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I feel guilty. I haven’t been paying as much attention to the blog as I should have been. My reading pace has slowed considerably, from upto five books a month to barely two. Blame it on my Mandarin classes and work and life in general. But I also feel guilty, that I wasted my precious time reading “In the Land of Invisible Women” by Dr. Qanta Ahmed. Well, to be fair, not a complete waste of time. Let me give a summary before I proceed to my review.
Unexpectedly denied a visa to remain in the US, 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 woeld apart, a land of unparalleled contrast. She finds rejection and scorn in the places she believed would most embrace her, but also humor, honestly, loyalty and love.
Good friends of mine would know that I am a sucker for stories, especially women centric ones, set in the Middle East. So this was no exception. I was excited by the title itself. The beginning held promise with Qanta’s arrival in the veiled Kingdom. Brought up in a liberal Muslim household where women enjoyed complete freedom, Qanta had her first rude shock as she landed at the King Khalid airport. Men stared pointedly at her even after she “veiled” herself with the hood of her sweater and "the soldier at passport control offered no smile." Thus begins Qanta’s journey into Saudi Arabia.
Qanta tackles a particular topic in each chapter, ranging from divorces to Hajj. Overall, we get a picture of this hermetic land where on one hand women are not seen, rarely heard and almost never recognized. Yet, on the other hand, we see women partying, smoking expensive cigarettes or hookahs and mingling around unveiled albeit only with other women. The deep schizophrenic schism that characterizes the culture, society and minds of the Kingdom is revealed through anecdotes and the people that Qanta meets. The world she inhabits is almost hallucinatory, induced by hookahs and fanatic religion. I particularly found interesting the few chapters dedicated to Hajj, which Qanta undertakes. She describes her personal experiences as well as a step-by-step account of how a Hajj takes place over a few days. I also found the chapters on Mutaween, divorce and single women quite fascinating.
But not fascinating enough for me to keep reading late into the night. In fact, I was frustrated most of the time with the tedious language, the slower-than-a-snail pace and Qanta’s obsession with brand names that casually permeate most of her descriptions.
“As I was taking in the Daum figurines and the oversized Lalique coffee table amid a Liberace-esque interior, Zubaidah rushed up to greet us, a riot of color against her white marble home.”
Such descriptions run riot dripping with Gucci, Dior, Fendi, Baccarat and what not. How do you even recognize one from the other?!
A couple of other irritants were Qanta’s gushing depiction of Saudi women. It appears that each woman outshines the other in her beauty, flawless "creamy" skin, clothes and grace. She finds herself as the odd one out among these Saudi models all the time though she too dresses in nothing less than Escada and some other un-pronounceable brands.
Another refrain that got under my skin was the constant reference to Bengalis. Upon arriving at the Saudi airport she finds “huge lines of impoverished Bengali men arriving to take up menial laboring jobs.” Later on, she sees a “sinewy Bengali” driver, imagines “a poor Bengali gardener” and ultimately we see her utter ignorance as she describes “the South Indian check out boy (who) spoke in his native Hindi…” Is she even aware that Bengali does not encompass Indians or any particular nation or that the native language of South Indians is not Hindi?
Clearly, the book begs to be edited, and by that I mean lopped with a scythe. It is almost like the publisher just took the raw draft to press without any intervention. Huge chunks of the book can easily be dropped and language can be pushed up several notches to give punch to Qanta’s interesting experiences. It would also make the book far more readable and less time consuming.
All I can say is I pared out the experiences and stories that lie at the heart of the book and painted myself an intriguing picture of the Kingdom. Otherwise, sorry doc, I think you should stick to practicing medicine and probably give over the writing bit to someone else.
Verdict: Interesting in parts, be prepared to do lots of self-editing