Zoë Ferraris’s Finding Nouf
is a 2009 mystery novel set in Saudi Arabia. The psychological narrative explores tensions between the sexes in a country ruled by an oppressive Islamic regime. Ferraris, native to San Francisco, lived in Saudi Arabia for several years after the Gulf War. There, she lived with her husband in a conservative Muslim community, and her experiences informed the development of this novel. Ferraris completed her MFA from Columbia University in 2006. This is her first published novel.
The narrative is told in the third person and alternates between the perspectives of the two central characters, Nayir al-Sharqi and Katya Hijazi. This dichotomy
in perspective allows the reader to see both the male and female point of view
, which directly support the novel’s prominent gender themes.
The story begins with Nayir al-Sharqi, a Palestinian desert guide, looking for his friend Othman’s missing younger sister in the desert. The sister, Nouf ash-Shrawi, is the 16-year-old daughter of the prominent Shrawi family. She disappeared three days before her arranged marriage. Othman asks Nayir to help because he has led many successful search-and-rescue missions before. Nouf has now been missing for 10 days, and Nayir can find no sign of her. Finally, he is forced to admit his mission has failed and returns to the Shrawi family empty-handed.
Not long after Nayir is back in Jeddah, a traveling group finds Nouf’s body in a wadi
, which is an empty lakebed in the desert. She is miles from Nayir’s base camp, and the Shrawi family asks Nayir to return her body to them. He agrees, ashamed that he had been unable to find her himself.
When Nayir brings Nouf’s body to the morgue to prepare for her funeral, he encounters a lab assistant named Katya Hijazi. Although Katya covers her face in Nayir’s presence, he is embarrassed by her boldness because she normally works without a veil and among men. This behavior is shocking for a Saudi Arabian woman, and Nayir is a pious man.
The coroner rules that Nouf’s death was an accident and the result of drowning. Katya disagrees, noting the defensive wounds on Nouf’s hands and arms. However, the case is quickly closed. The police refuse to investigate her death as a murder. In addition to the wounds, it is also discovered that Nouf was pregnant. Being pregnant while unmarried is a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. At her funeral, Nouf is buried in tradition with her back to Mecca so that the unborn child can face Mecca. Nayir sees this and realizes that Nouf was with child.
Later, Othman calls Nayir and asks him to lead a private investigator into the desert to look for clues surrounding Nouf’s death. Nouf’s family still suspects that she was murdered even though they paid off the coroner to dismiss the case as a drowning so as not to draw attention and dishonor the family name. They do not want it known that Nouf was pregnant when she died and decide to conduct a discreet investigation.
Katya also wants to continue investigating the tragic death. Othman asks her to process some samples she took before the morgue released the body. Nayir and Katya’s paths repeatedly cross, which isn’t easy for either of them. It is considered inappropriate for unmarried men and women to spend time together alone. Nayir learns that Katya is Othman’s fiancée and is surprised. It is also unusual for a wealthy and powerful family like the Shrawis to admit a woman who works among men into their circle. When he asks Othman about it, Othman explains that his family has allowed him to choose his own bride.
Nayir and Katya work together throughout the covert case, even though this makes Nayir “unclean” in his society’s eyes. Nouf’s pregnancy is particularly strange considering that she lived in the walled Shrawi family compound and spent her days flanked by women and bodyguards. Nayir wonders how she could have had a secret relationship, or even a single encounter, with an unknown man.
Nayir and Katya learn that Nouf regularly met someone unknown at an abandoned zoo and that she dreamed of escaping the restrictions of her family and her country for the freedom of New York City. That’s where her fiancé, Qazi, would have taken her on their honeymoon, and she would have attempted to run away while there. She had located an American man in Saudi Arabia with an apartment in New York and paid him to let her stay there until she got on her feet.
Othman was adopted by the Shrawi family and is not Nouf’s brother by blood. He and Nouf were in love, and he is the father of Nouf’s unborn child. Despite Nouf’s desire to escape the Islamic restrictions, Othman did not want to go to New York with her and start a new life. As Nayir and Katya continue their search for answers, some clues lead to Othman, but they do not brand him as the culprit. Nouf’s true killer is her younger sister Abir. Abir is in love with Nouf’s husband-to-be and is murderously jealous of Nouf’s engagement to Qazi.
In the end, Othman and Katya dissolve their engagement as he has never been in love with her. Now that Katya is not spoken for, Nayir realizes his affection for the courageous woman, and Katya feels the same about him. The book ends on a note of romantic promise for the two.Finding Nouf
received positive reviews from critics, although some readers criticized Ferraris’s portrayal of Islam as one-sided. The book won a Los Angeles Times
Book Prize and an ALA Alex Award. Ferraris wrote two sequels to this book, City of Veils
in 2010 and Kingdom of Strangers