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Author: Zoe Ferraris
Publishing House: Abacus
I've a hunch that Ferraris watched Peter Falk in 'Columbo' wearing rose-tinted glasses. I half-expected every paragraph to end off with the banal cliff-hangar - "and one more thing...!" The problem is you do not get women detectives in Saudi Arabia, let alone any who smoke Cubans, and wear khaki long raincoats in the heat. Ferraris would've been better off writing a biographical styled book based on her experiences in Jeddha - that incorporated Muslim women's role in Jeddha and their politics. Consulted the culture chiefs of Jeddha and started on a different tact, to convey an oppressive message. Instead Ferraris experience is trivialised under the content genre of 'fictional crime, thriller'. She chose this because her capitalistic greed overrode more important issues, such as the Muslim 'equality question' - which got lost under the Arabian sand crater. Ferraris got married to a Saudi Muslim twenty years ago and lived in Jeddha for only nine months, she subsequently divorced, and wrote about her time there many years later. Much of the time Ferraris lived in Jeddha which was literary under her spouse's family's tyrannical cultural traits. She was literary confided to doing menial women roles, so her 'actual' Muslim culture first-hand knowledge is decidedly sketchy, therefore the book is highly assumptive: 'City of Veils' illustrated this perfectly.
The toxic cultural contrasts of liberated West and the offensive confinements of Muslim Saudi rule has all the hallmarks of intrigue and 'greatness', if dealt in the correct tone, language, and genre - sadly all of the above failed. Plot-wise the murder of a women film-maker and the disappearance of an American man are hardly ground-breaking, but the circumstances has fascinating cultural frictions, the plot-lines / inquires delivered viable investigative patterns. And yet the main investigation was done by no police officers or detectives - alas, done by a forensic scientist Katya Hijazi and a desert guide Nayir ash-Sharqi, who evidently wanted a dalliance with the head-strong forensic scientist. Although, notably eager to learn of the mind of the murdered victim; an educated young women - Leila Nawar, whose background was affluent, 'Women's lingerie' and yet her dissidence towards the Qur'an in the making, on film - laid-out emotive after emotive which in Muslim culture could be deemed justified to commit murder - Nayir struggled to configure the realities of the case, simultaneously he struggled with his own Muslim emotive towards Katya; she's a women in a man's world. Meticulously sifting through forensic evidence and making important decisions, other than what was for dinner, and what coffee shop to eat in. Ferraris thought process here does fail me somewhat, this doesn't emulate her own experience in the early 1990's on the simple basis that Saudi-Palestinian Jeddha would not of had Wifi access in coffee shops I could put it down to a creative license, however, the fact she wrote the book during the emergence of global coffee-houses in these sorts of Muslim districts there is evidence Ferraris has joined the two decades up - hence why Jeddha appears to be a place of contradictions and detailing vagueness. The genre of the book is fictional the time-line and placement has to be consistent with the author's consciousness, it fails miserably.
'No place like Oklahoma, eh, Ferraris'
In 'City of Veils', Ferraris has opted out, altogether - for the sake of continuing the gravy train book feast that came before: Finding Nouf (2008) and thereafter 'Kingdom of Strangers' (2012). Nayir has appeared more than once in Ferraris books, in the same vein, delving into young girl murders. A common theme - perhaps a form of Ferraris therapy! If you're wondering where the biography comes in - Enter the American lady called Miriam Walker, she's a vulnerable women whose husband has disappeared - this is a vivid account of how western women would feel in a foreign culture whereby women are second-class citizens. Eric Walker allegedly has connections - Americanism filtering into Muslim culture doth not bare well, Eric may've popped off in search of an American burger, albeit 'Walker's American Burqa flavour' is the likely analogy - 'No place like Oklahoma, eh, Ferraris!' Miriam's despair in wanting to find out the truth behind her husband's disappearance is foiled via male domination, cultural cul-de-sacs, and gender discrimination - generically a culture that treats women with contempt. If anything the book is a sequel to the film; 'Shirley Valentine', who fell head-over-high-heels - (forgive the tmesis) - for a man who can't properly 'speakings her langu-iish'.
