Jeddah, gateway to Mecca, on the Red Sea. Photo found here
“Despite the independence, or perhaps because he had too much of it, his childhood had provoked an intense longing for a family, a longing that lasted well into adulthood and that he was certain would never be satisfied. His deepest fear was that he’d never marry. Parents arranged marriages. Parents had brothers and sisters who had children who needed to be married. They organized the complicated social visits in which a man got to meet a prospective bride – veiled of course, but the groom could at least study her fingers and feet (unless she was socked and gloved as well) and learn what he could from those extraneous parts. (The best insight, of course, was a thorough study of her brother’s face.) Samir could provide him with none of these things – there were no cousins to marry, not in Soudi at least – and even if he could have arranged a marriage for Nayir, Samir felt strongly that a man should “do some living” before settling down. Samir himself, now sixty-five, was still doing some living.” ~ Finding Nouf
Nayir is the conservative protagonist of Zoe Ferraris’s mystery novels, Finding Nouf, and its sequel, City of Veils. Ferraris is an American woman who married a Saudi-Palestinian Bedouin and moved to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the first Gulf War. Amongst the myriad ways that life in Saudi Arabia is different than it is in America, Ferraris was struck by how many men who wanted to be married and have families were unable to do so. If your family could not somehow arrange a marriage for you, how would a traditional and conservative man meet a decent girl? In a culture where women wear burqas to cover their faces, have a separate living room from the men in their own homes, cannot drive, and cannot walk down the street without a male relative, where indeed can a nice boy meet a nice girl, if their parents cannot get them together? Ferraris took this idea, and made it an underlying theme, though by no means the main one, of her novels.
In Finding Nouf, we meet Nayir, a desert guide in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. His very wealthy friend Othman’s sister, 16 year old Nouf, has turned up missing, and all indications are that she ran away into the desert to escape her upcoming marriage. Othman asks Nayir for help in finding her, a desperate search where time is of the essence if there is any hope of finding her alive. When her body turns up 10 days later, the family seems uninterested in solving the mystery of her death, a change of heart that confuses and confounds Nayir. He resolves to discover how she ended up drowning in the heart of the desert. In his search, he is assisted by the other protagonist of the story, Katya, a woman modern enough to be working as a lab assistant at the coroners office, who resents having to cover her face, and finds Nayir’s pious ways frustrating and tiring. Katya is also Othman’s fiancee’. As Nayir and Katya struggle to find a way to work together without upsetting either of their sensibilities too much, Nayir gets his first peek into the heretofore completely foreign world of women, and Katya begins to learn that there is kindness and respect behind Nayir’s beliefs, not just the power struggle that she so resents in the overbearing rules and rituals of the land in which she lives.
City of Veils again pairs Nayir and Katya in solving the death of a young woman, this time a brutal murder that has left the face and hands of the victim unrecognizable. Confounding the story is the apparent relationship between the victim and an American expatriate, Eric, who goes to the airport to pick up his wife, Miriam, brings her home, and promptly disappears. Miriam’s fears and struggles in trying to find her missing husband highlight the many differences between Saudi culture and our own. She is used to working, driving, riding in the front seat of a car, being free to do as she pleases. She is left alone in a country she does not like (but with which her husband has fallen in love), forced to try to find him working with people who do not acknowledge her presence half of the time, and when they do, refuse to look her in the eye.
I’m not generally a fan of the mystery genre, with the exception of Dick Francis novels, which attract me more for the horses than the murders. In the case of Finding Nouf and City of Veils, I was transfixed by an insider’s view and understanding of a culture which is so foreign to those of us in the west. The murder mystery aspect was interesting and well done, but to me, they were secondary to the sensitivity and longings of the characters, and the peek into another world. I hope that Ms. Ferraris writes more stories about the sleuthing team of Nayir and Katya.