CITY OF VEILS by Zoe Ferraris

Book Quote:

“One of the things about seeing Katya was that afterward, he felt plagued by indecision. Should he go to the mosque or pray at home? Was it all right to watch an hour of satellite TV? With Katya, he was confronted with an obvious, nagging inconsistency: it was immodest and wrong to be in the company of an unmarried woman.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman (AUG 9, 2010)

There have been many literary mysteries written and many books about the plight of women in repressive Saudi Arabia, but I have never read an author who is able to so seamlessly weave these threads together to create a potboiler thriller that sizzles with knowledge.

Set in Jeddah – seemingly one of the more liberal cities of Saudi Arabia – the core of the story focuses on a burqa-clad and tortured body of a young woman on a beach. Three stories are interwoven: a whodunit story of how she got there and who perpetrated such violence on her…the story of forensic scientist Katya and her would-be suitor Nayir, a Bedouin guide, who is crippled emotionally by the yokes of his religion…and a vanished American expat Eric Walker, whose wife Miriam finds herself bereft in an alien culture where women truly have no face.

What makes City of Veils stand out is its nuanced and highly intimate portrayal of a woman’s life in a repressive and paranoid country…where women’s faces are shielded, voices are silenced, and lifestyles are infantilized.

Ms. Ferraris – who herself moved to Saudi Arabia with her now ex-husband and his extended family of Saudi-Palestinian Bedouins – has a voice that rings with authority. Some of it is unwittingly humorous: the husband Eric, for example, has a name that translates to a part of the male anatomy, and therefore is renamed Abullah while at work. But most of it is frustrating and heartbreaking. We read, for example, about women’s mini-rebellions, as they hide Bluetooth devices inside their burquas, which send the message, “Do you want to see my face?” Or the quagmire of lingerie stories: women cannot interact with the male proprietors of the stores; therefore, the government allowed women to work in these lingerie shops. Only one problem: the religious police are convinced women should be tending to their homes and babies, not working or shopping.

Ferraris shows that this repression is not just a woman’s problem; it’s a man’s as well. Osama Ibrahim – the fair and liberal police investigator – believes his marriage is a strong one until he discovers his wife has been surreptitiously taking birth control pills. And Nayir, who was featured in Finding Nouf, is numbed down by the love he feels for Katya, all the while knowing she may not be such a “good Muslim woman,” and how can he possibly marry an infidel? Being in a car with a woman who is not his wife is excruciating for him: “This was the worst kind of weakness because there was nothing he could do about it…short of kicking her out of the car.”

On one level, City of Veils has all the dimensions of a first-rate crime story; its eventual denouement in the scorching and unforgiving desert would make a stunning and crowd-pleasing movie. