One of the best books I read in 2010 is FINDING NOUF by Zoe Ferraris. The author was married to a Saudi man and experienced the restrictions faced by females of all ages in the strictly male-centric society. This review was originally posted on August 6, 2010.
Nouf ash-Shrawi, a sixteen-year-old girl from a prominent family, disappears three days before her wedding. A truck and a camel disappear as well. Othman, Nouf’s brother, asks his friend and desert guide Nayir ash-Sharqi to lead a group into the desert to find her. Nayir has led many search-and-rescue missions into the desert and they have all ended successfully but after a week with no sight of Nouf, truck, or camel, he has to concede defeat and return to face the Shrawi family and admit his failure. Soon after his return to Jeddah, Nouf is found dead by a wandering group of travelers. The family asks Nayir to return to the desert to bring Nouf home.
Nayir brings Nouf’s body to the mortuary where he witnesses a dispute between the coroner and a lab assistant, Katya Hijazi. Nayir is horrified to be in the presence of a woman who, although her face is covered in his presence, works without a veil among men.
The coroner rules Nouf’s death an accident; she was found in a wadi and she drowned. These accidents are not uncommon in the desert when sudden storms turn the dry river beds into rivers of swiftly moving water. But Katya disputes his findings, pointing out defensive wounds on Nouf’s hands and arms. When it is discovered that Nouf was pregnant, her death becomes something more.
Only Othman shows interest in having Nouf’s death investigated as a murder and, again, asks Nayir to find the truth. The Shrawi family has such power and influence that the case is closed at their request. But Katya Hijazi isn’t willing to let the murder be ignored either. Nayir and Katya soon find their paths crossing as they go about their separate investigations, separate until Nayir learns that Katya is engaged to Othman; Nouf was to be her sister-in-law. Nayir is shocked that the Shrawis, one of the richest families in the kingdom, are willing to admit a woman who works among men to enter their family circle but Orthman explains that his family has allowed him to choose his own bride, a stunning decision at their level of society. Nayir is a strictly observant Muslim but he feels, in some way, an obligation to Nouf and Othman and he agrees to learn as much as he can about Nouf and the secret lives of women in Saudi Arabia so he can bring comfort to Othman, the only member of the family who grieves for Nouf.
Together Nayir and Katya, in different ways, try to learn how Nouf, surrounded by women and bodyguards, living in a walled estate once owned by a Saudi prince, could have had any time alone with a man. The lives of men and women within the same family rarely blend. Nayir feels his soul may be in jeopardy as he talks to women, especially Katya, about Nouf. Together they learn that Nouf had meetings with someone in an abandoned zoo, that she was convinced that she was going to escape from the confines of Saudi society, and that she was going to make a life in New York City. When Katya refuses to give up her search for answers, her engagement to Orthman is ended. Nayir refuses to give up when Orthman’s insists that Nouf’s death no longer matters, risking his spiritual life for the sake of a girl he never knew.
FINDING NOUF is the story of a teenager who wants more than her religion and her society will allow her to experience. The great wealth of her family doesn’t broaden her horizons and expand her experience of life but, instead, contains her within a wall that is impossible to breach without serious consequences.
The world of women is a world that a man like Nayir, an orphan with only an uncle as family, cannot comprehend but he puts his spiritual life at risk for the sake of Othman, a friend. Nayir is strict in his adherence to the rules of Islam but he is Palestinian and, as such, he is less than a Saudi. His soul isn’t as important and as an outsider, despite his family’s deep roots in the country, he is less than his Saudi friends.
The lives of women in Saudi Arabia, one of the most rigidly gender-segregated and gender- biased countries in the world, are hidden from sight behind walls and behind veils. Author Zoe Ferraris has lived in Saudi Arabia and was married to a Bedouin. She knows the customs and rules that keep women hidden from the real world and the real world hidden from them. Marriages are arranged and grooms make promises to their brides-to-be that will never be honored. Before the wedding, the women are promised travel beyond Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. The men bolster their promises of a wider world by purchasing jackets for their brides’ trousseaus. No one needs a jacket in the Saudi climate. They remain a sign of what might have been in closets filled with designer clothes.
Women rarely leave Saudi Arabia, confined to lives of afternoon visits with other women who have nothing to do in the course of their days. They are too rich to have to work, too protected to engage in discussions of world affairs, especially those of their own countries. They are assigned drivers when they are children (it is against the law for a woman to drive) and they are assigned male protectors when they come from behind the walls of their estates. Religious police prowl the streets looking for couples who should not be together, couples that are not married. The punishment for breaking the religious laws is death by beheading. If, after making his ablutions, a man sees a woman, even veiled, as he makes his way to the mosque, he must return to his home and perform the ablution rite again before he can he can pray among other men. He becomes unclean by seeing a woman who is by nature unclean. The world of women is a world that a man like Nayir, an orphan with only an uncle as family, cannot comprehend.
The book is fascinating, a bonus when the book, as a compelling mystery, stands on its own.