Finding Nouf (first published in the UK as Night
of the Mi'raj) is as much a riveting mystery as it is an
absorbing profile of the conflict between the traditional
and the modern in Saudi Arabian/Islamic culture. The latter
is deftly carried out in the characterizations of desert
guide Nayir al-Sharqi, assistant medical examiner Katya
Hijazi and, by proxy, murder victim Nouf Ash-Shrawi.
Nouf is the sixteen-year-old daughter of a wealthy and powerful Saudi family. Is there any other kind, you ask? Well, it turns out there is and therein lies the appeal of this story. Ferraris shows us that not only are there non-wealthy Arabs but there are other ways of viewing their rigid (by Western standards) lifestyle and the strict rules governing inter-gender relationships. When we first meet Nayir, for example, after Nouf's brother Othman has asked his friend to investigate her disappearance, the desert guide seems so bound by Islamic law that we think he's never going to get anywhere. Not only does he know next-to-nothing about Nouf, he knows even less about women in general, appearing genuinely afraid of them. Indeed, he's almost apoplectic when he must deal with the boldly outspoken assistant medical examiner Katya Hijazi. While not a crass 21st Century chick, she clearly has no problem with breaking away from the older traditions, especially in the workplace where she is confined to "the women's area."
However, due to her job and her relationship with the Shrawi family as Othman's fiancé Katya becomes a more or less temporary fixture in Nayir's life as they both investigate the circumstances surrounding Nouf's mysterious disappearance and death. Much as neither is willing to admit it (she because of her engagement to Othman; he because of the same plus his overall reticence around women) there is a chemistry between them.
As tiny sparks fly in their completely platonic interactions the pair exemplifies what charm can exist in this inflexible culture. Nayir demonstrates a beneficent interpretation of the way the Quran intends men to regard women respectfully honoring them even as they are kept separate from men. Katya, on the other hand, is a woman raised with those same traditional values who is savvy enough to show Nayir in a non-threatening way how tradition might evolve. Once he achieves a certain comfort level in her presence Nayir finds his conversations with Katya highly revelatory. Because for Nayir to succeed in his investigation he must admit the importance of learning all he can about Nouf, and not just her last known movements but all the way to her innermost secrets. In so doing he is also getting an education in the way women, locked into these ancient roles, might think and feel.
Ferraris, an American who spent some time in Saudi Arabia, clearly came away with a comprehension of, and sensitivity to, the virtues and the flaws of a culture that pours through her characters' thoughts and actions and culminates in a great read. I look forward to more adventures with Nayir and Katya.
About the Author
Zoë Ferraris moved to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the first Gulf War to live with her then-husband and his extended family, a group of Saudi-Palestinian Bedouins who had never welcomed an American into their lives before. She has an M.F.A. from Columbia University and received first prize for mystery fiction at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 2003. She currently lives in San Francisco with her teenage daughter. Finding Nouf is her first novel.
Coming Soon: The second in the series, as yet not publicly named, appears to be publishing in the UK in April 2010, so there's a good chance it will publish in the USA in either the Spring or Fall of 2010.
This review was originally published in June 2008, and has been updated for the May 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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