In The Land of Invisible Women

I just finished reading Quanta Ahmed’s powerful book of her two year experience of living in Saudi Arabia.

What do you know about Saudi Arabia?  I don’t know much either.

The first time I ever remember hearing about the country was when I was about 8 or 9 and in Girl Scouts.  Our leader had visited or lived there (or maybe it was her friend? I can’t remember the details) and she was offhandedly telling us a story.  She was talking about how backwards and uncivilized the people were, illustrating her opinions by telling us a quick story about how she was at a grocery store, one of the few, and when she turned down the peanutbutter and jam aisle, she saw a saudi woman (veiled of course) opening up a jar of peanutbutter, dipping her finger in it, sampling the taste, shrugging, and deciding not to buy it, screwed the lid on and put it back on the shelf.  “Just put it right back on the shelf!” My leader was aghast at her behavior.  Even at a young age I could tell she was disgusted with her experience in the country.

Later in my life, I heard another story from my hairdresser.  She had a friend who had recently traveled to Saudia Arabia.  She too, was disgruntled about what she experienced, telling a story which really illustrates “The Kingdom”.  She and her husband were at a beautiful beach.  It was over 100 degree weather, the sun blazing down with unrelentless heat.  Coming upon where sand met surf, she took in a twistedly humorous scene:  a band of saudi men, jumping and playing in the waves of the ocean.  Laughing and frolicking, having a great time… clad in speedos, the tiniest of male swimwear.  About 100 yards away from their men, were their female accompaniments.  They were talking together in little groups, huddled under some meager shade from palm trees, covered head to toe in drapes of black cloth, .. the abbayah, their beach ware.  The only water they were allowed to swim in was their own drenching sweat.   Crrrraaaazzy!

And the next time I heard about Saudi Arabia, it was after 9/11 and the discovery that the terrorists involved where from that huge country of sand and oil.

So I haven’t heard very good things of the place.  I have always found it ironic that the US chastises China for their human rights violations, yet overlooks Saudi Arabia’s.  I know theirs are cloaked in religion, but they are violations nonetheless.  If China decided to justify their actions by saying they are beliefs that fall under their religion, could they get away with their human rights issues?  Saudi Arabia certainly does.  But China dosen’t have all that oil. (though what will they be able to get away with, now that the US is so endebted to them?)

And that brings me to Qanta Ahmed’s book.  First of all, she is an amazing woman.  She is an all seeing eye and even more powerfully, knows how to express what she sees.  Her parents are from Pakistan, but fled to England during the partition.  They are Muslims, but lived a different type of worship than what she encountered in Saudi.  She grew up in England, attended Med school there, and headed over to New York for her residency and fellowship. She loved her time in New York.  When she turned 31, her visa was not renewed, so she signed up as the first female doctor in a Saudi military hospital, in Riyaahd. Her book talks about her discoveries in this exotic, paradoxical world of extreme wealth and Wahabiism.  She is used to being very respected as a woman, used to being able to drive herself anywhere she wanted to go, used to being able to go out in public without a male escort, used to men valuing her opinion on any subject and looking at her in the eye while she talked to them, used to mix company- friendships with men, meeting where and with whomever she wants, used to feeling safe in public.  All this is challenged and caged in her new life in The Kingdom.

The abbayah. Seriously!

I like Qanta.  She can take an experience and then describe it in words.  How many times do we feel or see something, but can’t express it, or do it justice with words?  But Qanta has that ability.  She is a people observer.  Her huge eyes must be constantly on the watch- I’m sure people have no idea what she takes in when she is in the room.  And she is extremely intelligent- she’s a doctor, but beyond her education and book-learning, she is MORE.  Her emotional intelligence is powerful.  She analyzes social behavior, feels it and is affected by it, but takes it all in with a deep understanding and love.

I think her whole goal in writing this book is to try and change Islam.  To get back to the pure meaning of Islam, as she sees it.  To bring love back as the motivating factor of Islam, instead of the current force of Fear.  She writes about her Hajj experience and how it was beautiful and rich and life-changing.  She illuminates the good aspects of Saudi Arabia, of Islam and of the multi-dimensional personalites she meets and befriends.  I think she wants readers to see past the peanutbutter and speedo incidences to the hidden gems that blaze spectacularly within the Saudi culture.

The telling of her Hajj experience is really extraordinary.  Have you ever heard of a woman’s hajj journey?  Totally worth reading.  I wish I could perform Hajj.  Did you know that 2 1/2 million people descend on Mecca all at once for five days out of each year!  And they all do the same rituals.  Absolutely incredible.

