A Tale of City and Village: Entangled Rural-Urban Relations and Social Change in Saudi Arabia
In the last 70 years Saudi Arabia has witnessed remarkable urban growth that transformed it from a mainly nomadic and rural society into a primarily urban one. Urbanization has been the setting in which the modernization and individualization of Saudi society has unfolded. These changes have been addressed in several prominent studies. However, no comprehensive study in the discipline of cultural history has focused on novels as a reflection of Saudi society. My research is based on a critical reading and analysis of some 40 Saudi novels, which will be treated as historical sources. It aims to deepen the understanding of the massive changes that Saudi society has undergone since the mid-1970s. My approach is interdisciplinary, drawing on the combined perspectives of Middle Eastern studies, literary criticism, anthropology, sociology, and gender studies to study fiction, but also asking how these disciplines can be enriched by study of the novel.
The tangled relations between city and country are treated in various ways in the novels of Saudi writers, ranging from nostalgia and an idealistic depiction of rural life to a harsh presentation of the Saudi village as a place of backwardness, ignorance, superstition, illness, and death. In between, many novels deal with the loss of identity experienced by members of the rural society, whether in the village or in the city to which they migrated. Focusing on Saudi novels will offer a unique, multidimensional perspective on issues of identity, gender, tribalism, familism, urbanization, and other socio-cultural issues relevant to Saudi society.