In the Land of Invisible Women
by Qanta Ahmed
Most job contracts don't include mentions of the death penalty, but when Dr. Qanta A. Ahmed agreed to a new job in a Saudi Arabian hospital she became subject to the laws of that country which, as she writes in her memoir, can include decapitation.
After being denied a visa to stay in the United States, Ahmed, decides at "the spur of the moment" to accept a job practicing intensive care medicine at the King Fahad National Guard Hospital in Riyadh, the capitol of Saudi Arabia.
During her two-year stint, in which she works with an assortment of Saudi men and women as well as nurses and doctors from around the world, she encounters almost daily situations for which no American medical school could have prepared her: a female patient who is comatose but whose face still needs to be properly veiled; female medical personnel trying to listen attentively to a patient's heartbeat through the rustling fabric of an abbayah, the long black head covering worn by women in Saudi Arabia.
Ahmed's portrayal of her time in Saudi Arabia gives the reader insight into life inside one of the United States' strongest allies in the Middle East, and her personal experiences make it a far more interesting read than an academic tome. It is one thing to simply read that in Riyadh groups of men, called the Muttaween, roam the city, enforcing what they perceive to be the correct interpretation of Islam. But through Ahmed's description of how an outing to a restaurant with visiting medical staff is interrupted by the Muttaween conveys the fear that they instilled in her and her colleagues.
While the book is by a woman and Ahmed constantly talks about women in the Kingdom, it would be a mistake to classify this book as being for or about just women. The doctor's insights are fascinating for readers of either gender.
One of the strengths of this book is that Ahmed doesn't seem to hold much back, even revealing the personal details of the high schoollike crush she developed on a Saudi doctor named Imad that illustrates the steep barriers to finding love there. Since she cannot be alone with a man, American-style dates, such going out to a movie, are out of the question. Instead, their budding romance plays out mostly on the Internet through e-mails and instant messenger.
However, sometimes her tendency to reveal all types of details crosses from the honest to the merely catty. Do readers really need to know that her first thought upon seeing a photograph of a friend traveling in Thailand in an ankle-revealing dress that was that the friend had "stumpy" ankles?
Another weak spot of the book is Ahmed's description of her participation in the hajj, the pilgrimage made by millions of Muslims to Mecca, the traditional birthplace of Islam's Prophet Muhammad. Unless readers are already familiar with the many aspects of the multi-day journey that attracts Muslims from around the globe, it can sometimes be confusing to understand. It is a shame considering that the doctor, who was born in Britain to Pakistani Muslim parents, reconnected with her Muslim faith while in Saudi Arabia.
Many of the situations that Ahmed encounters during her time in Saudi Arabia are frustrating and shocking to her — the anti-Semitism of many of her colleagues, the joy many people took at the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the hierarchy among fellow Muslims.
But Ahmed is also good at highlighting the positive aspects of life in the Kingdom, the people who give her hope for the country: the women she encounters who are dedicated to their education and careers despite the restrictions placed upon them and the Saudi men who champion women in the workplace and treat them as equals.
And from the first page to the last, it is clear that Ahmed is fascinated by the country. She manages to pass that fascination along to her readers.
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