I spent the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election on a reading binge. I already knew who I was voting for and could hardly bear the way political discourse had degenerated. Post-election, it hasn’t gotten much better but at least we know where we stand, and where to direct our energy. And thanks to where I went on my reading binge, I appreciate more our mostly peaceful democratic system and the protection we have, such as it is, for women and minorities.
A friends of mind recommended the novels of Zoe Ferraris. Ferraris has written a series of mysteries set in Saudi Arabia, a country about as far away from the United States in culture and history as you can get. It’s also a country to which we are tied through oil dependency and business ties, a country with influence all over the world. I’ve heard things about Saudi Arabia, but I’ve never done any in-depth study. I like reading non-fiction, but it’s really fiction that can give me a real sense of empathy. It’s the only art form that makes me feel like I’m getting into the mind and heart of someone different than me. Even if it’s a perspective I don’t share, I deepen my understanding our complex and diverse world.
So it was with these books. My friend warned me they weren’t easy reads, and she was right. The crimes were brutal, and there were descriptions of beheadings, punative beatings, and torture. I approached the first book with a bit of trepidation, but instead of triggering trauma symptoms in me, it triggered a sense that in spite of huge cultural differences, people can find common ground in the need for safety, the search for justice, and the universal human desire for spirituality. I often feel like there is crime and corruption that is being ignored, and I guess these books validated that fear.
The first novel, Finding Nouf, concerns the death of a 16 year old girl three days before her marriage. The girl is from a prominent family and Nayir al-Sharqi, who is friends with the girl’s prominent family, offers to discreetly help investigate the death. Nayir is a Palestinian who leads tours of the desert and lives in a boat in Jeddah. Nayir is a conservative Muslim and isn’t comfortable with women. His friend, Othman, Nouf’s brother, wants Nayir to work with Othman’s fiancé, Katya Hijazi. Katya works in the women’s section of the medical examiner’s office. Women are allowed to work there because women are needed to examine the bodies of women. There is segregation even in death. But, the Saudis are trying to get more women in the workplace while upholding the separation of the sexes. It adds so much to the tension and the plotting of this story because the characters have to work within an intricate often punitive system..
Nayir, Katya, and all the characters of this novel are expertly drawn. Ferraris obviously respects the culture and resists writing stereotypes. She gets into the heart of Nayir and Katya, their different world views, and their parallel desires to be good people, to be good in the eyes of God.
In City of Veils, an unconventional young woman is found mutilated and half-nude on a beach near Jeddah. Also, an American security contactor has disappeared and left his American wife in a desperate situation – she speaks no Arabic and is powerless in a country where women can’t even drive. Nayir’s awareness of the vulnerability of women in such a segregated society becomes intensified as he tries to help her. Katya, meanwhile, has to pretend she’s married to keep her job, so she won’t tempt men. Her help and insights are welcomed by Detective Inspector Osama Ibriham, who feels constrained by the strict separation of the sexes – at least until he finds out his wife wants more freedom than he wants to give her.
In this scene, Miriam Walker, from North Carolina, has just returned to Saudi Arabia where her husband Eric works. He wants to use skills he learned in the US military to help protect people in Saudi Arabia and make a lot of money. Miriam feels it’s a healing job for him, but she gives up a lot to support him:
In The Kingdom of Strangers, the latest but hopefully not last book in the series, a secret grave is found in the desert containing the bodies of 19 women, all with their hands cut off. The women have been killed at different times during the past 20 years, so Jeddah has to face the fact that a serial killer has been operating under their noses. The idea that their strict laws prevent such atrocities is sorely tested. And the liberal Chief Inspector leading the case is distracted because his mistress has gone missing. He can’t report that she’s gone because he’s not supposed to associate with her or any single women. If either of them are found guilty of adultery, the punishment is death. He asks Katya, the only person he can trust in the department, to help find her. Katya must carefully navigate this request. She also is trying to get more involved in the investigation of the serial killer. She’s helped by a Western serial killer expert who was invited to help on the case, and turned out to be a woman with the name Charlie. Katya enlists Nayir’s help, but she fears how he’ll respond to the idea of a man having a mistress. She also has to learn to trust her own instincts. Nayir, meanwhile, can’t decide how and when to support her.
Ferraris lived in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the first Gulf war with her then husband and his extended family of Saudi-Palestinian Bedouins. She shows the reality of what it’s like to live under a strict religious government and what people have to compromise to survive in such a society — what is good, what is not. Though they are expertly plotted, these are character driven books. I love the way Ferraris gets into her characters’ thought processes. Here, Nayir, is considering his hoped for marriage to Katya:
I found each book in this series gripping and felt a little bit of grief that there weren’t more of these books to delve into. I know I’ll read them again because I know that in reading them so quickly, I missed some of the finer points of Ferraris’ writing. The shock and brutality of the murders is disturbing, but there is a sense of closure in each one. She writes about the racism and double standards that plague all societies. She explores the folly of believing strict religious laws enforced without due process will end corruption and violence. But there is also humor, insight and hope. We are a strange and often duplicitous species. Life seems to offer an endless series of veils as we search for truth and meaning.
How wonderful to find a writer who so skillfully presents a mirror that reflects our extremes, and shines light on human resilience. If Katya or Nayir or any number of the characters in these books migrated to my neighborhood, I’m sure I’d benefit from knowing them. I also liked that there are Muslim characters from other countries who are frustrated with Saudi rigidity.
These books aren’t for everyone. They explore violence and the threats of live. I got my copies from my local library, and in Kingdom of Strangers, I got a bit of redlined editorializing.
Comments like this marred pages throughout the book. I felt a little sorry for the reader, so eager to pass judgement, that they may have missed the opportunity to see how the characters evolve.
If you read, or have read, any of these books, let me know what you think in the comments.