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In the Land of Invisible Women
Cover of In the Land of Invisible Women
In the Land of Invisible Women
A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom
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"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 unparralled 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.
"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 unparralled 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.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book I returned to Khalaa Tarfa, my first patient in the Kingdom. She was a Bedouin Saudi well into her seventies, though no one could be sure of her age (female births were not certified in Saudi Arabia when she had been born). She was on a respirator for a pneumonia which had been slow to resolve. Comatose, she was oblivious to my studying gaze. A colleague prepared her for the placement of a central line (a major intravenous line into a deep vein).

    Her torso was uncovered in anticipation.. Another physician sterilized the berry brown skin with swathes of iodine. A mundane procedure I had performed countless times, in Saudi Arabia it made for a starling scene. I looked up from the sterilized field which was quickly submerging the Bedouin body under a disposable sea of blue. Her face remained enshrouded in a black scarf, as if she was out in a market scurrying through a crowd of loitering men. I was astounded.

    Behind the curtain, a family member hovered, the dutiful son. Intermittently, he peered at us . He was obviously worrying, I decided, as I watched his slim brown fingers rapidly manipulating a rosary. He was probably concerned about the insertion of the central line, I thought, just like any other caring family member.

    Every now and again, he signaled vigorously, rapidly talking in Arabic to instruct the nurse. I wondered what he was asking about and how he could know if we were at a crucial step in the procedure. Everything was going smoothly; in fact soon the jugular would be cannulated. We were almost finished. What could be troubling him?

    Through my dullness, eventually, I noticed a clue. Each time the physician's sleeve touched the patient's veil, and the veil slipped, the son burst out in a flurry of anxiety. Perhaps all of nineteen, the son was instructing the nurse to cover the patient's face, all the while painfully averting his uninitiated gaze away from his mother's fully exposed torso, revealing possibly the first breasts he may have seen.

    I wondered about the lengths to which the son continued to veil his mother, even when she was gravely ill. Couldn't he see it was the least important thing for her now at this time, when her life could ebb away at any point? Didn't he know God was Merciful, tolerant and understanding and would never quibble over the wearing of a veil in such circumstances, or I doubted, any circumstances?

    Somehow I assumed the veil was mandated by the son, but perhaps I was wrong about that as well. Already, I was finding myself wildly ignorant in this country. Perhaps the patient herself would be furious if her modesty was unveiled when she was powerless to resist. Nothing was clear to me other than veiling was essential, inescapable, even for a dying woman. This was the way of the new world in which I was now confined. For now, and the next two years, I would see many things I couldn't understand. I was now a stranger in the Kingdom.
About the Author-
  • Dr. Ahmed is currently an assistant professor of medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, and Assistant Director of the MUSC Sleep Disorders Laboratory. She is a quadruple boarded in internal medicine, pulmonary disease, critical care medicine, and sleep disorders medicine. She continues to practice intensive care medicine. She became a fellow of the American College of Chest Physicians, a Diplomat and member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Table of Contents-
  • Chapter 1: The Bedouin Bedside
    Chapter 2: A Time to Leave America
    Chapter 3: My New Home, a Military Compound
    Chapter 4: Abbayah Shopping
    Chapter 5: Invisible and Safe
    Chapter 6: Saudi Women Who Dance Alone
    Chapter 7: Veiled Doctors
    Chapter 8: The Lost Boys of the Kingdom
    Chapter 9: A Father's Grieving
    Chapter 10: An Invitation to God
    Chapter 11: The Epicenter of Islam
    Chapter 12: Into the Light
    Chapter 13: The Child of God
    Chapter 14: The Million-Man Wheel
    Chapter 15: Committing Haram
    Chapter 16: Calling Doctora
    Chapter 17: Daughters of the Desert
    Chapter 18: Next Stop: Absolution
    Chapter 19: Prayer under the Stars
    Chapter 20: Between the Devil and the Red Sea
    Chapter 21: Mutawaeen: The Men in Brown
    Chapter 22: Single Saudi Male
    Chapter 23: The Calm before the Storm
    Chapter 24: Wahabi Wrath
    Chapter 25: Doctor Zhivago of Arabia
    Chapter 26: Love in the Kingdom
    Chapter 27: Show Me Your Marriage License!
    Chapter 28: An Eye for an Eye
    Chapter 29: Princes, Polygamists, and Paupers
    Chapter 30: Divorce, Saudi-Style
    Chapter 31: The Saudi Divorcée
    Chapter 32: Desperate Housewives
    Chapter 33: The Making of a Female Saudi Surgeon
    Chapter 34: The Hot Mamma
    Chapter 35: The Gloria Steinem of Arabia
    Chapter 36: Champion of Children
    Chapter 37: 9/11 in Saudi Arabia
    Chapter 38: Final Moments, Final Days
    Afterword: Rugged Glory
    Endnotes
    Bibliography
    Reading Group Guide
    Acknowledgments
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    June 2, 2008
    This memoir is a journey into a complex world readers will find fascinating and at times repugnant. After being denied a visa to remain in the U.S., British-born Ahmed, a Muslim woman of Pakistani origin, takes advantage of an opportunity, before 9/11, to practice medicine in Saudi Arabia. She discovers her new environment is defined by schizophrenic contrasts that create an “absurd clamorous clash of modern and medieval.... It never became less arresting to behold.” Ahmed’s introduction to her new environment is shocking. Her first patient is an elderly Bedouin woman. Though naked on the operating table, she still is required by custom to have her face concealed with a veil under which numerous hoses snake their way to hissing machines. Everyday life is laced with bizarre situations created by the rabid puritanical orthodoxy that among other requirements forbids women to wear seat belts because it results in their breasts being more defined, and oppresses Saudi men as much as women by its archaic rules. At times the narrative is burdened with Ahmed’s descriptions of the physical characteristics of individuals and the luxurious adornments of their homes but this minor flaw is easily overlooked in exchange for the intimate introduction to a world most readers will never know.

  • Gail Sheehy "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."
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