Saturday, February 28, 2009

In the Land of Invisible Women...random thoughts

In The Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom by Qanta A. Ahmed, MD.

I first heard of this book while listening to the Diane Rehm Show one day. Dr. Qanta Ahmed was Diane's guest, and her story fascinated me. She had completed her residency and further studies in medicine in New York. And though she had hoped remain in the U.S. after her training, she was unexpectedly denied renewal of her visa. Oh a whim, she accepts a position at the King Fahad National Guard Hospital in Saudi Arabia. Naively perhaps, she expects to feel at home there. She is after all a British-born Muslim doctor. But the world she lands in is unlike anything she's ever experienced. This book tells the story of her two years working in Saudi Arabia.

Let me say right off the top that I really loved this book. But I have to admit that I had problems with the writing. It was a bit too flowery for my tastes. Maybe flowery isn't the correct word, but each sentence seemed to contain eight adjectives and four adverbs all wrapped in a metaphor. Obviously that's an exaggeration, but I swear at first I just wanted to keep yelling, "Stop. You're trying too hard." That said, the book was never hard to understand in any way, and honestly I sort of found the writing more amusing than annoying.

So what did I love about this book? It transported me to a land that is so utterly different from anything I have ever experienced. I knew very little about Saudi Arabia before reading this book, and while I can't claim to truly understand the land now, I learned so much. A bit about the history, but much, much more about the culture. Or should I say cultures. For Saudi Arabia is a land of contradictions. And it was interesting to discover the Kingdom through the eyes of someone who was just discovering it firsthand for herself.

I would learn that Saudi Arabia was many things to many people: to the rich, a land of boundless wealth; to the poor, a prison of abject poverty; to the expatriate worker, a land of contrasts and inconsistencies, an ever moving labyrinth of contradiction, not wholly one nor wholly the other.

Abbayahs, Hajj, Mutawaeen. Dangerous, high-speed highways. Gender-segregation. Forbidden dating. Hymenoplasty. Arranged marriage. Polygamy. Divorce. Domestic violence and child abuse. And many, many strong women.

While in Saudi Arabia, Dr. Ahmed develops feelings for a colleague. And I have to admit, at first it seemed rather annoying the way she spoke about it. Here she was an extremely well-educated doctor, acting like a preteen girl in throes of a crush. But there truly was a point to her including all of this, as it showed the realities of a society where mixing of the sexes is prohibited, where dating isn't permitted at all. She didn't even realize how she was acting until she was attending a party for a friend who was about to enter an arranged marriage. The grown women at this party were all acting like schoolgirls.

They giggled coquettishly and girlishly. The atmosphere was at once innocent and deeply saddening. The women, starved for meaningful contact with the opposite sex, fell into two camps before marriage; panicked promiscuity on threat of dishonor or even worse, and adolescent, girlish fantasies that would never lead to a real relationship. I failed to see my own fantasy weaving in my daydreams about Imad. I was no more immune to the artificial climate of Riyadh myself, no matter how Westernized I thought myself to be.

Dr. Ahmed's time in the Kingdom was coming to an end at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She doesn't sugarcoat the reactions of some to horrendous events of that day. She is dazed and confused and dismayed and saddened beyond words. The chapter she devotes to this is a very difficult one to read, and yet had she not included it, the book would not have portrayed the whole of her experiences there.

Today, Dr. Ahmed is a quadrupled boarded physician practicing in South Carolina.


Other viewpoints:

Sarah at Behold, The Thing That Reads A Lot

I'd love to include your two cents if you've read this book, so please feel free to leave me a link and I'll add it here. Thanks.


I plan to give this book away eventually. Unfortunately I can't do it right now...I'm afraid I talked so much about it while I was reading it, that Rich now wants to read it. :) But I do have another book to give away, if anyone is interested. 50 Reasons to Buy Fair Trade by Miles Litvinoff and John Madeley, which I babble about here. (I think Annie and I have pretty much indoctrinated Rich on the whole Fair Trade issue, so he doesn't really need to read the book anymore.) It is a used book, of course. If interested, just say so and I'll draw a name in a few days (if there's more than one person interested, that is).

And speaking of giveaways, I actually remembered to draw the winners of That's Life: Finding Scrapbook Inspiration in the Everyday. Yep, I said winners, plural. It dawned on me after I wrote that post that I really don't need to keep either copy, so I drew two names instead. Wish I had a copy for everyone! Anyway, Trish and Bookworm are the winners. If you could just send your snail mail addresses to rdagmstevens at frontiernet dot net, I'll try to get the books in the mail sometime this coming week.


Eva said...

What a great review Debi!!! Seriously-I had doubts about this one before, but you've definitely made it sound more appealing. Although overly flowerly language drives me a little crazy too. ;)

Nymeth said...

Judging by some reviews I've seen before, you weren't the only one to have problems with the writing. That kind of writing doesn't normally work for me either. Still, the story definitely sounds like an amazing one. And agree with Eva - great review!

Kailana said...

Count me in for the Fair Trade give-away. I know that the coffee I drink is fair trade, but I don't know if I totally know what that means.

I want to read In the Land of Invisible Women... Someone else reviewed it... but my library doesn't have it, sadly. It looks interesting, though. I am not keen on flowerly language, period, so I probably wouldn't want to buy it!

Chris said...

This book sounds absolutely incredible Debi! I have to check it out. It'll be a perfect read for Eva's challenge. And certainly count me in for the drawing for the fair trade book! I've been wanting to read it ever since you talked about it.

An aside: My favorite coffee that I used to drink at the coffee shop I worked at for years was Fair Trade Ethiopian blend...and yes, it was fair trade ;p

Melody said...

Great review, Debi!
The story sounds interesting to me... I've always been fascinated with the history and culture so I might want to check this out.

Kim L said...

This one sounds interesting, despite the issues with language. I enjoy learning more about that part of the world, especially living in the post 9-11 America, the Middle East is on the news like... everyday.

Rebecca :) said...

This sounds like a great book. I am thinking of adding it to my own reading list for the 21 Cultures Challenge!