Saturday, August 16, 2008

Noir/Mystery from Saudi Arabia: Finding Nouf, Zoë Ferraris

Reading Finding Nouf, a first novel by Zoë Ferraris, is something like reading science fiction, the culture described is so alien to an outsider. It also reminded me in some ways of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale. But it is indeed a mystery, though the whodunnit aspects of the novel are actually a smaller part of the impact of the novel than Ferraris's intimate description of Saudi Arabian life, told in the third person voice, in which not only the oppression of women is evoked in depth but also the pain and loss inflicted on men by that very same oppression. The central character, Nayir, is a Palestinian and devout Muslim who grew up in Saudi Arabia and has become a desert guide (aspiring, almost, to the intimacy with the desert exhibited by the Bedouin). He is unmarried, and at many points in the novel his melancholy over that fact is palpable (as when he sees a man with four wives). He in fact does not even know any women, partly a result of his status as an outsider with no family. When the sister of Othman, a wealthy friend disappears, probably in the desert, Nayir is enlisted to help first with the search and then with a private investigation into her death (when the family pressures the authorities to call the case an accident). Othman also enlists his fiancee, Katya, a half-Russian/half-Saudi who has flouted convention by getting a job in the medical examiner's office, to help in the investigation--a good thing, since Nayir will not be able to even talk to any of the women involved in the case. And it's really the extent of the gender divide, and the extent of its consequences, that are the most striking and evocative elements of the novel. Ferraris's delineation of the divide is compelling, leaving the reader open-mouthed or shaking his/her head at many points. The waste of human life that is a product of the oppression is also explicit, but at no point does the author or narrator preach. In fact, the devotion to Islam of Nayir is at the very center of the novel, and the changes forced on him by his experiences in the course of the investigation are more central to the story, really, than the solution of the crime (which, although believable, isn't as metaphorically satisfying as the character portraits and the picture of the society that Ferraris accomplishes). This is indeed a mystery, more than a thriller or a noir novel, in that Nayir and Katya are repeatedly going over the same meager evidence as they try to make progress (and their progress is very slow and difficult for the first half of the novel). But the atmosphere of repression, the portayal of the culture's rigidity and the small, marginal attempts to escape it by those individuals not fundamentally in support of it, create so bleak and unrelenting an image that the novel is darker than many gritty noir crime novels. At some points, the setting and the occasional entrances by Bedouins recall some of Paul Bowles's novels, particularly The Sheltering Sky and The Spider's House, though Bowles is concerned more with an outsider's experience of the culture and the desert (and is describing Morocco not Saudi Arabia); plus there is a mysticism in The Sheltering Sky that is mostly missing in Finding Nouf--The Spider's House delves more deeply into the daily life of an Islamic country than The Sheltering Sky, and the consequences for inter-cultural relationships (and is a much better book, to me--I find The Sheltering Sky a bit more of a young person's book at many points, and The Spider's House is much more subtle). Bowles did write a pretty good thriller, as I recall (Let it Come Down), but that was set in South America as I recall. Anyway, back to the point: Finding Nouf includes various outsiders including some Americans, but always from the point of view of the Islamic culture in which Nayir is immersed. Nayir's own growth (and the opening for Ferraris to create a series out of her characters) occurs in a comic thread in which Nayir acquires a Columbo-style trenchcoat (not exactly suitable for the climate but an outward sign of his new status) and in the interrelationship of Nayir and Katya, as he struggles to define his role with respect to a woman who doesn't conform rigidly to the sex roles enforced by fundamentalist Islam of the Saudi variety (and by dreaded religious police and informers who are practically everywhere). Some plot points that you think are going to turn into cliches instead become touching signs of Nayir's personal growth in relation to his religion and his awareness of women as people, and as I said before, these moments and the overall embodiment in Ferraris's prose of the terrifyingly strict rules and laws of the country are the real impact of the book. Although the oppressive environment may make the novel difficult to read, much less comprehend, for many readers, Ferraris's novel uses the crime/mystery genre to delineate the inside of a culture more thoroughly (because more complete in its portrait of women's position within it) than other recent crime fiction set in Arabic and Islamic countries. Yasmina Khadra is more concerned with a male point of view and with politics in his police novels, Matt Beynon Rees is more concerned with the intricacies of the particular Palestinian situation, Mehmet Murat Somer is more interested in the transvestite subculture within a Turkey that is at least constitutionally secular, and Abdelilah Hamdouchi is particularly interested in civil and legal rights of those caught in the judicial process. One novel that does capture the fundamentalist Islamic world in as frightening a manner as Ferraris is Moghul Buffet, by Cheryl Benard (also a woman and an outsider with, like Ferraris, intimate personal experience in the culture)--but Moghul Buffet is a wild and funny book rather than a subtle and intimate portrait. Finding Nouf offers the reader a cosmic shift of viewpoint, into a regime that is otherwise difficult to penetrate as either a traveler or a reader.

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