Ferraris is an American author - albeit, her style of language in descriptive terms is undeniably uncouth in regards to the Muslim culture. She reminds me of belligerent child who has verbal diarrhoea or playing with a transformer in a mosque. As 'Columbo' would say: "and one more thing... doncha think the term 'baby-doll' is grotesquely wrong to describe a male Muslim... Mam!" Now if the recipient was a 1 foot tall plastic object and was made by Walmart, the description will be viable - as Muslim's are disenchanted with capitalistic threads I can see why Ferraris's Americanisms divorced her from the Saudi-Palestinian culture. The book has many melanges of inaccurate phrases that'll be deemed as very disrespectful to a devout Muslim. Small naiveties from an author, fuels the fire that angers the Mohammed Atta's of this world. Ferraris's prevalent women characters from deep within Islamic states aren't a flag for woman-kind but a stab in the back for western values. 'City of Veils' is written predominantly for the west, to misinterpret, just as Ferraris has via her notes from being young women in a foreign land. I don't think she's necessarily brave for living under the wing of an oppressive culture and automatically it gives you a valid pen to relay a culture's damnation. Ferraris isn't a patch on the Swedish writer Larsson, you couldn't get bigger contrasts, in regards to style and credibility. This isn't duly because I disbelieve that women are treated under a tyrannical culture - however, I find it tough to relate to a 'Columbo' crime fictional link. 'Columbo' has nothing to do with Muslims and the Saudi-Palestinian state? 'Columbo' is fiction - and the restricted freedom of women in Saudi-Palestinian rule is a reality. Never the twain should meet.
The book is proof that Americanism rewards writers whom stoke up the fire to create a neologism i.e. "Islamophobia," 'City of Veils' is designed to install a criticism of Islam - Zoe Ferraris was indeed the chosen one, whose books continue to feed disingenuous propaganda for a profit. Try researching material for five years before writing a book on the subject again Ferraris - far too many Americanisms on a delicate subject - requires a decent edit.©1st2thebar 2013
What would you do if one minute your husband was there, the next he had vanished from your house? Run out into the street to seek him? Call around his friends? Contact the police? Miriam Walker, an American woman living in Jeddah, has no idea what to do when just minutes after collecting her from the airport her husband, Eric, disappears. Partly because she never goes out alone and therefore doesn't know her own neighbourhood, and partly because her vision is hampered by her burqa, she doesn't know where they parked when they got home, only that it was a nearby street. In a country where women are expected to be shadows, how can Miriam find out where her husband is?
At the same time the Jeddah police are investigating the murder of a young woman found washed up on the shore. Horribly mutilated, it's assumed at first that the woman is just another housemaid, there being so many that end up dead, but Katya, a persistent forensics officer discovers her identity and, for lack of women in the Saudi police force, takes a more prominent role in the inquiry. The victim, it turns out, was a young film maker called Leila who was interested in highlighting issues around women's rights in the country. Could this controversial project have led to her death?
On the front cover of my paperback edition of "City of Veils", the Independent's Joan Smith describes Zoe Ferraris's novel as 'truly original, modern crime fiction at its very best' and I can't disagree. I read oodles of crime fiction and, although this novel isn't perfect, it is quite simply the most original thing I've read in the genre for years. I picked it up because of the setting, unaware that it's the second in a series, but it sits well as a stand alone and there's just enough of the background to quickly get to speed with the characters and how they've come to be where they are.
