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