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

Things Are Not the Same

My metaphorical Riyadh retains its character as the years pass, while the actual Riyadh evolves. My friend of many years still goes back and forth. She tells me about the ongoing construction, the ever-increasing concern with security, and the simple conclusion that, “Things are not the same.” We’ve always planned that I will go back with her after I retire. Her Saudi husband can get me a visa, and we will revisit our friends who still live there, and our favorite places– Obeikan and Jareer Bookstore, the Diplomatic Quarter, Batha souq, Ateeqa fruit and vegetable souq in Riyadh, the new and expansive malls, and then, of course, Makkah…markers of the vibrant life we lived there, the life of children, husbands, homemaking, friendships, intellectual curiosity  and religious observances, all  swirling around yearly travels to the United States and other countries.

No, things are not the same. We regarded the first Gulf war as a terrible anomaly, never to be repeated and certainly not extended. We were there during that war, at least part of the time. We gave profuse thanks when it was over, when our lives resumed the order we’d constructed, when we could replace the cozy blanket of security over ourselves and our families. We were not oblivious to the greater social and political consequences of historical developments, but as two Western women– wives and mothers– we knew where our personal strength belonged, and we knew our limitations.

By the date of 9/11, I’d been repatriated to the US already for several years, somewhat settled again, and yet, that day showed me that “things” would never be the same again, not only in the United States but in the Middle East, as well. America would reel, then heal, somewhat, and surely take its revenge.   Another country– Iraq– would be blown apart. I didn’t know, then, that Iraq would come close to my heart, that I would become Grandma to two little kids who have an Iraqi father.  A third country– Egypt– would unravel to the extent that my ex-husband is still afraid to go visit his own mother there. My discomfort is personal, yet not even intimate as the discomfort–no, the torment–of those whose lives have been shattered, whose dear ones have been massacred.

I visited Syria in the late 1980s, stayed with the family of a Syrian colleague, and enjoyed a wonderful two weeks, during which they showed my all over Damascus in-between family meals that were more like celebrations than meals. I pray they are still safe and together, though I do not know, and I’m too cowardly to find out.

I visited Jordan, too, and a handful of other countries in the region, in good health and safety, not as a tourist but as a visitor to people who lived in those places. An acquaintance here tells me that Jordan is still safe, but I don’t know.

No, things are not the same. The distance between my metaphorical Riyadh and the actual Riyadh of my experience– and the Middle East, by extension–  has evolved into a chasm. If I look into it, I’ll see an abyss from which I’ll expect the fangs of Shaytan to rush up and tear my heart out.

Book Review: Kabul Beauty School, by Deborah Rodriguez

I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. I think it is very well-written, contrary to some reviewers who think otherwise. The narrator’s voice remains in character, and the language flows nicely. Though the writing is conversational, it does not succumb to the repetitions and irrelevant interjections that cause actual conversations to become boring.

This book is as much personal memoir as it is an account of how the Kabul Beauty School developed. The author’s personality weaves in and out of her environment in a fascinating account of cultural conflict, cultural engagement, and the remarkably unpredictable results that emerge when people do not let go of their own cultural orientation while trying to function in foreign country.

Deborah retains her American perspective on just about everything; she continues to smoke and drink in a Muslim society, looks forward to celebrating Christmas, and feels little need to adjust her behavior with men in deference to the prevailing attitude of quiet feminine subservience. In this way, she is different from the authors who accept the religious and cultural attitudes of their adopted countries.

At the same time, Deborah becomes profoundly involved with many of the women who attend the beauty school. She also marries an Afghan man, only a few weeks after she met him, and in spite of the fact that neither speaks the other’s language. Many readers will frown upon a protagonist who makes such a vital decision based upon none of the commonly accepted parameters that predict marital happiness, but this decision, probably more than her other decisions, displays her personality perfectly. She is a risk-taker, and willing to assume the consequences.

One wonders how it has fared over the years, but I suspect both of them will accept the influences over which neither has much control to strengthen or dissolve the marriage.

