Zoë Ferraris is the author of two critically-acclaimed mysteries set in Saudi Arabia: Finding Nouf (Night of the Miraj in its British edition) and City of Veils. Both feature Arab protagonists in novels that are as much socio-cultural introductions to the region as they are first-class mysteries. The Washington Post noted of her 2008 debut: “[Ferraris] weaves a richly detailed tapestry of the country’s gender-segregated and pious Muslim culture.” The San Francisco Chronicle also praised that work, noting, “In Finding Nouf, first-time novelist [Zoë Ferraris] gives us an imaginative and closely observed murder mystery set in the Saudi port town of Jeddah, a literary detective novel that balances the pleasures of plot with finely milled prose.” And London’s Sunday Times termed it a “tense psychological drama, and a riveting portrait of everyday life in a society with paranoid attitudes towards women and sex.”
Ferraris’s sequel from 2010 earned similar praise. London’s Guardian thought that City of Veils “more than lives up to the promise of her magnificent debut.” The London Independent also hailed this as a “fascinating crime novel with an astonishing denouement…modern crime fiction at its very best.” Booklist dubbed it a “suspenseful mystery and a sobering portrait of the lives of Muslim women,” and a starred Publishers Weekly review called the novel “stellar,” as well as a “searing portrait of the religious and cultural veils that separate Muslim women from the modern world.”
When I was nineteen, I married a man from Saudi Arabia. After our daughter was born, we went to Jeddah to show her off to his family. What was supposed to be a two-week vacation turned into a year-long odyssey for me. I fell deeply in love with the city and although I moved back to America, I have watched Jeddah evolve with a kind of obsessive fascination. My various experiences there tend to be pretty unique. I lived in a family of Saudi-Palestinian Bedouins, in a religiously conservative neighborhood – the sort of place most Americans don’t venture, let alone get to know.
What things about Jeddah make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Because it’s such a big, complex place, Jeddah encapsulates all of the tensions of life in Saudi Arabia, where traditional practices and beliefs lock horns with modern influences. Women are not allowed to talk to strange men, yet they get into taxis all the time. Music is technically forbidden, but they have outdoor rock concerts. It’s a wealthy oil state, gorgeous and glittering and crowded with consumers who shop like maniacs, but it also imports 80 percent of its labor force, many of whom don’t speak Arabic, don’t follow local customs, and who live on less than $2 a day.
All of these contrasts appear in my novels, but I’m interested most especially in gender segregation. My protagonist, Nayir, is a devout man who is looking for a wife. He doesn’t have a traditional family structure or someone to arrange a marriage for him, so he’s left to his own devices. But how do you find a wife when you’re not allowed to talk to strange women? And when you feel that this would be a deeply improper thing to do?
My other main character is Katya. Her father is very traditional and doesn’t approve of her interacting with strange men or working outside the home. But someone has to make a living for the family. She’s a forensic pathologist at the police department crime lab. In order to advance her career, she pushes for more contact with police officers and coroners and homicide investigators – almost all of whom are men. This comes with its own complex set of problems, especially when she falls in love with Nayir, who is about as conservative as her father.
Did you consciously set out to use Saudi Arabia as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I started Finding Nouf after years of talking to strangers and realizing how little most people know about daily life in Saudi Arabia. I wanted to bring the average Western reader to a place that they might otherwise never see, and let them experience it living and breathing.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
I’m very conscious of the setting. It’s such an integral part of what is happening to my characters – Nayir would not be in the same quandary he is in without his religious and cultural background. To show that, I want to portray all of the small pressures that reinforce or undermine his behaviors every day. This has everything to do with where he goes and what he sees happening around him. He walks into Starbucks and finds it odd to see women sitting among the men, because many restaurants and cafes in Jeddah are segregated.
The tricky part is that I want my novels to convey all of the complexity of the environment to an audience that may have no familiarity with it whatsoever, yet events happen through the points of view of characters who are native to Jeddah and for whom the environment is absolutely normal and perhaps not even worth remarking on. So I spend a lot of time trying to make things seem natural and self-evident. I try to avoid explaining, but sometimes I capitulate.
How do Nayir and Katya interact with their surroundings?
Nayir has a pretty bi-polar relationship with his city (less so with the desert he loves so much). He is the most sensitive to the changes that are happening around him, and he generally tends to feel that modernizing influences are negative. They represent the loss of something beautiful and sacred. Katya, on the other hand, welcomes the changes – and the sooner the better – since so many of them involve greater opportunities for her.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
The novels haven’t been published in Arabic yet, but they are available in English throughout the Middle East. I get a lot of really positive fan mail from readers in Saudi Arabia (both Muslims and non-Muslims), and I’ve been invited to speak at women’s schools in Jeddah a few times, so I know that Finding Nouf is being used in classroom settings. There was once an article in a Dubai newspaper about my first novel. The title of the article was something like “American Author Writes A Book that Actually Portrays Saudi Arabia in a Halfway Decent Light!”
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
Yes, I’ve mistakenly placed some old Patriot missiles in the middle of a housing complex. The architectural diversity of Jeddah is sometimes extraordinary, so at least I had verisimilitude on my side.
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
“Place” is huge part of what I love about reading. It includes the construction of whole worlds: George RR Martin and JK Rowling and Charles Dickens. It involves histories that couldn’t happen in quite the same way anywhere else: Gone With the Wind, Lampedusa’s The Leopard and Puzo’s Fortunate Pilgrim. In the mystery genre, it interferes with even the most determined investigations: Gorky Park. I think the main thing I’ve learned from all my favorite authors is that if you’re going to write about place, it can’t simply be a backdrop, it has to be deep in the marrow of your story, otherwise it’s fluff.
What’s next for Nayir and Katya?
My third book in the series, Kingdom of Strangers, is coming out in the spring of 2012, and it brings the Nayir and Katya story to a close. I really shouldn’t say more than that!
Thanks again for taking part in Scene of the Crime, Zoë.