A Conversation With Zoe Ferraris

The American mystery writer who's just published her second thriller set in contemporary Saudi Arabia

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Nayir Sharqi is a Bedouin-Palestinian desert guide living in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah. A pious and conservative Muslim, Nayir remains unmarried at age 30, largely because the religious strictures he observes make it almost impossible to have direct contact with women. Yet in "City of Veils" (Little, Brown; 395 pages, $25 ), the second murder mystery by writer Zoe Ferraris, Nayir once again finds himself working alongside medical examiner Katya Hijazi to resolve the brutal killing of a woman, whose disfigured body has been found in the water at a Jeddah beach. Nayir and Katya first collaborated in "Finding Nouf," published by Ferraris in 2008, in which they successfully unravel a crime. They also discover mutual feelings of attraction that only make their relationship more awkward, and that remain unresolved at the end of that book.

Zoe Ferraris

Ferraris, 40, was born in Oklahoma, but as the daughter of a U.S. army officer, she lived in a number of different countries - none of which, however, was in the Arab world. Her knowledge of Saudi Arabia came from her marriage to a Saudi man in the early 1990s and a brief period in which she lived there shortly after the First Gulf War. Although the couple divorced a short time later, and Ferraris returned to the United States, the couple had a daughter (now 19 years old) and she and Ferraris have gone back to the country for visits.

While Ferraris writes about the Saudi theocracy with the critical eye of a liberated Western woman, this doesn't prevent her portrait from being affectionate and subtle. Leila, the victim in "City of Veils," is a documentary filmmaker whose subjects are invariably the sexism, exploitation and hypocrisy of her fundamentalist society. Despite her independent spirit, she is materially dependent on her brother, who owns a large and successful lingerie store in Jeddah. And by depicting the image of Leila, for example, that emerges during the investigation as that of a provocateur more interested in ruffling feathers than in effecting real social change, Ferraris creates a narrative with additional shades of gray. The plot is further complicated by the presence of Miriam, a hapless American woman who has accompanied her former army officer husband to Saudi Arabia, where he intends to make some quick money as a private bodyguard, but finds himself going native. Connecting Leila and Miriam in yet a third subplot is a shady scholar out to prove that the Koran is not authentic.

Haaretz spoke with Zoe Ferraris from New York, where she was visiting family.

You haven't lived in Saudi Arabia for nearly 20 years, and even then it was for only a brief period. How are you able to create such a convincing portrait of the place?

My "experiences" come from people that I know, particularly my in-laws, who remain my primary source for understanding Saudi society. And from talking to people all the time, hearing stories and learning about the dynamics of relationships. But I don't feel that I totally know or understand it. What I feel is that there's so much that Americans don't know, and so much they need to know - namely the basics, like how people live, and basic rules and customs. These are things that most people don't have a handle on. So my primary aim has been to open up the door a little bit.

When you open that door, you reveal a land with a lot of darkness. Have you incurred angry reactions from official Saudi Arabia?

There's been no official reaction to my books, as far as I know. I've seen articles in papers, in Dubai and other countries, that have been favorable. The response has been: Oh look, an American is writing about the Middle East in a real, even sympathetic way. Apparently you can buy my books in Saudi Arabia, in English that is. It sort of surprises me that you can buy them, but there hasn't been any official censorship of me. As far as the reactions I get by mail and in comments on my web site, some people say, wow, this is very sympathetic. And there are people who say: This country [Saudi Arabia] is horrible, and you've exposed the grossness of it.

Do you read Arabic?

I used to speak much better. For the past two years, I've been studying the formal [literary] language, known as Fus'ha. Now it's sort of rusty. I want to continue with it. I am planning a trip back to Saudi to study the language.

You have a subplot in "City of Veils" that includes a discussion about the authenticity of the Koran, and whether it was divinely written. Isn't that the sort of subject that has gotten other writers in big trouble?

? It's a sensitive subject, of course, but that's what interesting about it. My victim - Leila - was interested in exposing or at least discussing taboo topics. And that's the most taboo topic I can think of. I was a little wary about it. But I think I've handled it well. It's not Salman Rushdie material.

And did your publishers - or their lawyers - make you delete or change anything?


And no threats?

