Book Review: In the Land of Invisible Women by Dr. Qanta Ahmed

I read this book not so much to learn about Dr. Qanta Ahmed’s experience, but to recall my own. I wanted to say, “Yes! Yes! That’s the way it was!” at every turn of the page, and I was able to do so. Her descriptions of sights, scents, sounds, clothing, surroundings and people are spot-on accurate. Perhaps I might have found those details excessive, had I not lived in Riyadh for twelve years, worked in a hospital, and experienced much of what she experienced. Her narrative portrays objective truth, for her and for me and for many women like us– Westernized Muslims who have lived and worked in a Riyadh hospital during the 1980s and 90s.

It also portrays an internal truth that rings true for me. In many ways, her story is an ordinary story, in that she progressed through the same adjustments we all experienced during our stay in Riyadh, yet nothing in Riyadh was ordinary. We single women who formed an esoteric group of medical professionals, both expatriate and Arab, shared a path– a wonderful, exciting path that is portrayed beautifully in this book.

A single woman could hardly spend any time in Riyadh without enduring her own Muttawa story, the elements of which are identical for all us us, though the details differ. We did not ride in cars too many times before being pursued by eager males, who sometimes latched onto our vehicles and didn’t give up until our nervous drivers reached our combination havens/prisons behind gates and guards.

We endured the uncertainty and confusion of how to relate to male colleagues from different areas of the world. We often fell in love with one or more of them. The term “Riyadh Romance” carried a specific meaning, referring to an attraction that blossomed there, but maybe withered when transplanted.

We could hardly seek to understand anything without making peace with wearing the the abaya, and discovering that it, along with the scarf and sometimes face veil, let us glide comfortably through the same spaces our uncovered colleagues found awkward.

We discovered the depths of emotion, talent, and ambition present in women who previously seemed insipid under their black wraps. We entered the lush world of Saudi femininity and saw– literally– what men are not allowed to see. We reclaimed the state of sisterhood we may have felt as prepubescent girls.

We ended up in Mecca sooner or later, if we were Muslim, and we opened our hearts to God wider than they’d been opened before.

We also learned that some ugly national stereotypes held up well under observation, just as those we carried with us from our countries of origin.

We opened our eyes to complex political situations that showed us unequivocally that the poles of East and West really do intend to destroy each other on the glorified backdrop of justice. We learned to pray that those poles be dissolved, if not brought into the fold on a realistic backdrop of justice. We realized that the most we can achieve is a mitigation, not a restoration, of rights inherent to the state of human existence, rights that some people enjoy from birth, and others are denied.

This memoir is, after all, a memoir, and should be read as such. For those of us who’ve lived in the Kingdom, it will bring memories into close focus. For others of us, it should inspire investigation into the subjects it addresses. I cannot imagine that this book could disappoint anyone who holds even a superficial interest in memoir, East-West relations, Islam, Saudi Arabia, or the expatriate experience in Riyadh

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About Marahm

At first glance, I may appear to be a middle-aged American woman with kids, grandkids, a job in a hospital, and the responsibilities that come with all of that. Behind the image, which is true enough, I am fairly unhinged from much of American mainstream living, having spent twelve years in Saudi Arabia, years that sprung me from societal and familial impositions of narrow bands of truth. I have learned to embrace my sense of identity as a seeker, an artist, and a writer. I study Arabic and Italian language, because I love them, and I love their people, and I plan to spend more time in both the Middle East and Italy after I retire. I am a photographer. I write, and sometimes publish, flash memoir, and now a blog or two.
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11 Responses to Book Review: In the Land of Invisible Women by Dr. Qanta Ahmed

  1. Muslim says:

    Assalaamu Aleyikum.
    This post is like a diary note.Nothing to comment..Thank you(smile).

  2. Marahm says:

    Wa Aleikum Assalaam, Yes, this post, as well as my whole blog, is like a diary note. The only difference between it and a proper diary is that I have offered content that might be of interest to people concerned with the topics I address. I’ve also offered opinion and emotion that have no objective basis for authority beyond my own experience.

    The book I’ve reviewed is also a diary of sorts that testifies to my own experiences and therefore forms a sort of corroborative document. As such, it is not meant to stimulate discussion— like my posts on hijab— but only to endorse. Thank you for reading.

    I appreciate your comments, Muslim. Do you write a blog, and if so, might you share it with me?

  3. Muslim says:

    Salamaaleykum Marahm, ,..No, I dont write any blog…Thank you for asking.

    But I have a YT channel:

    Please click:
    https://www.youtube.com/user/ndabdofari

  4. Muslim says:

    JazaakAllaah…

  5. susanne430 says:

    I read this a couple years ago. I’m glad you read it and shared how similar it was to your own experience!

    • Marahm says:

      Thank you, Susanne! What did you think of the book?

      • susanne430 says:

        I liked it. I had to check my blog to see if I made any comments about it, and was reminded of the lost boys the author mentioned. I remember that making me sad. Also, I had written:

        “I enjoyed reading about her hajj experience. The way she felt absolved of her sins from performing these rituals made me think of people who feel similar when they come to Jesus.”

  6. Marahm says:

    Susanne, I like your comparison of the hajj experience to coming to Jesus. You exhibit a rare and most valuable quality. I wish more people could learn how to look beyond ritual and dogma to perceive the common human experience of seeking contact with the Divine, of recognizing errors (sin), intending to lead better lives, and receiving the release to do so.

  7. Thanks for posting your view. I initially stumbled upon your blog while I was researching other authors who write in my genre. I must admit that your review has piqued my interest, and I’ll definitely add this to my to-read list. If I may ask, do you know of any authors who write children’s books (fiction) aimed at teaching expat children about life in Saudi? I’m currently writing book 2 of my middle grade novel and I need some ideas to make it very entertaining (for kids, of course!).

    Thanks again.

  8. Marahm says:

    Hi, Princila, and thanks for commenting. I do not know of other authors who write for expat children about life in the Kingdom. There are, however, a number of Western Muslim authors writing for English speaking children. The books are written from an Islamic viewpoint, and I think are well written.

    I’m sure you’ve done a Google search for “books for expat children” and found some interesting leads. Good luck!

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