Finding Nouf is one of ten winners of the 2009 Alex Awards for “adult books that will appeal to teen readers.” I read it a week or two ago before the award list came out, and I must say that I was impressed, although I didn’t think of it as an adult book or a young adult book. It’s shelved with the adult mysteries in my library.
Finding Nouf, although written in a genre, detective stories, that’s know for its plot-driven novels, is all about setting first, and then characterization. The plot is serviceable, but not what kept me reading. In fact, I had to look back at the book just now to remind myself whodunnit. The story is set in Saudi Arabia, where a Palestinian orphan, Nayir, and a young professional, Katya Hijazi, team up to solve the disappearance and murder of a rich Saudi sixteen year old, Nouf. Nouf happens to be the sister of Miss Hijazi’s fiance and Nayir’s friend, Othman Shrawi. And even though Nayir is uncomfortable with the mere presence of Katya Hijazi, a single woman, in the same room with men, and sometimes unveiled, he realizes that the tow of them need to work together if they are going to navigate the rules, written and unwritten, of Saudi culture and society and find out what really happened to Nouf.
The relationships of men and women in such a legalistic, religion-drenched society are complicated and awkward. Modernity is an influence, as is tradition, and both fight against the exigencies of just getting things done, like a murder investigation or even a simple meal. It was fascinating to read about how naive and ignorant Nayir was in the area of relating to women, and yet I wondered if men in our “open and free” American society understand women any better than Nayir does.
Zoe Ferraris, by the way, lived in Saudi Arabia with her Saudi-Palestinian husband just after the first Gulf War, although she is now divorced and lives in San Francisco.
LA TImes article about the book: “Now there is â€œFinding Nouf,â€ the fictional outcome of San Franciscan ZoÃ« Ferrarisâ€™ habitation in Saudi Arabia for several years after the first Gulf War. Even if that information had been left off the jacket flap, it would be readily apparent; only a writer with experience both as a part of and apart from Saudi culture could have crafted such a novel.”
At Talifoon by Zoe Ferraris (a short, but revealing, article about Ms. Ferraris’s life in Saudi Arabia): “Just after the first Gulf War, I moved to Jeddah with my husband. I didnâ€™t realize at the time that I hadnâ€™t married Essam, I had married his mother and the women of his family. The minute I arrived, they became my world.”
An interview with Zoe Ferraris: “The biggest revelation I had in Saudi Arabia was learning that men were just as frustrated by gender segregation as women were. My ex-husband’s best friend tried for years to find a wife. It surprised me to realize something that should have been obvious: if you’re not allowed to speak to the opposite sex, how do you meet a mate?”