No, I haven't had any threats. And as far as I know, my publisher hasn't either. There was a book, "Jewel of Medina," a biography of the Prophet Muhammad that, I believe, got pulled from the shelves because of [anticipated] reaction from the Muslim world. It's a disgrace that there's no tolerance for a retelling of the story.

Do you have experts who help you keep your books accurate?

Yes, definitely, I tend to consult with lots of different people. I have a few Arabic instructors whom I consult with consistently. My publishers also have their own fact checkers.

You picked an interesting time to write about the subject of women in Islam. How do you see the situation, generally?

That's a broad question. My sense is that most Muslim women are on the fence, honestly, about the burka. It's part of their cultural and religious identity, and there's something galling about having someone tell you not to [wear] it. On the other hand, wearing a burka is annoying, it's not natural, so one can easily think, let's get rid of it. Among the women that I know, most are ambivalent, and I'm inclined to agree with those mixed feelings. I wouldn't wear it in America, but I do wear one when I'm in the Middle East. I'm glad that it's become an issue of debate, as it has opened up a discussion worldwide. But suddenly a bunch of women who might not have been asking questions will decide, yes, I will do it.

There are plenty of Muslim countries where plenty of women don't cover themselves. I meet Muslims who are newly arrived in America, and they say that U.S. Muslims are especially radicalized. There's a real polemic about it here, with people insisting on it as a matter of identity. Many women get pushed into a corner to cover their heads.

Covering one's head doesn't necessarily have to be a sign of religious piety, does it?

Not necessarily. I think some do it for solidarity, and for identity. I don't think it's a purely fundamentalist statement. Basically, though, it's about modesty. And the question is how much of that virtue of modesty is in your life. You might see a knock-out gorgeous woman in a burka, and belive me, there's no modesty involved there.

How can you be gorgeous wearing a burka?

The cloak is hanging open. It isn't necessarily form-fitting. But she can be wearing high heels, fingernails are done, and she's wearing make-up, a gorgeous wedding band. Her hair is hanging fashionably out. So, the parts that are showing are what you look at.

Ironically, being obsessed with modesty seems to be the flip side of being obsessed with sex. Is that how it felt in Saudi Arabia?

Yes, that's how it felt. That I as a woman have to cover up because you as a man have no control over yourself. Why is the woman the first thing to be covered up? Why should men not have to govern themselves? There are men who become obsessed with not breaking the rules. But can you look at me and not think of sex right away, and not have a sexual reaction? In the end, covering up sort of encourages that reaction from a man.

In your books, there seems to be some vagueness about the rules. When Nayir sat with the American Miriam in the new book, was he breaking the law?

Technically, yes, he was breaking Sharia law. I heard about a couple at an amusement park and religious police demanded to see a marriage certificate. And the man fainted. Definitely, people worry about it, and maybe they don't know what the national law actually is. You'll be dealing with the religious police, and they're not everywhere all the time, but they are frequently on the streets.

Was there an event or an individual that served as the kernel for the plot of "City of Veils"?

Leila, the victim. I wanted to create this character who is fascinated by her own society and goes into every corner and exposes things. She was the kernel. Also the lingerie industry.

How's that?

Well, I read all these articles in the Arab News about changes going on in Saudi because the clerics didn't like men staffing lingerie stores. Women come in to discuss panty styles and bra sizes with a bunch of strange men. But the clerics were in a pickle, because they didn't want women working outside their homes. Yet lingerie is a huge business. So what are you supposed to do about lingerie stores? I remember, when I lived there, my sisters-in-law would visit a store and return home with a big bag filled with lingerie that they were going to try on.

In Saudi, you can test-run your lingerie?

Yes, they would come home with clothing they hadn't paid for. And they'd have 24-48 hours to try it out. I don't know if shop owners would even keep track of what they had lent out. There's a lot of trust in that.

You've said that you based the character of Nayir on three different people. Tell me about them.

One of the three has gone on to have some tawdry tabloid life experiences of his own, and today is nothing like Nayir. One is now a radical fundamentalist and living here in America. The third one got married to a mail-order bride, who ended up being a gold digger, while he ended up in prison. By the way, I've never really told them they were the inspiration. I think they might not recognize themselves.

Do you like Nayir?

I like him a lot. He's very close to my heart. I've thought about why that is. He resonates for me. I think he's somewhat like me. He's romantic.

David B. Green



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