In FINDING NOUF, readers learned of the circumscribed lives of observant Muslims, especially women, in Saudi Arabia, the most restrictive of the Arab countries. Despite the strictures, Katya has been a lab assistant in the coroner’s office. Her family is not wealthy so work outside the home is a financial necessity. She has become more involved in police investigations , given more freedom and responsibility, with the help of Detective Inspector Osama Ibrahim, a modern man whose wife works for a newspaper.
CITY OF VEILS opens with the discovery of a woman’s mutilated body on a beach. Effort has been made to obscure her identity. Is she another maid killed by her employer who has no reason to be concerned that the death will even be investigated? Katya calls her Eve and she is determined that this woman will not be buried without her real name.
There is a parallel story unfolding in CITY OF VEILS. Miriam Walker, an American married to an American, is returning to Saudi Arabia after time spent with her family in the United States. Neither she nor her husband are Muslim but she knows that following the rules of Saudi society is a necessity in order that her husband not lose his job. Seated next to her on the plane is a man who introduces himself as Apollo Mabus. He claims to be an expert on the Koran but he frightens her somewhat when he is loud and vocal about what he refers to as mistakes in the Koran. Miriam knows enough about Saudi Arabia to know that what he is saying is dangerous. Her husband works for an American company but Miriam knows that Eric is being drawn further and further into the culture and the religion of the Middle East. He is becoming more Saudi than American and the culture of the country doesn’t take into consideration a person’s country of origin. As long as they live in Saudi, Miriam is a Saudi woman. Eric is late arriving at the airport and Miriam has to suffer the humiliation of being kept in a room labeled “unclaimed women” until her husband finally arrives. The trip from the airport to home is tense; when they arrive Miriam sees that Eric has made no attempt to shop and there is little in the apartment to eat. Eric leaves to buy take-out food at a local shop while Miriam goes to the roof to see how Eric has managed keeping up with the laundry. When she comes back to the apartment, there are trays of food on the table but no sign of Eric. He has disappeared.
As part of the police investigation of the victim on the beach, Katya has been encouraged to do what is necessary to discover the identity of the woman found wrapped in the burqa. Examining missing person’s reports, Katya discovers that she is Leila Nawar, twenty-three, divorced, and living with her brother who has reported her missing. She, too, is a woman with a job; she works for a news station filming background scenes as filler for stories around Jeddah. Neither her brother nor her employers know that she has a private project she is working on while she is shooting innocuous street scenes. Leila is interviewing prostitutes for a documentary about the lives of women who work in the shadows of acceptable Saudi society.
Gradually, Miriam’s and Leila’s stories come together. In FINDING NOUF, the lives of the women in the upper classes are presented. In CITY OF VEILS, the author presents the lives of the other women in Saudi society, women who not only hide behind the veils but are hidden by them. On one hand, the veils are a protection. On the other, they keep women anonymous and invisible; if a woman disappears, who would notice? Leila has made enemies as her videos document an invisible world of prostitution as well as the violence and exploitation of women behind the closed doors of the family home. These are well-guarded secrets that can destroy the fabric of lives bound to the rules of Islam.
Nayir and Katya are each trying to come to terms with the changes in Saudi society. Katya is trusted by Inspector Ibrahim and finds herself taking on more responsibility in the police department. Nayir is trying to accept that life behind the veil isn’t the only way a woman can be observant and committed to Islam, that the Koran recognizes that, “…who labors in My way, be it man or woman; each of you is equal to the other.” (page 389)
Nayir and Katya are wonderful characters and the series is enhanced by the introduction of Inspector Ibrahim. I recently discovered FINDING NOUF so it was very nice having CITY OF VEILS published so soon after reading the first book in the series. I am impatiently awaiting the third book in this enlightening and entertaining series.