I feel like I must be in the wrong place, and in some other corner of Goodreads there's a bunch of reviews for this book, but this is what I could find, so I'm reviewing here.
This book grew on me. The simple style of the language, due to perhaps a simplistic translation or just different lingual styles, grated on me in the beginning. I thought I would get any character development or real dialog. But I did get these things. While I can't say I adored the main character Hisham, I came to root for him. There are many aspects to a coming of age novel, and yes, there are some standards here, but the primary focus is ideology and disillusionment. And that aspect of the novel is powerful, compelling. I felt betrayed myself.
This novel begins as Hisham arrives in Riyadh to apply to the university there (and hopefully start immediately, which sounds crazy, but evidently it works). He's in either very late 1960s or very early 1970s Saudi Arabia (I think it's the 60s, but I'm a little unclear on the actual date). It flashes back several months before, in what is effectively his senior year in high school, and tells the story of how he arrived in Riyadh. He's an idealistic young man, and reads voraciously, even though he doesn't apply himself in school. He's a fan of Marxist philosophy in a time of political turmoil. Others notice this and recruit him to a Baathist party, strictly illegal. He invites his best friend in, too. Then he discovers himself in a secret club in which questions are forbidden and party loyalty is more highly valued than any principles. This phenomenon is by no means isolated to Saudi Arabia, but its telling here is very effective and carries the novel, is the source of its strength.
Hisham has some adolescent characteristics - he is quick to anger, invariably egotistical, and easily forgets the concerns of others. But this makes him a more realistic teenager. While he's thoroughly immersed in his own culture, he's a relatable young man for those of us looking from the outside in. And even if we've never come upon a casual debate as to whether we support Nasser (of Egypt, at the end of his reign at the time the story is set) or not, we can participate in Hisham's life.