that she is doing the very thing she reported Mishail for. Despite this she doesn't care. At this time, knowing that she must look out for herself, she begins reading law cases with her father's partner, working for him whenever she can. At school, Daria's cruelty towards Aisha who doesn't understand the law she must debate very well, leads Leena to realize that they must stop fighting against one another and start helping each other.

Leena decides to form her own shillah with Aisha to stop the fighting. They write a contract for the secret society that will included the outcasts and "required that girls who joined had to share a secret that they had told no one else and had to give evidence of it..." They also had to help others in the shillah, promising to never knowingly harm them. As a start, Leena begins helping Aisha for the debate.Soon many of their classmates are interested in joining.

When Leena gets into trouble with the muttaween for walking alone at night, the truth about her father's political activism is revealed. With the help of her mother and Maryam Madam, and Leena's own knowledge of the law, a way is found to not only help her gain her independence and a say in her life but also to save her best friend's life and help the other young women in her shillah who also face the same challenges.


Driving By Starlight is a novel set in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia  that explores the themes of friendship, family and freedom. The story is centered around the friendship between two girls, Leena and Mishail and their lives in a country with strict Islamic laws. Almost immediately readers get a sense of what life is like for girls and women in Saudi Arabia, a Muslim country whose laws and culture are centered on Sharia law. Every aspect of their lives is affected. Deracine peppers Leena's narrative with many descriptions of how restrictive her life is, demonstrating just how broken the country is.

Leena, is a brilliant student who wants to study law. However, her father's arrest has made this all but impossible because as a girl she requires the written permission of her father. The fact that she cannot make her own decisions without the permission of a man infuriates Leena. Throughout her narrative she notes the many restrictions and rules of Saudi life, as a result of Sharia law. For example, most people live attempting to not attract the attention of "the muttaween, the religious police from Al-Hai'a, the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice." who lurk everywhere, even on the roads. "Surveillance cameras were on every street corner, and muttaween in their vans pulled up alongside us to inspect the car's inhabitants..."

Women especially experience many restrictions that men do not. Leena notes that in order for her and her friends to take pictures they need to borrow a camera because their cell phones have no working cameras. This is because "all women's cell phone cameras were smashed at the time of purchase." Posting anything online is a dangerous affair due to Al-Hai'a who spy "on all phone and internet communications in the country. Not only did all our phones have apps that regularly pinged our guardians with our location, our fathers could always request the records to determine if there had been any inappropriate communications."

Contact between unrelated girls and boys is forbidden and the sexes are strictly segregated. "By law, the boys' school had to be at least five kilometers from ours to prevent the ever troublesome potential indecency." This segregation also exists in many homes. When Leena visits her friend and stays for dinner, the women eat separate from the men;  Mishail, her mother and Leena in the kitchen while Mishail's brothers and her father in the livingroom, "passing dishes through the barely open doorway." But Leena notes it wasn't always this way in the Quraysh family, only when Mishail's father become a minister.

Laws governing marriage strongly favour men, although Muslims are likely to view them as protecting women. Leena notes that while women must remain faithful men do not experience the same expectations. "When the law stated that a man could marry four women and have a few concubines besides through misyar marriages, a boy was not just well within his rights to love two girls, he was practically a saint for choosing only two."

Just how different a girl's life is from a boy is highlighted many times throughout the novel. Faraz, the son of Leena's father's law partner wonders why Leena, who is very smart, doesn't apply for university outside the country. But for a girl it's not so simple.  "So easy for men to just set out on their adventures, leave everyone else behind. Even if I could leave, even if every cell in my body ached for scholarships that I wouldn't get, what was I supposed to do, abandon Mishail and my mother? Give up on my father?" Leena cannot move about in public without a male guardian unless she practices boyat, dressing in a white thobe, pretending to be a boy. She is driven to her school every day by a man in a car. She cannot drive, not even to the hospital (although that was changed this summer). She needs the signature of her male guardian to apply for university. And as Leena bitterly notes, Quaraouine, a university founded by a woman, is now closed to her, allowing only men to study there.

Leena and her best friend Mishail find their friendship almost destroyed when they fall for the same boy and as they clash over rebelling against the strict rules of their culture. Leena attempts to warn her best friend but Mishail tells her, "I know it's dangerous...Everything we want is forbidden or dangerous. I just don't care." Soon Leena finds herself committing the same crimes but like Mishail, she doesn't care because she has no father to protect her and no future to save. She continues to meet Ahmed and his friends, partly because she loves driving in the dark as it gives her a sense of freedom that she longs for, "...nobody watching to tell us about the laws we were breaking." 

Deracine's heroine, is a strong, intelligent young woman who is not content to live her life dictated by men. Leena begins to take control of her life by studying with her father's law partner in the hopes that she can one day attend university. After seeing Daria being especially cruel to Aisha, Leena decides women must work together to help one another. "We were all fighting one another for a window out of hell. Me against my sisters. It had to stop." She cites the example of Manal Al-Sharif who organized a Facebook protest, asking women to drive in protest of the law forbidding women this right. Although half a million people watched the video, only a few dozen came out to support her. "Even other women called her a pot-stirrer, a troublemaker, someone who was setting back the reformers' negotiations with her impatience."  To that end, Leena forms a shillah or secret society.

The author foreshadows the future choice of temporary marriage that Leena, Aisha, Sofia and Mishail make in order to obtain some control over their lives. As Daria explains early on in the novel, "It's a way for single women to find a convenient guardian, or to, you know, do things, without waiting. Understand?" Although Leena is somewhat disgusted she realizes the temptation in signing a piece of paper in order to live in peace, to live one's life the way one chooses. Mishail believes people must do whatever they need to in order to survive, quoting her best friend, "Water will find a way."  And that is exactly what Leena, Misahil and Sofia discover as they are helped by Maryam Madam, Dr. Haider (Aisha's father), Mishail's father and Leena's mother to obtain a legal guardian, marry and leave the country. All of this demonstrates just how little freedom exists for women in Saudi Arabia outside of the conventional Muslim society and how much work remains to be done in the area of women's rights and the full participation of women in public life. But it also shows how people do work together to help women circumnavigate the strict rules of life in Saudi Arabia.

Anat Deracine is a pen name chosen by the author because it means "to uproot from one's native land"  reflecting  her experience as an immigrant, from Saudia Arabia to Canada and then to the United States. Deracine used her experiences growing up in Saudi Arabia to craft many of the scenes in her novel.

Driving By Starlight offers teen readers a window into a culture that is very different from their own in the West but its themes of the meaning of friendship and family are common to all cultures and to the challenging teen years. Although Deracine does include a Glossary at the back, there are many terms and concepts unique to a Muslim society that readers will not be familiar with and which perhaps should have been included in the Glossary and elaborated on in an Author's Note at the back. But overall, Deracine  portrays life in Saudi Arabia in a way that is real to her readers. Her characters are realistic, having both virtue and weaknesses. The beautiful cover will help to draw readers to read this well-written novel by this promising young author.

Book Details:

Driving By Starlight by Anat Deracine
New York: Henry Holt and Company      2018
277 pp.

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