In ‘In the Land of Invisible Women’ Qanta Ahmed, an English-born female Muslim doctor, recounts the experiences of her time in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It’s a fascinating account that suffers somewhat from a poor writing style. The writing is bad and I found Ahmed’s narration patronising – her voice was one of superior tone and it appears that she sets herself above Saudi Muslims, western non-Muslims, anyone who may have a negative opinion about America … the list is endless. The arrogant tone is particularly evident when she refers to her obvious sense of professional superiority. In passages where she describes herself, particularly around the hospital, the reader is left in no doubt of the high opinion of herself she holds. I found the chapter where she deals with the issue of homosexuality in the Kingdom disturbing in the extreme. She lists a number of contributing factors to the appeasement of an ‘uncomfortable libido by seeking acquired homosexual behaviours’ – obviously, it couldn’t be that they were actually gay, it must have been contributing factors, environmentally acquired homosexuality. At least I will sleep easier at night knowing her ‘detection of latent homosexuality was probably accurate’.
I also found that she was oddly schizophrenic in her response to veiling: when around westerners, she adopted a superior tone and emphasised the idea of the sense of liberation veiling gave her; when around Saudis, she often adopted a superior tone, asserting her right not to. There are moments where she labours the point of liberation from male attention. When she described how Saudi men attempted to pick up girls, much as she attributed her fear and intimidation to the male attention, I couldn’t help but ask myself whether this stemmed from the attention itself or the context of the climate of fear created by the religious police, which she had already demonstrated she was affected by.
Nonetheless, this book is a fascinating window onto what it, for me, an alien world. It was an interesting portrait of two vastly different forms of Islam (from multi- and single faith environments). I found it particularly telling that, at the outset, the non-Muslim expats who had been in the Kingdom longer, often appeared more at home than the Muslim narrator. The opening account of a dying woman and the extreme lengths her family went to to make sure that she remained veiled raised the interesting question of whether her rights were being supresses or her dignity upheld – as she was unable to bear witness to this herself, we shall never know.
It is evident that there are multiple levels of segregation in the Kingdom: by sex, by nationality and by class with the dichotomy of the uber-rich and the slave class that serves them. Many of the most interesting moments for me were the tales of the ER as these gave insight into the nature of Saudi citizens at their worst moments; these stories were more ‘alive’ than some of Ahmed’s other descriptions. The re-telling of her pilgrimage to Mecca, her Hajj, was absolutely fascinating – a real view of a world I know very little about.
In the end, I found Ahmed to be a person who seemed to be conflicted in her sense of national identity. It is telling that in the chapters describing post-9/11 Saudi Arabia, Ahmed finds it quite easy to take an uncritical view of America’s role in precipitating the event. Despite being English born, she repeatedly allies herself with America, constantly belabouring the point that she owed America a great deal for her medical training (conveniently failing to give any credit to the British university that gave her her original medical degree). Ultimately, the author’s obvious and overriding pro-American voice led me to treat her description of post-9/11 Saudi with a degree of scepticism as, with regards to America, I never got the sense that her writing was particularly balanced. The degree to which she allied herself with America is typified by a description of a conversation with a Saudi male who sympathised with the US later in the book, where she describes him as being ‘on our side’ – it is rare that an English person would ever use the word ‘our’ to encompass the US and the UK as an entity.
I was, in the end, reminded of the fact that change never comes fast. There is process and there is evolution behind every perceived momentary revolution of culture. The book ends on a hopeful note that leaves the reader feeling that there may be a chance for Saudi Arabia; that, in time, it could become a more open and independent place for all Saudis, women included, and that this could happen without the submersion of its rich Islamic heritage under the yoke of a western, or more specifically an American, monoculture and value structure. How accurate this is, I’m not sure. Ahmed’s voice is not one that I feel I fully trust and sometimes there is a sense that, once free from the control exerted by the Kingdom, able to return as an obviously-rich western woman, there is a tint of rose in the glasses she wears to look back at it. Certainly from personal accounts I’ve had from people who have spent much longer in the Kingdom than Ahmed’s short stay, the view is not so positive.
For the story and insight it gives to aspects of Saudi life, I would certainly recommend this book. It’s a four-star for content. Unfortunately, it’s a two-star for writing ability; although it’s not often so bad that it prevents you from absorbing the facts, certainly at the beginning you have to cling to the fact that from a chapter or so in the subject matter becomes fascinating and overrides the fact that the writing is so poor at the outset that you’ll be tempted to discard it. Hang in there! It will be an illuminating experience. I decided to split the difference and settled on a three-star compromise.