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

A Downpour in the Desert –My Hajj Story

A Downpour in the Desert –My Hajj Story

Most Hajj stories focus upon the sense of awe and inspiration that arise upon gathering in Mecca with thousands of Muslims from around the world, to perform one of the five pillars of Islam. I felt those emotions, too, but something else stands at the forefront of my memories.

Dhul-Hijja  in 1996 corresponded to April, when full summer already blazed across  Saudi Arabia, hot enough to kill a person. My husband and I decided to make Hajj, before the calendar advanced Dhul-Hijja into an even hotter season. Transportation would be easy; we would take a bus across the country, from Riyadh to Mecca.

I was not worried about the heat, however. I was worried about crowds. Every year, returning pilgrims came with stories of stampedes resulting in death by the hundreds. An average of two million people converge and move together from place to place along a twelve mile tract of desert from Mecca to the Plain of Arafat and back again.

Everyone told me the Hajj would be difficult. Now, years later, memories of my Hajj experience float through my mind as if I’m watching someone else’s film. Certain scenes are frozen, but most are lost in the maze and flash of the changing shapes, colors of Mecca, the desert, and the flowing clothes of the pilgrims. Sometimes I wonder whether I was really as sick as I felt, but I no longer need to know.


I was still worried about crowds when we stopped on the Plain of Arafat, where we stayed all afternoon, in prayer and contemplation. Neither the men’s nor the women’s tent was air-conditioned, and as the afternoon progressed, my heart rate increased dramatically and I could feel my cheeks throb with blood.

The other ladies noticed how red I’d become. They encouraged me to persevere. The day would be over soon.  We sat in the tent, prayed and read the Qur’an. Allah would reward my suffering.

My head ached with every blink of my eyes; I feared I’d faint from dizziness, or suffocate from lack of air; my heart beat so fast that my respirations became shallow. I had planned to say prayers for each of the dear people in my life, as well as for my worries and hopes, but I forgot them all. I couldn’t pray for anything except a quick end to that day, and the stamina to endure the rest of it. Toward evening, my husband came to check on me, and seeing my condition, fetched a magnificent block of ice, for which I wept in relief and thanksgiving. One of the ladies told me to put the ice in the barrel for community use, but I didn’t. I used it to rub myself from head to foot, over and over until the ice had melted. I felt ashamed, imagining the other women regarding me as stingy, but  the instinct to self-preservation had taken hold. I believe I might have died that day, had I not rubbed myself with ice. I was a fair-skinned Westerner, out of my element, physiologically unprepared to endure long hours of extreme heat.

That evening, I moved with the crowd to Mina, to prepare for the next ritual.

This time, we stayed in air-conditioned tents, the men in one huge tent and the women in another. My tent housed forty women—I counted them— each of us entitled to space sufficient to roll out just one smaller-than-twin-size pad. I rushed into the corner spot, with the tent skin on my left side and the air conditioner at my feet. It was the coolest location in the tent, yet the air never became cool. The air-conditioner churned twenty-four hours a day, except for sudden five-minute power outages during which all of our movements froze in mid-air, as we waited impotently for the box to re-start itself.

I suffered from too much heat that week during the Hajj—heat exhaustion or heat stroke, I don’t know, because I had been too sick to shuffle over to the doctor’s tent, that day on the Plain of Arafat where my husband saved my life with a block of ice. I’d been too embarrassed to ask the doctor to come to me, where he’d have had to invade the privacy of Muslim feminine living quarters. The other women had been hot, too, but none of them actually fell sick, as I had. They were Egyptian women, all except me and one other American ten years younger and fifty pounds lighter than me. They appeared to tolerate the heat well, but I did not. The temperature those last few days of April 1996 ran between 40 and 50◦C, maybe higher (104◦F–122◦F).

I could not perform the ritual of stoning the pillars, not only because of heat but because of crowds; my husband did it for me. During that unit of the Hajj, I sat inside the tent during daylight, afraid to go outside. I would emerge gratefully at dusk, and at 3AM I would walk between the tents to the portable showers. Even then, I was hot. The heavens dealt out relief in stingy little puffs of hot air, which never brought comfort, just a momentary lessening of the heat. In the tent, the air-conditioner labored, and I listened to it intently, as if by listening, I could keep it functioning. Even though I was lying with my feet at its base, the cool air dissipated before reaching my head. Only my feet remained comfortable. I didn’t know how I’d survive if the air-conditioner stopped working entirely. This possibility seemed imminent, as the wiring didn’t appear neatly or deliberately connected. In idle moments, I studied the paths of the various wires, in case I’d be called upon to re-establish connections. The five minute power outages which occurred several times each day scared us all, because the machine had to work that much harder to make up for the brief outages. Temperature rises by the minute in the desert.

One night, falling asleep after my 3AM shower, I was awakened by the sound of a downpour. Yes, desert rainstorms do occur, with forceful bursts of water rushing down from the sky all at once. Rain doesn’t usually fall in April, though, so I was sure Allah took pity on my suffering and sent that rain just for me. I opened my eyes slowly, savoring the comfort of the now cool air. The other ladies must have all been sleeping; I didn’t hear a single voice or whisper. I wanted to lift the bottom of the tent and peer out, just to verify that my other senses weren’t playing tricks on me. I wanted the water seep into my side of the tent. I rolled over, opened my eyes and gingerly lifted the bottom of the tent skin. Dawn had infused the night. No water trickled forth. I lifted further. No water danced and curled into sandy rivulets along the edge of the tent. Where had it gone so quickly?

Full consciousness spiraled up, and with it the oppressive, pervasive heat. Could the water have dried up already, in a matter of minutes? Had I fallen back to sleep after the cloudburst? The sand should have borne telltale darkening of not quite evaporated wetness, but I saw no such evidence, and now the air carried not a single discernable molecule of moisture. All forty women seemed to awaken together, for I heard many voices going about the routine of the morning. The air-conditioner droned on and on, like a steady, heavy downpour.


One never knows what awaits. I had feared crowds, yet nearly died of heat.  From then on, I knew in my gut –not only in my head– that the future is unknown, and that one’s imagined fears can collapse into irrelevance before they materialize.

The opposite is true, too. One’s imagined joys can fizzle into hazy retreat, while totally unexpected blessings flood in, bringing immense happiness, but that is another story.


  Sitting in the Grand Mosque at Mecca one mild spring morning, I listened to the omnipresent birds as they flitted above and around the Kaaba, singing their birdsong. Only birds talk in the Haram.  Humans pray, meditate, and bask in the beauty of Allah’s creation, giving thanks for their seat at the point on Earth above which Heaven seems nearest. I wrote this haiku: 


Swallows skim and swoop

Skid, slide, squeak and tumble down

A ladder of notes