Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Novels of Zoë Ferraris: a Window on Life and Change in Saudi Arabia

One of my great joys is finding a book that is engrossing, educational, and illuminating all at once.  If that book is part of a series, so much the better because it means that there are more joys to come.  I just finished such a book.  Kingdom of Strangers by Zoë Ferraris, is the third in her series of mystery novels set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. 

Kingdom of Strangers
The series starts with Finding Nouf and the second book is City of Veils.  They feature Katya Hijazi, a Saudi woman who holds a job in the city’s forensics lab by dint of lying about her marital status, as single women are not allowed to work in the Kingdom.  Her counterpoint is Nayir Sharqi, a Bedouin man who takes citified Saudis on trips to the desert so they can get in touch with their past.  While the novels are technically mysteries, they are also a wonderful exploration of the culture of Saudi Arabia, its laws and customs, and the changes that are taking place despite the opposition of the religious establishment and other “traditionalists.”  They even include a glossary of Arabic terms. 

Ms.  Ferraris knows her subject because she was married to a Palestinian Bedouin and lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with her in-laws in a conservative Muslim community. While I was aware of the restrictions Wahhabi Islam places on women, it is still a shock to see how they affect people in the course of everyday life.  And “people” means the men, as well, because the laws affect their daily life.  That impact goes beyond giving permission for a woman to leave the house or arranging for her to have a driver.  What a man does in public with his eyes, his hands, his voice, can get him in trouble.  Both men and women always have to think of these things as the religious police are on the lookout for violations.  It must be exhausting to be constantly thinking about one’s virtue, even as a woman is covered from head to toe and a man can be arrested for even walking down the street with a woman who is not his wife or a family member.   

Saudi Arabian culture must change for it to truly come into the 21st century and, as I said in yesterday’s post, change can come from many directions. Sometimes it results from outside pressure: in 2012, a Saudi woman, Sara Attar, participated in the Olympic Games for the first time, running track while fully covered.  

Sarah Attar at the Olympic Games
Sarah Attar
 Sometimes it comes from within:  Saudi women have been openly driving cars to protest the official ban on women behind the wheel.  Sometimes it even comes from the top in one of the most restrictive country in the world for women.  Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, last month appointed the first female members to a top advisory council that is similar to a parliament.  That one big step was quickly followed by restrictions to placate the mullahs. “The 30 women named to the 150-member body will be required to wear proper hijab, or covering, and will have a separate entrance and section within the council's main chambers.” 

The Kingdom has also limited the powers of the religious police, officially known as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.  Adding to this radical change, the extremely conservative commission is about to hire women for the first time in the Kingdom’s history, although they will not be given the same jobs as men or allowed to drive the official Commission cars.

I would have found all of these changes just interesting information had I not read Zoë Ferraris’s three novels.  Now they are real and immediate and important because I have spent time with a Saudi woman and experienced her daily life.  If you enjoy this kind of novel, I highly recommend all three books and I look forward to reading many more. 

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