Saturday, February 7, 2009

In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta A. Ahmed, MD

In the Land of Invisible Women

In the Land of Invisible Women
by Qanta A. Ahmed, MD

Trade Paperback: 454 pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks, Inc.
First Released: 2008

Buy from Amazon

Source: Netgalley, print review copy from publisher

Back Cover Blurb:
"In this stunningly written book, a Western trained Muslim doctor brings alive what it means for a woman to live in the Saudi Kingdom. I've rarely experienced so vividly the shunning and shaming, racism and anti-Semitism, but the surprise is how Dr. Ahmed also finds tenderness at the tattered edges of extremism, and a life-changing pilgrimage back to her Muslim faith." - Gail Sheehy

The decisions that change your life are often the most impulsive ones.

Unexpectedly denied a visa to remain in the United States, Qanta Ahmed, a young British Muslim doctor, becomes an outcast in motion. On a whim, she accepts an exciting position in Saudi Arabia. This is not just a new job; this is a chance at adventure in an exotic land she thinks she understands, a place she hopes she will belong.

What she discovers is vastly different. The Kingdom is a world apart, a land of unparalleled contrast. She finds rejection and scorn in the places she believed would most embrace her, but also humor, honesty, loyalty and love.

And for Qanta, more than anything, it is a land of opportunity. A place where she discovers what it takes for one woman to recreate herself in the land of invisible women.

This memoir is a detail look at Saudi Arabian society from the point of view of a British, female Muslim. It allows readers to see a culture most will never come in direct contact with. She not only describes her own experiences, but also describes how men, other foreigners, and native women react to this society. While she was mainly in contact with the richer, more privileged Saudis, she had occasional glimpses into what life is like for the poorer Saudis. She also explains the history of the country so we can understand why things are the way they are, and she shows how things are changing.

She gives meticulous detail so I was easily able to "see" what was going on, but the level of detail also slowed the pace down. I doubt any two readers would agree on what parts should have been cut, though. For example, I've always been curious about Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) since I don't know much about it. But I do know no non-Muslim is allowed to see the Ka'aba. I would have been interested in even more detail about her pilgrimage, but I read a review the other day where the reader would have preferred less detail in that section.

The grammar and spelling could have been better, and Qanta Ahmed tried to be too poetic in her writing. This often slowed my reading down as I tried to figure out what she meant, but it wasn't confusing so much as distracting. I also found the book a bit emotionally tiring as she swung between anger and judgment at how she was treated to glowing elation the moment she felt any acceptance by those same people or by others.

Basically, I found this to be a slow but very, very interesting read. I'd recommend it for anyone wanting a look inside the Saudi Arabian culture without travelling there.

Excerpt: Chapter One
Seeking respite from the intensity of medicine, I trained my eye on the world without. Already, the midmorning heat rippled with fury, as sprinklers scattered wet jewels onto sunburned grass. Fluttering petals waved in the Shamaal wind, strongest this time of day.

In a pool of shade cast by a hedge, a laborer sought shelter from the sun. An awkward bundle of desiccated limbs, the Bengali lunched from a tiffin. His shemagh cloth was piled into a sodden turban, meager relief from the high heat. Beyond, a hundred-thousand-dollar Benz growled, tearing up a dust storm in its steely wake. Behind my mask, I smiled at my reflection. Suspended between plate glass, a woman in a white coat gazed back. Externally, I was unchanged from the doctor I had been in New York City, yet now everything was different.

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