I hardly know what to say about this book. I’ve been trying to read it for the last two weeks, and though it’s only 437 pages long, I struggled to get through it. I don’t want to say it’s a bad book. It’s not a bad book. It provided the most balanced perspective on Middle Eastern and Muslim culture that I’ve ever read. It didn’t say, like The Bookseller of Kabul, that the culture was inherently bad because it’s not Westernized. But it also wasn’t entirely defensive of Middle Eastern culture. To every degree possible, Qanta Ahmed points out the good and the bad of Saudi Arabia.
The book is a memoir of a female doctor’s two years living and working in Saudi Arabia. The two years were mostly pre-9/11; she left the Middle East in November of 2001. Throughout the book, she tells about her experiences in Riyadh (where she lived and worked), about her Hajj (the pilgrimage she took to Mecca), about love and the intricacies of internet semi-dating, about weddings and all sorts of events. She tells stories about things that happened with coworkers and friends. She learned tons about Islam (she was Muslim from birth, but raised in England and never knew much about the roots of her faith), tons about women, tons about feminism and repression.
This is the sort of thing I love. I love looking at another culture and becoming completely immersed in it. Having experienced, briefly, a time in Palestine, I could hear, smell, and feel so many of the things Ahmed describes. I recognized almost everything. She writes the broken English dialog perfectly – I can hear the accent that goes along with it, even. But though I could really feel the world she showed me, I had a very rough time dealing with this book. Many times, I almost quit reading it. I couldn’t get into it until about halfway through, when she started talking about her love affair (of sorts). The problem was simply in the writing. It wasn’t badly written by any stretch of the imagination. Ahmed is extremely intelligent and that came through in every sentence. There are no cheesy metaphors or cliched phrases. On the contrary, this read like a dissertation. I felt like I was reading a textbook, or a long medical paper.
I have a hard time with nonfiction. I always have. I hated reading textbooks straight through. I love memoirs because of the creative elements in them, but this memoir was not traditional in that regard. It was very fragmented. A couple chapters about one person, a couple chapters about another, many people never showing up again. There wasn’t enough underlying thematic elements to tie everything together. I know that the culture in Saudi Arabia was supposed to tie it all together, but since that’s the premise of the book, it didn’t double well as the theme. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi uses literature and her forbidden book club as a theme to tie in everything. Though she meanders around in time and between characters, it always comes back to books and literature. A theme is a necessary grounding, which In the Land of Invisible Women lacked. Though I thought the people she described were interesting, I don’t think I’ll remember them, and I find that very sad, because I would like to remember them. I enjoyed them. I thought they were fantastic people and I wanted to know more.
So this book frustrated me. I kept reading because I loved the subject matter, and I kept putting it down because I was bored. I don’t feel like I learned anything in particular – many of the lessons taught were ones I’d already encountered in former books or experiences regarding the Middle Eastern world – but I do feel like someone else without my particular experiences might learn a whole lot, if they can wade through the thousand references to brand names (do I care one bit what kind of shoes or watch or furniture a person wears/has? I couldn’t tell you the difference between two designer-brand shirts…what’s the point of bringing that up every single time you meet someone or enter their house??) and the very clinical tone of the book. Sorry for that last extremely run-on sentence…
In conclusion, I’m not sure what to say. The book was disappointing to me, but I can’t say it’s a bad book. It does a marvelous job dispelling untruths and verifying truths. It shows Saudi culture for exactly what it is, good points and bad points. If you are interested in learning more about modern Middle Eastern culture in a balanced, unbiased way, this is perfect. Just don’t expect it to read like a traditional memoir.