Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris
Zoe Ferraris’ first novel, “Finding Nouf” has won wide acclaim for its incisive portrayal of a conservative Muslim man’s navigation of tightly rule-bound Saudi society as he tries to solve the mystery behind the suspicious death of a 16-year-old girl. And the novel has its own bit of a mystery: What compelled an Oklahoma-born, San Francisco-raised woman to capture a culture that for most Americans remains mysterious at best and threatening at worst?
“When Americans think of Saudi Arabian men, they think they’re abusers and they’re cruel, that they enjoy the gender segregation or enforce it,” Ferraris, 38, said recently at a Los Angeles hotel. “And sure, some of them do, but most just have to live with it.”
Ferraris felt drawn to portraying such a man. Her main character, Nayir, is a gruff but sympathetic Palestinian living in Saudi Arabia who avoids directly speaking to or looking at women. He’s unmarried, orphaned, sister-less, and consequently unfamiliar with the opposite sex – until he’s confronted with the murder of a friend’s sister, which requires him to team up with a young female forensic scientist.
Ferraris minutely details Nayir’s inner thoughts, such as when he first sees scientist Katya Hijazi: “He was surprised to see her first name on the tag – it should have been as private as her hair or the shape of her body – and it made her seem defiant. … He blushed again and turned away from her, trying not to turn completely but just enough to indicate that he wouldn’t look at her. The woman’s shoulders dropped slightly, which seemed to indicate that she’d noticed Nayir’s discomfort and was disappointed by it.” Their delicately waltzing interactions – punctuated with misread gestures and intent, with her exposed skin and his exposed reactions to it – make the book as much a study of a society tale as a mystery.
Ferraris met her future husband in San Francisco. He had come to the city from Saudi Arabia to escape an arranged wedding; an American woman would be a fine antidote, Ferraris thought, especially one who had surprisingly similar values.
They were married in San Francisco in 1991 when Ferraris was just 21 years old. During her visit to her husband’s home country, she was cloistered with his female relatives. Her mother-in-law disapproved of her son’s American wife. When out in public, Ferraris always wore the veil and traveled with a male escort. She still often ended up on the wrong side of the religious police because of her skin color. They would ask her to wear socks or gloves or just to stay home.
Still, she saw enough of Jidda to faithfully render it in “Finding Nouf”: the overbearing public art dotting the city’s roundabouts, the well-air-conditioned modern meeting places where women could forgo veils and a market selling unnecessary jackets to the showy Saudi rich.
But the reality of life in Jidda soon became suffocating, and she and her daughter soon left, eventually returning to San Francisco. Her husband eventually joined her in the U.S. for about a year before the couple divorced and he returned to his childhood home. He has had three wives by arranged marriage since – with some overlap. Ferraris, who remains close to him, notes his long-distance calls to complain about his new companions.
“Three wives,” she said laughingly. “I can’t imagine. After all the fuss that happened with me, just one wife.”