City of Veils by Zoë Ferraris

I wondered several times during The City of Veils if I could read another Nayir Sharqi mystery after this follow-up to the mesmerizing Finding Nouf. The oppressive Saudi culture and the unforgiving interpretation of Islam that requires subjugating women sets a haunting and desperate tone that is almost unbearable. I wince at the thought of spending more time in the wet, stifling heat of Jeddah and with its suffocated citizens.

Yet, this is a brilliant and irresistible work of literary crime fiction. The characters are full and complete individuals, despite the deadweight of Saudi culture mores. Beneath their abaaya, some Saudi women are pushing back, at great risk to their lives. They pursue education and careers, reject traditional marriage, and lift their burqua to reveal their individuality.  Their defiance is a very lonely pursuit, but together these women are exposing the weaknesses in the armor of conservative Islam.

Perhaps more remarkable is the author’s nuanced portrayal of men in contemporary Saudi culture. Nayir Sharqi, a pious Bedouin guide, is bewildered by his attraction to lab technician Katya Hijazi, whose independence and ambition verge on blasphemy. Detective Osama Ibrahim is proud of his successful wife, Nuha, and their seemingly equitable marriage, but his confidence as a progressive husband is shaken when his wife acts on her own to preserve her independence. It is, in fact, the American men who behave most callously and carelessly toward women, using Saudi culture as an excuse for neglect and betrayal.

As crime fiction, there are classic and familiar elements. Nayir Sharqi, desert guide turned investigator, is a solitary and reluctant hero. Like many of his Western potboiler counterparts, he suffers from addiction; not to drugs or alcohol, but to a conservative interpretation of Islam. Katya provides us with the perspective of a police insider. She is a patient observer, seeking mentors in her colleagues who unwittingly guide her clandestine investigations. Her sweet and cooperative attitude belie the spine of steel she needs to advance, nay, survive in this regimented society. Jeddah, on the Red Sea, and the desert just outside its borders, are vivid and multi-dimensional characters that Ferraris reveals to shattering effect.

The premise of the crime, its investigation and resolution are brilliantly and originally crafted. Ferraris’s writing is less fluid and more direct than Finding Nouf, but the story is stronger. Ferraris flashes literary genius of great depth; the sandstorm in the desert was one of the most breathless, tense and engrossing scenes I have encountered.

The stage is set for a continuation of this series. I wonder how Ms. Ferraris will continue to develop her characters in a regime that deliberately stifles individual growth and reflection, one that forces men and women into an artificial division of thought and a literal division of social interaction. I hope that the author doesn’t write herself into a corner, confined by the strictures of Saudi Islam. If anyone can write her way out of these constraints, surely it is she.

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