Good Afternoon
Good Afternoon

Excerpt from Qanta A. Ahmed's 'In the Land of Invisible Women'

Qanta A. Ahmed.

Qanta A. Ahmed. Credit: Jack Alterman Studios 2008, Charleston SC

Below is Chapter 5 of Qanta A. Ahmed's book "In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom," published by Sourcebooks, Inc.


WE TRAVELED IN A TAXI to the center of the city. Along the way, Maurag taught me never to hail a cab curbside but instead to rely on the hospital's own car service. In Riyadh, there was still no enforced registration of licensed taxis. A lone Western woman could be vulnerable alone in a taxi, and how could one tell a genuine taxi from a predator? My dark Asian skin was an added conundrum. Veiled, I could pass as Saudi, and a lone Saudi woman in a taxi was almost in a worse predicament than a non-Saudi.

A Saudi woman with no honor or protection, just where could she be going shamelessly unchaperoned? That would be the received message. She would be inviting danger.

The driving in Riyadh was deadly. Turbocharged testosterone without creative or sexual outlet translated into deadly acceleration. The road was supposedly a six-lane highway into the city, but additional lanes appeared at will.

Someone passed us on the hard shoulder traveling at least one hundred miles per hour. I feverishly followed the speedometer in which our un-seat-belted driver displayed no interest. We ourselves were already seventy-five miles per hour in an old South African rust bucket. I began to feel angry with the driver. I stupidly clutched onto the flimsy scarf over my hair. "Shweh," (Slow) was falling on deaf ears. I felt feeble and increasingly powerless.

At last we reached a mall. From outside it was an elegant glass and marble structure, shining with chrome staircases. It was modern and familiar in its Western design. The al-Akariyah shopping center was inviting, ablaze with neon and fluorescence. Inside, Saudi men and women rustled purposefully, focused on Thursday night shopping. The paucity of color was striking; aside from the black abbayahs and white thobes, no other color was apparent. Stocky figures were cast into sharp relief against the gleaming marble canvas; black, veiled silhouettes enshrouding women trailed behind the white-clad, plump men who had married or fathered or been delivered of them. I was entranced.

Little children were shorter versions of their parents, small girls no more than six in abbreviated shrouds, their abbayah hems getting stuck in their brightly colored, open-toed jelly sandals. Their clumsy tumbles reminded me that a childhood was encased within these opaque sarcophagi. Little boys, scuffed and stained, tumbled along in short white robes hurrying to keep up with Dad, always ahead of their sisters, already exerting an infantile male supremacy.

I noticed mainly families with many children, three or four at least to every mother-shaped veil. Saudi children ran amok, far ahead of the parents. Waddling women hurried hopelessly to keep up, clumsy platform shoes and billowing abbayahs impeding their progress. Under askew hems, I could see Riyadh was the home of the rubberized platform sneaker. I watched the clumpy shoes carry ballooning sailboats of veiled women back and forth over the marble causeway. The Dior handbags and Fendi footwear I had seen Saudi women in London wearing were nowhere to be seen. Things were much more kitsch at home.

At the perimeter of the mall, Saudi bachelors condensed in groups at mall entrances, barred from entering during family time when only married couples and women could shop. Security guards dotted the mall in clusters, accompanied by policemen. The officers were dressed in militarized uniforms and red berets, a brief relief of color in the bloodless scene.

Women without families, like us, patrolled in clutches of twos or threes. Many women were Western. It seemed al-Akariyah was a favorite mall for the expat worker. Caucasian faces stared out of the black regulation abbayahs, chatting with one another easily, blue eyes peering out of the Wahabi garb, faces often smiling, strangely relaxed. Here and there a wisp of blonde inveigled its way out of veiled blackness. Sometimes, a Swedish accent punctuated the air, ridiculously displaced.

There were other women out this evening too. Young Saudi millenials patrolled the mall, their pallid anemia partly visible behind hijabs. Some talked incessantly on cell phones, eagerly surveying goods. Wealthier teens wore slim-line microphones under tightly bound layers of veils, microphones nestling provocatively in front of the invisible fullness of lips concealed within. Everywhere I looked, headpieces peeped out from behind headscarves, so many Muslim Madonnas, engaged in secretive, coquettish flirtations, perhaps with their Bluetooth boyfriends.

I watched them closely. The girls often giggled but always quietly, no raucous, jaw-splitting guffaws. These girls were uncomfortable even containing such covert gaiety, ever-vigilant of an impending capture. They were very controlled, with years of training, always hiding their stolen snatches of happiness. Clearly these women were unmarried.

There were no entourages of children, no awkward newlywed husbands, no pregnant bellies suggested by the folds of their abbayahs. These were the swinging single Saudi women, the hip elite of Riyadh. I wondered if they were having some kind of fun.