“Something greater was crumbling inside him, the wall that held the strength of his beliefs…” – Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris

December 23, 2008 at 1:36 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

nouf Every once in a while,  a book reveals to me how little I know about a place. Finding Nouf is such a book; the place is Saudi Arabia.

At the age of nineteen, while living in San Francisco,  Zoe Ferraris fell in love with a Saudi-Palestinian Bedouin whom she describes as “hilarious and brilliant and over-the-top zany.”  They married and had a child, at which time her new husband felt they had to return to Saudi Arabia so his family could meet Zoe and their baby daughter. What was supposed to be, at most, a visit of a week or two ended up lasting almost a year. During that time, Ferraris moved inside the country’s strict, intensely devout culture. In the process, she gained valuable insight into life in present-day Saudi Arabia; she uses that insight to stunning effect in Finding Nouf.

Nayir ash-Sharqi, a desert guide, is asked by the family of his close friend Othman to look into the disappearnace of Nouf ash-Shrawi, Othman’s sixteen-year-old sister. Nouf is found, but not by Nayir, and finding her raises a whole host of new questions. Othman beseeches his friend to keep digging until the answers come to light.

In a previous post on crime fiction, I talked about protagonists who harbor a “secret sorrow.”  Nayir’s entire being is pervaded with sorrow – sorrow and profound loneliness. His unorthodox family background makes him an outsider in his own homeland. And his ardent adherence to the tenets of Islam isolates him even further.

This in no way precludes his assenting to Othman’s request. As it happens, Katya Hijazi, an assistant lab worker for the coroner’s office, is Othman’s fiancee. She is thus in a position to help Nayir in his quest to find out the truth about what happened to Nouf. Like Nayir, Katya’s circumstances place her outside conventional society. She lives with her widowed father, and, of course, her status as a working woman puts her even further outside the mainstream. Her life could not be more different than that of the women of the wealthy Shrawi clan, who are confined to the women’s quarter of the family’s vast mansion and hardly ever go out. When she goes to visit them, this is what Katya sees:

“They were gray and wrinkled, obese, most of them, sitting idly on the sofas. Their fat hung in layers from their waists and arm; they looked like sofas themselves.

Katya, a good and kindly soul, feels ashamed of these thoughts but in all honesty, is unable to suppress them.

In Finding Nouf, Zoe Ferraris has painted a vivid picture of life in a culture that is radically different from ours:

“Normally men inhabited these sidewalks, but this early in the morning there were women, as quiet and alert as deer, stealing the opportunity to wander unmolested. A man would be a blot on the picture, his robe glowing brighter than the moon, chasing away the dark shapes of night.

On her site, Ferraris offers this provocative observation: ” The biggest revelation I had in Saudi Arabia was learning that men were just as frustrated by gender segregation as women were.” You will not wonder at this once you’ve read this book. Men and women have virtually no opportunity to meet and socialize in a natural way. Even less do they have the opportunity for deeper intimacy, either of an emotional or sexual nature. Poor Nayir – that is just what he so longs for. And yet the tenets of Islam require him to avert his gaze should a woman bare her face in his presence. Whole courtships are carried without the man ever beholding the visage of his wife-to-be. Once again, Shakespeare’s line returns: “There is no art to see the mind’s construction in the face.” And not just the mind – the heart, as well.

Ferraris has used her singular insight to great effect, creating a character whose sadness, confusion, and lonliness are so palpable that you ache for him:

“Something greater was crumbling inside him, the wall that held the strength of his beliefs, and it hurt to feel himself weakening, to feel this much sympathy for women like Nouf who felt trapped by their lives, by prescriptions of modesty and domesticity that might have suited the Prophet’s wives but that didn’t suit the women of this world, infected as it was by desires to go to school and travel and work and have ever greater options and appetites. He tried not to feel that the world was collapsing, but it was collapsing, and there was nothing he could do, just watch it with a painful, bitter sense of loss.

You can see by this passage that Nayir is deeply ambivalent about the struggle of women to attain some parity of opportunity with men. The precepts of his religion matter a great deal to him; he has a naturally conservative temperament. But this investigation is changing him. In particular, working with Katya Hijazi is changing him.

The author frequently refers to the Quran [her transliteration of the word]  and notes the beauty of expression and the wisdom to be found therein. For instance, an apt text occurs to Nayir as he observes  Mutlaq, an expert tracker called in to assist with the inquiry:

“Nayir watched with admiration. He was like a search-and-rescue man who knows a terrain well enough to know its secrets, only Mutlaq’s territory was a landscape in miniature, the hills and valleys of a footprint ridge. In the fact that Allah sends down sustenance from the sky, and revivies the Earth after its death, and in the change of the Winds, are signs for those that are wise. Allah could be known by His signs, and the scenery of the world was one of the biggest; but Mutlaq’s scenery, being smaller and manmade, held its own divine secrets.

You’ve probably deduced by now that I love the way this woman writes. Here she describes the noonday heat in one of the hottest places on Earth:

“It was the worst kind of noon, overbright and muggy and seared by a sun that had expanded to fill every bit of the sky. A steamy, breathless, penetrating air poured like liquid lava onto every surface, causing ripples of heat, sharp glints of light, and such mirages as might have isled an entire army into the very hottest part of hell.

Finding Nouf is impressive accomplishment for a first time author – or for any author. I do, however, have one reservation, and one caveat. The reservation concerns the novel’s structure. In my opinion, Ferraris would have done better to discard the crime fiction elements from this work: they were obtrusive, confusing, and in some unfortunate instances, ludicrous. I did not want to read about a teen-age girl stealing a truck from the family compound, loading a camel onto the flatbed, etc. Also, Ferraris plants evidence – manure on the victim’s wrist, for example –  in ways that startled me and seemed repetitive and extraneous. It was as though she were trying to stuff an obese woman into a tiny dress. A bad fit, in other words. Still, Ferraris richly evokes a strange, almost claustrophobic society – complete with religious police! – and the very real, vulnerable human beings attempting to survive and lead good lives within its strictures. The memorable portrait she paints and the beautiful writing with which she does so more than compensate for the structural deficits.

The caveat? for me, at least, this book didn’t just “take off.” For the first fifty pages or so, I felt as though picking it up were a duty to which I was bound (an appropriate feeling, actually, as I was reading it for a book group discussion). Gradually I began to feel enveloped in the world Zoe Ferraris had created. Then I couldn’t put her luminous novel down.

Zoe Ferraris

Zoe Ferraris


  1. RaiulBaztepo said,

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  2. nouf said,

    amazing post .. where can i find this book in kuwait ???!!
    plz urgent !!

  3. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] in Stone– Ruth Rendell The Accomplice – Elizabeth Ironside The Suspect – L.R. Wright Finding Nouf – Zoe Ferraris Bleeding Heart Square – Andrew Taylor Strangers on a Train – Highsmith […]

  4. At a meeting of the Usual Suspects: Simenon/Maigret, and other matters… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] of us had read and loved Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris and were excited about the sequel, City of Veils. We’re also looking forward […]

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