The Ka'aba which all the pilgrims travel around and around- a sea of worship.

The tent city for pilgrims making their hajj. She stayed in tent 50, 011!

At the end of her two years in Saudi Arabia, she writes about a powerful, intensely spiritual out-of-body, sort of experience as she travels around the Ka’aba in Mecca, one last time on a quick overnight trip.  I found this fascinating.  She is a very logical, driven, independent, analytical woman, yet she feels completely overtaken by her love for Islam.  She writes: “I felt myself heady on the wine of Divine love, almost completely forgetting the mantra of my prayers.  Instead, I found myself communing with my Maker, in a language known only to my fluttering spirit.  My soul pushed the very boundaries of my flesh, forward, forward, forward, trying to rejoin the essence from whence it had once come and to which it would surely one day return.”

She makes startling discoveries about some of her esteemed colleagues, when 9/11 hits.  These highly educated (taught in the U.S.), men on the forefront of technology and liberalism, were, despite their education and money, unabashedly anti-semitic.  Most of the Saudi staff at the hospital celebrated the terrorism and agreed that America had it coming.  Two nurses even ordered cakes to celebrate.  But the few men whom she thought were above such parochialism, greatly disappointed her.  And it was at that moment that she realized  “these men had never mastered the freedom of expression that a liberated life in the West truly inculcates.  Worse than the defiant women I had encountered in the Kingdom, these men were afraid to stand up for themselves.  They had become their own censors to the degree that the governing forces didn’t need to actively impose restrictions.  The men had censored their own logical dissent and viewed matters, whether women’s rights, or the frighteningly passionate subject of Middle Eastern politics, through the same distorted lens of a society that enforced oppression.  The men around me, while allowed certain liberties, were no more free than the heavily veiled women who scuttled around them.”  This was a very powerful insight for me.

Qanta talks about the extreme oppression of the people of Saudi Arabia, but this is not a dark, depressing book.  She is a Muslim and she loves her religion.  Though she points out examples of abuse and backward thought, she also illuminates the beauty and courage of “this extraordinary oyster-Kingdom and, at its core, the luminous pearl of Islam”.

And the way she describes the women! (you’ve got to read about her description of how the women dressed for the wedding)

I could go on and on about all the topics she so eloquently describes.  She writes well and the book, though 435 pages, turns quickly.  (beginning is a little slow)  I became intrigued by Qanta herself, so I went online to try and see her speaking and to view  pictures of her.  Every image I saw, she was immaculately dressed in luxuriant, costly materials, not a hair out of place, with lots of eye make-up, though well done.  She is strangely beautiful and sort of odd looking at the same time:  feminine and masculine, depending on the turn of her head.  Her short hair is awful- I keep shouting to her to grow her hair out, but she doesn’t listen. She would be so much prettier with her hair longer.

She describes people…. unusually.   She loves beautiful sexy women, but she also loves handsome, sexy men.  She describes the physical looks of people in great detail, as if they are works of art.  She seems to prefer exceptionally beautiful, trendy people.  She is obsessed with designer labels on clothes, shoes, jewelry, hair color, make-up, body, color of skin, smiles, teeth. Most of the designer names she throws out, I have never heard of.  Obviously looks and wealth and labels are very important to her.  Is she a snob?  Is she haughty?  I don’t know, cause we don’t get to hear from those who know her.  The biggest criticism of her book is that the population of people she moves within are decadently rich, unusually beautiful and highly educated.

However, her observations still ring true and people seem to reveal alot to her, suggesting respect.

Finally, the most important thing to remember is:  she doesn’t stay in “The Kingdom”.

Read the book.  It’s worth it.  Wonderful stuff.

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3 Responses to In The Land of Invisible Women

  1. Claire says:

    I want to read this book! Thanks for the tip. When I have this baby, I look forward to getting back to enjoying books again.

  2. Jaclyn says:

    I’m trying to remember the name of the book I read several months ago that sounds very similar to this, only it is written by a female western journalist with extensive experience living in the Middle East. It was totally fascinating. I think I recommended it to you once.
    I’ll have to try to dig this one up in our paltry little library system- I’m always fascinated by women and Islam. In fact, tonight we’re going to dinner at one of my student’s house who is Muslim and am looking forward to asking her and her husband so many questions.

    • lynnley says:

      Are you talking about the Bookseller of Kabul? You recommended that to me and I read it and loved it. She has a different take, a little more “real life”. Yes- I always want to ask Arab women why they cover themselves. There’s such an argument against it. It seems as illogical as foottbinding.

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