Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom

Posted by nliakos on August 17, 2014

by Qanta A. Ahmed (Sourcebooks 2008)

This is one of my favorite genres: a memoir of a cross-cultural experience. Qanta Ahmed is an American-trained Pakistani-British doctor who took a job at the King Fahad National Guard Hospital in Riyadh for two years. The book details her experiences: her culture shock, her relationships with Saudi and non-Saudi colleagues and friends, the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), her crush on one of the hospital administrators, dealing with the Mutawaeen (religious “police”), the Saudi reactions to the events of 9/11, and her eventual departure from the Kingdom.

The fact that Ahmed was raised as a Muslim distinguishes this book from others I have read about the Saudi Kingdom, such as At the Drop of a Veil by Marianne Alireza, an American woman who married a Saudi student and traveled to Saudi Arabia during the 1950s, and On Saudi Arabia: It’s People, Past, Religion, Faultlines, and Future by Karen Elliott House. Ahmed is a Muslim, but she was not well acquainted with the finer points of the religion, like many of us growing up in the secular “West.”  Her Saudi experience brought her closer to her religious roots, as she writes in an 11-chapter sequence in the middle of the book  describing the pilgrimage that she made to Mecca. (This reminded me of another Westernized Muslim making the Hajj in Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam, by Asra Q. Nomani.) She writes movingly about the pure joy that she felt during the Hajj. Clearly, this experience was a pivotal one in her life. But her deepening religious feelings do nothing to change her outrage at some of the customs she must abide by, at the intolerance of the religious police, and at the blatant prejudice of some of her friends, disturbingly uncovered in the wake of 9/11. And she is never reconciled to the discomfort of wearing the dreaded abbayah, which all women are required to wear in public within the kingdom (even in the hospital setting).

For me, the most inspiring part of the book was Ahmed’s descriptions of some of the smart, savvy Saudi women she worked with and got to know during her stay, such as Fatima, the divorcée; Zubaidah, the beautiful nutritionist; Reem, the aspiring vascular surgeon; Ghadah, the working mother; and Maha, the pediatriac infectious disease specialist. (They remind me of the wonderful Saudi women I teach, who are now at the beginning of their professional careers in nutrition, special education, chemistry, etc. In fact, I have had students named Reem and Maha!) These women are in the forefront of the struggle for women’s civil rights in the Kingdom.  Although highly educated (usually in Western countries) and skilled, they have essentially no rights as we know them. They are forbidden to drive, to show their hair in public, or to attend a conference or a working or social dinner with men. If they marry (and everyone is expected to marry in the Kingdom), they are expected to attend their husbands like servants; if they divorce, their children will be lost to them. But Ahmed reminds the reader that their male counterparts, too, are powerless in the face of the Mutawaeen. The country is filled with emasculated men and powerless women. It is difficult to imagine that this situation can continue.

One complaint I have (in my English teacher persona) is an overabundance of dangling modifiers, such as “Shipping containers packed, a small army of Filipino men arrived to take my things away” and “Later, waiting to descend, an elevator door opened”. Competent editing should have corrected this before publication.

Furthermore, the copy of the book that I read was put together wrong: page 266 was followed by pages 273-274, 271-272, 269-270, 267-268, 281-282, 279, 277-278, 275-276, 289, 287-288, 285-286, 283-284, 297-298, 295-296, 293-294, 291-292, and 299-300 (in that order) before proceeding in the normal order. It was not easy to keep reading! The fact that I persevered shows how much I was enjoying the book.


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