The stifling constraints placed on Saudi women form the grim backdrop for a second mystery from Ferraris (Finding Nouf, 2008).
A mutilated female corpse washes up on a beach near Jeddah. American Miriam Walker reluctantly returns to the city to rejoin husband Eric, whose disappearance later that night proves to be related to the murder. Assigned to the case is Detective Inspector Osama Ibrahim, a relatively enlightened Muslim. He is supportive of the women the Jeddah police department has reluctantly admitted to its ranks to interview female witnesses, since even police officers cannot be alone with an unrelated member of the opposite sex. When his associate Faiza is fired because she lied about being married (a prerequisite for employment), he’s willing to work with Katya, the medical examiner whose warming relationship with strict traditionalist Nayir was a central element in Finding Nouf. Katya (who’s also pretending to be married) brings Nayir into the case on the flimsy pretext that his knowledge of the Quran will help as she looks for the man who hired the victim, Leila Nawar, to photograph ancient Islamic manuscripts. Leila’s primary interest, however, was in filming hot-button sexual and religious material, a project in which Eric may have abetted her—and that guy sitting next to Miriam on her return flight probably had something to do with it too. The tangled mystery is of less interest than the stinging depiction of routine indignities inflicted on Saudi women, many involving the burqa they must wear to cover their faces; if they raise the veil to eat or see where they’re going, they face the hostility of men who believe an uncovered woman is an abomination. Nayir, more or less of that opinion himself, struggles to adapt his beliefs to encompass his growing love for Katya, while Osama grapples with the discovery that his adored wife is taking birth-control pills. Ferraris avoids demonizing all Saudi men, while unambiguously rejecting their society’s ingrained misogyny.
No final resolutions here, except to the less-than-gripping murder case, but a vividly detailed portrait of a modern land mired in medieval attitudes.