Saudi sleuths on the case in ‘City of Veils’
Zoë Ferraris’s second novel, “City of Veils’’ is as fascinating and eye-opening as her first, “Finding Nouf.’’ Once again Ferraris delivers an adroitly plotted, fast-paced mystery set in Saudi Arabia, a location unfamiliar to most Western readers. Both novels provide a detailed look at some of the complexities of everyday life in that country, especially the startling challenges involved in being female in a place in which women are denied freedoms we take for granted. In Saudi Arabia women are, among other restrictions, required to cover their faces in public, prohibited from driving a car, and forbidden to associate with men who are not relatives.
Ferraris knows the country well. She lived in Jeddah with her former husband and his extended family of Saudi-Palestinian Bedouins. She uses her experience to illuminate the attitudes and beliefs that shape life in a closed society in which the strict interpretation of Islamic law prevails, where religious police have the power to arbitrarily arrest anyone for even minor infractions of religious law.
When the mutilated body of a young woman washes up on the beach in Jeddah, the police at first assume that it is another unsolvable murder, probably a housemaid killed by her employer.
But something about this murder strikes Detective Inspector Osama Ibrahim as different. Housemaids don’t usually wear Metallica T-shirts beneath their burqas.
“City of Veils’’ brings back two central characters from Ferraris’s first novel. Katya Hijazi is an independent-minded young woman, a forensic scientist who works in the crime lab at police headquarters. Nayir Sharqui is a Bedouin desert guide. The two work with Osama to discover the young woman’s identity and find her killer.
Skillfully, through her characters, Ferraris shows how the repressive Saudi culture limits the lives of men as well as women. Ambitious Katya must pretend to be married in order to keep her job. Nayir harbors intense romantic feelings for Katya, feelings that unsettle him profoundly. As a devout Muslim he is forbidden to associate with a woman who is not a relative, especially one who works with men and is therefore not a “good’’ woman. Osama prides himself on being modern, even willing to work with a female police officer. But his comparatively liberal attitudes are tested when he discovers that his wife has been secretly taking birth control pills because she would rather pursue her career as a journalist than have more children.
Although the victim’s face and fingerprints have been obliterated, Katya ingeniously manages to discover her identity. Leila Nawar was a rebellious young woman, a filmmaker known for making controversial documentaries that made her numerous enemies. Briefly married, then divorced, she lived with her older brother, the owner of a prosperous lingerie boutique, and his family. The brother and other relatives are shocked by the murder, and yet Osama’s female partner Faiza senses that they are lying.
In the course of their investigations Nayir and Katya meet Miriam Walker, an American whose husband, Eric, a security guard, is missing. His disappearance may be linked to Leila’s murder. Her last project involved working with a firebrand Muslim scholar, filming a controversial ancient Koranic text recently unearthed in Yemen. Miriam is clearly frightened. Despite his reservations about speaking to a Western woman, Nayir is moved by her fear and offers to help her. When she is kidnapped and taken to the desert, he follows.
Ferraris’s characters are compelling and utterly human. She is a formidably talented writer, whether she is describing the subtle nuances of Saudi romance, a terrifying desert sandstorm, a visit to a Saudi lingerie shop, or a public execution. “City of Veils’’ should appeal not only to mystery aficionados but to anyone who enjoys reading intelligent novels.
Diane White is a freelance writer in Georgetown, Ky., and can be reached at email@example.com.