Adventures in Reading

Nonfiction: In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta A. Ahmed, MD

Sourcebooks, Inc. kindly sent me a copy of the memoir In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta A. Ahmed, MD, which was perfect timing as I had just heard Ahmed’s interview on the Diane Rehm Show and was quite curious about the book. Ahmed, “a British Muslim doctor,” is denied a visa to stay within the United States and quickly makes up her mind to accept a position in Saudi Arabia. Her memoir In the Land of Invisible Women offers a unique perspective of a western woman, professional doctor, and Muslim living within the kingdom.

I feel that most of what I know about Saudi Arabia has been my interpretation of evening news’ sound bytes. Via an original and interesting perspective, Ahmed takes the reader through her experience of Saudi Arabia, particularly in Riyadh [1], where she worked as a doctor for two years at the National Guard Hospital. In the Land of Invisible Women reads as a cross between a medical narrative and a memoir, and also manages to pursue two distinctly interesting themes: a western woman’s experience within the Kingdom and a lifelong Muslim’s interaction with more extreme forms of Islam.

My only complaint about the book regard some structural issues as some chapters read as disjointed. Assumedly the format is chronological, though certainly gaps of time are missing, but the reader at times is expected to make shaky leaps between one handful of chapters, for example, that focus on Hajj season to the next handful of chapters detailing Ahmed’s experience with romance in Riyadh. Relatively a minor distraction, but it did force me to wonder if I had managed to skip pages.

What I most appreciated about this book was Ahmed’s divulgence of her opinion and how she avoided becoming dismissive of other’s beliefs. The author is consistently willing to acknowledge the complex traditions and cultures that, for example, produce both negative and positive responses to wearing the abbayah. Nevertheless, Ahmed still beautifully asserts her arguments and confronts the anti-Semitism, the sexism, and the anti-western attitudes she experienced.

In the Land of Invisible Women gave me a lot to think about, and just not about the complexities of Saudi Arabia but also my country’s, the U.S.A., interactions within the Middle East.

[1] I now have a new appreciation for The Girls of Riyadh, a book I previously shrugged off as so-so pop-literature.

Other opinions: Book Addiction.

Conclusion: Available on Bookmooch.


Revisited Reviews: Does My Head Look Big In This by Randa Abdel-Fattah

So, do we all remember when I said I was going to read some of those horrible young adult novels for women and how horrible they were? Upon reconsideration, I thought, what’s the point? After all, one merely has to look at the cover and read the dust jacket to leave with the unfailing opinion that these are books that grossly glamorize “slut” culture, “cattishness,” infighting, female competition, the beauty myth, etc (hell, the series are called “the gossip girls” and “clique”). And I thought: a la the world of PR, why not something positive rather than something negative?

Randa Abdel-Fattah is an Australian and Muslim writer and her book Does My Head Look Big In This? is the story of a teenage girl Amal who chooses to wear the hijab. The book deals quite well with three larger social themes, one specifically is about choice in religion and one example of what it’s like for a Muslim girl in a westernized society. The other larger social theme, which was quite well done regards identity, how we see ourselves, with a specific nod to dislodging the beauty myth. And finally, a critique of the sexual pressures placed on young girls to have sex.

At the same time, I did struggle with some ideas in the book. Early on, Abdel-Fattah takes a knock at feminism, which is rather well deserved in the sense of “hard-core feminists” (her words, not mine) making an issue out of wearing the hijab when choice is involved. Point taken, but this isn’t so much a feminist stance as much as western perceptions and xenophobia pertaining specifically to women of eastern cultures or cultural descent. Additionally, she also ensures a knock at atheism. This sort of misrepresentation (or misinterpretation) carries through the book in not identifying social issues as the root of the problem. After all, in a book that deals with the problematic scenarios of misrepresenting and misinterpreting Islam – well, pot kettle black.

Likewise, every page was detailed by a mass consumer mindset of shopping and buying and consuming. I did start to find this problematic and particularly as the book completely fails to escape the female young adult novel entrenched idea of female competition. Because, you know, a young adult novel can’t exist without two girls verbally (if not physically) abusing each other.

Overall it was an enjoyable read (spiced up with the usual young adult fair of crushes and family issues) and one I would recommend with some reservations. The social issue critique and discussion are brilliant, but my hope of finding a novel for young women to read that resists the plague of negative young adult diatribe was not found in this book.

While I did and do have some issues with this book, memory serves that it was a fun read and it seems one of the few books to come out in recent years attempting to deal with a more serious current issue. Particularly when we live in a society where media loses control when Rachel Ray wears a scarf/“keffiyeh” in a Dunkin’ Donuts ad, I think younger people can use anything they have to understand other cultures!

Randa also has a new book titled Ten Things I Hate About Me that looks like it’s being published in January 2009.

Other opinions: Tiny Little Reading Room.

Fat Girl & City of Widows

Some of my readers familiar with me from former blogging escapades may be a bit shocked that when I checked out Dewey‘s latest Weekly Geeks blog post I found myself stumped. Pick a political or social issue of interest and throw out some books related to it. As someone who has always considered myself quite politically active and aware, I was embarrassed with myself for lack of ideas!

I always believed that at a certain age all of my misgivings and poor attitudes directed at my body would disappear. Once all of that high school awkwardness melted away and if nothing else I would finally at the very least be comfortable with myself. How wrong I was. Judith Moore’s Fat Girl is her memoir growing up fat in a world that not only berated her but also taught her to be unhappy with herself. Moore does not extend solutions and Fat Girl is a wry and fierce commentary that at least made me feel less alone.

City of Widows by Haifa Zangana is a refreshing account of the historical and current experience of women in Iraq. Coming out in the midst of memoir after memoir exploring women’s experiences in the Middle East and with Muslim, City of Widows provided a refreshing exploration of the various women rights oriented groups that have existed throughout Iraq. Zangana strongly criticizes what current occupation has cost the hard fought successes of these groups.