The beauty school closes and opens, and closes again, amidst accusations and rumors regarding what Deborah did or didn’t do with respect to taxes and other aspects of the business. Who knows, certainly not the reader of this book, but none of that is important to the purpose of the book, which is exactly what Deborah says it is– an account of the terrible circumstances of the lives of Afghan women, and how the beauty school gave some of them a chance to develop themselves in a way that most women of the world take for granted

Where is Your Husband?

Where is Your Husband?

During the second year of my residence in Riyadh, I made friends with an American woman married to a Saudi. She invited me to her home, and I was thrilled. Finally! I’d get a chance to see inside one of those vast, cubic villas surrounding by walls and gates.

I took a taxi, and of course got lost. I found myself telling the driver, “Stop here! No, here! Turn left, turn right!” Sure that I was in the correct neighborhood, I paid the taxi driver and took my chances on foot, rather than embarrass myself further.

I wandered between villas, and admired their various shades of salmon, gray, ochre, and straight, sweeping walls that overlapped, creating clean, geometric images I wished I could have photographed. In those days, however, photography was really haram. Each of the villas somehow fit the description she gave me. Naturally, nobody else walked around outside; the neighborhood seemed like a ghost town. Eventually I saw a young Saudi male on the street, and in my as yet unmodified American way, asked him, in English, “Do you know where Asma lives?” (LOL)

He looked at me as if I were crazy, this bare-headed Western woman wandering around between villas. No, of course he did not know. I pressed a few door buzzers, and then hit the right one. Asma answered the intercom, and buzzed open the gate.

She showed me into a large living room, the size of which amazed me. We sat on a formal blue sofa, with carved trim and matching curved legs. I admired the crystal chandelier, and the gold-framed calligraphy, with its swirls of gold Arabic letters I could not yet read, against its velvet black background.

We sat there and chatted for awhile, about being Westerners in Saudi Arabia, about our lives in America, about how she met her husband, how she became Muslim, and the all-important question: Are you happy here?

Yes, she was happy there.

We talked about Islam, as by that time I was interested in it from a personal perspective. She allowed me to watch her pray; Isha had fallen due.

She took me to the kitchen, where my eyes widened at the sight of long counter tops, large cabinets, and American style stove and refrigerator. It might have been a modern American kitchen, except for the harsh fluorescent light, which, I noticed, had also lit the living room.

We talked about recipes, family, and all manner of domestic affairs. . She then served me kabsa she’d made earlier; it was the first time I’d tasted that magnificent dish. Another surprise greeted me when I asked whether I could help clean up. A housekeeper emerged, from where I didn’t know, and Asma and I retired to the living room.

After several hours of visiting as if we were already close friends, I thought I’d better go home. I lived in the hospital compound. Her driver would take me. Suddenly I remembered that she had two young sons and a husband.

“Where are they?” I asked. The children were in their rooms, and the husband was in “another part of the house.” What? What other part of the house?

“You mean, your husband has been home all this time, and stayed in another part of the house?” I asked incredulously. I would have wanted to meet him.

That was how I learned about segregation in a most practical way. I was appalled at first. “Won’t he become angry?” I asked, suddenly feeling like an intruder. “We’ve sat here all night and he’s been cooped up elsewhere?”

“Oh,no,” Asma said, “he’s in the men’s room. He has an office and a TV and plenty of things to keep him busy.”

During the next six years, Asma and I became dear friends. We got together whenever we could, and chatted on the phone nearly everyday. I never did set eyes on her husband, not even a far off glimpse, and when I married, she never saw mine. I overcame the desire to meet her husband. As our friendship solidified, I reveled in the fact that it belonged to us, and only us. Husbands could not have added anything. In fact, with them out of the picture, we got to know each other more deeply than we would have, had our meetings been mixed.

I developed several other friendships over the years, and in each one, I found much freedom, and a satisfaction that could not have blossomed had husbands been in the picture. Those female friendships in Saudi Arabia were the best I’d ever had, because of, not in spite of, gender segregation.

I do not segregate here in the United States, but I’m thankful for having discovered a hidden blessing in the custom. Most of us get lost in the “should” or “shouldn’t” of gender segregation. I do not say should or shouldn’t. I say that I’ve tasted a way of life most people will never experience, let alone appreciate, and I’ve found some good in it.