Superficially I'd have said I knew what Saudi Arabia is like and I knew well enough how women are treated and how they are expected to behave but I'd never really stopped to think about the implications that has for living a 'normal' life. You often hear people talking about the strict laws of the countries of the Middle East; the premise that you'll be alright as long as you follow the rules is one that's commonly heard but Ferraris shows here why that isn't as easy as it sounds, particularly in Saudi Arabia. When Eric goes missing Miriam finds that being a woman in Saudi Arabia is even more difficult than she had thought before. Eric hadn't wanted to live in a compound with other ex-pats so the couple had rented a house in a less than salubrious area of the city. Unable to travel indepedently, Miriam has to rely on taxis to take her to her husband's place of work, a male dominated office where nobody wants to help her.
Katya is a rare example of a woman working in the male dominated Saudi society. Interestingly women do work in the Saudi police force, but only really because convention dictates that men should not be carrying out autopsies on women or interrogating female witnesses. However, to be able to work, Katya has to let her boss and colleagues believe she is married. She doesn't lie outright but she allows them to believe that her friend Nayir is her husband. Ferraris doesn't have to shout to make her point; time after time the reader is shown more ways in which Saudi society is so unfair and contradictory. The dead girl was the sister of a wealthy businessman, the owner of a successful high end lingerie shop. No women work in a shop that is selling intimate items of clothing for women. A recently enacted law had stated that only women could be sales assistants in such stores on the grounds that it was improper for men to be discussing such matters with women who were not their wives; however, the law had been largely ignored because men had argued that, women being forbidden from going out shopping alone, it was men that bought most lingerie on behalf of their wives and that it would not be right for women to be serving them in a shop.
Refreshingly several of the male protagonists are depicted as fair-minded progressive individuals even if they struggle to put their beliefs fully into practice. Nayir was, for me, the most interesting of all the characters. He's in love with Katya but fears that a subconscious remark he made has pushed her away for ever. When Katya asks him to help with the investigation he hopes that he can persuade her to forgive him. However, it won't change the fact that Katya is a modern, working woman, something that the rather conservative Nayir struggles to accept. On the other hand, Katya's boss, Osama, a man who believes himself to be very forward-thinking and understanding of his wife's wish to have a career, has to ask some searching questions when he discovers why his wife hasn't produced a second child.
As fascinating as all this is, "City of Veils" is a crime fiction novel and for the main part it's gripping, well executed stuff. The investigation into Leila's death is a clever and competent police procedural that relies heavily on forensics and I liked that way that the investigation is influenced by what is practical and acceptable under Saudi conventions. Another cover note claims that the novel offers 'competition to Stieg Larsson from an unexpected quarter'; he's an author increasingly cited in book reviews but other than the tenuous connection that both authors feature strong women at odds with the world around them, it's hard to see how the claim is relevant.
My heart sank a little when some copied papers showing pages from the Qu'ran are found during the investigation into Leila's death. For a moment a 'Da Vinci Code' looked on the cards and the story headed down a path that focused too heavily on the history of the Qu'ran. For some reason this element of the story tails of unexpectedly and though I was grateful for this in terms of my own interest, it is a short-coming of the novel that what is given so much weight is inexplicably abandoned. One could also argue that the characters are a little too introspective, spending rather a lot of time in self anaylsis; certainly Ferraris has gone to town on setting the scene and presenting the contradictions of the cultural norms though, personally, I found this expose of Saudi society, especially the domestic sphere, totally rivetting.
Ferraris knows Saudi society; she lived for a time in a very conservative society in Jeddah and during that time she became well acquainted with what is a society with well known but hidden truths. What I appreciated is the way she describes not only the rules by which women are forced to live, but the ways in which young people are using modern technology to circumvent them. I've seen for myself rows and rows of young people chatting with the opposite sex in internet cafes in very conservative parts of Turkey but even I was amazed when Katya discovered Leila's bluetooth burqa.
I'd recommend 'City of Veils' to anyone who enjoys reading about other cultures, especially Islam. The crime element is secondary and readers who focus mainly on crime fiction might find this one a little flawed; however I would say that the distinctive and unsual setting does add a highly original slant which more than makes up for the faults. Needless to say I bought the previous novel as well as the follow up to this one. It's safe to say I'm hooked.