Finding Nouf: a mystery set in Saudi Arabia

/ posted in: Reading Finding Nouf:  a mystery set in Saudi ArabiaFinding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris
Series: Nayir Sharqi & Katya Hijazi #1
on 2009-05
Genres: Fiction, Mystery & Detective
Pages: 305
Source: Library
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Fast-paced and utterly transporting, "Finding Nouf" is a riveting literary mystery and an unprecedented window into the lives of men and women in Saudi Arabia.
When sixteen-year-old Nouf goes missing, her prominent family calls on Nayir al-Sharqi, a pious desert guide, to lead the search party. Ten days later, just as Nayir is about to give up in frustration, her body is discovered by anonymous desert travelers. But when the coroner's office determines that Nouf died not of dehydration but from drowning, and her family seems suspiciously uninterested in getting at the truth, Nayir takes it upon himself to find out what really happened.


When a 16 year old girl from a wealthy Saudi family goes missing along with a truck and her camel, her family assumes that she ran into the desert.  They hire their desert guide Nayir Sharqi to lead the search team.  When she is found, the official story of her death and recovery don’t make sense to him.  Then a family member asks him to investigate to find out what really happened.

The mystery of what happened to Nouf wasn’t the point of this book for me.  Nayir is a very devout Palestinian man living in Saudi Arabia.  He was raised by his unmarried uncle.  He has almost no contact with women at all.  He doesn’t understand them and this society doesn’t allow him to meet them.  He starts to realize the depth of his ignorance when trying to understand the motivation of Nouf.  He is also uncomfortable to be working with Katya, a woman in the pathology lab and the fiance of his contact in the Shrawi family.

I found the explanations of the gender conflict in Saudi Arabia to be the most interesting parts of the book. 

Nayir is talking to Muhammad, Nouf’s paid escort for when she wanted to leave the family compound without one of her brothers.  He introduced his wife, Hend.

“Nayir sipped his tea and marveled at the casual way that Muhammad had spoken of his wife.  There had been no need to explain who she was, and telling Nayir her name was something else entirely.  It put Muhammad squarely in the category of young infidel wannabe.  Gone were the days of calling one’s wife “the mother of Muhammad Junior”; today women had first names, last names, jobs and whatnot.  He wondered how many men had known Nouf’s name.”


Later there is this sign at the zoo.

CHILDREN MAY BE ACCOMPANIED BY EITHER THEIR MOTHER OR FATHER BUT NOT BOTH PARENTS.  BOYS OVER THE AGE OF 10 ARE CONSIDERED ADULTS.


Even the women have been conditioned to think this is normal.  In this passage Katya is thinking about her fiance and his attitude towards her.

“With dismay, she came upon a painful truth:  that a modern, enlightened man like Othman, the sort of man who could actually meet a woman in public and not think she was a whore, might not have enough within him to sustain a passionate relationship.”

 

I was reading this book on vacation at the pool when a Muslim family came in.  The mother and teenage daughter were wearing hijabs and long sleeved, long pant bathing suits.  The adult male was wearing swimming trunks and showing off his tattoos.  The double standard was jarring especially while reading about so many examples of women being treated as lesser beings in this book. If women choose to dress modestly because they believe it is part of the tenets of their religion, fine. But if they are told that they have to because they are responsible for hiding themselves to protect men from having to control their thoughts, then that is not ok.

While being forced to work with and consider the lives of women over the course of the investigation, Nayir starts to reconsider his ideas of proper etiquette.  There are two more books in the series and I am interested in reading them to see how this develops.

About Zoe Ferraris

Zoë Ferraris moved to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. She lived in a conservative Muslim community with her then-husband and his family, a group of Saudi-Palestinians.

In 2006, she completed her MFA in Fiction at Columbia University.

She currently lives in San Francisco.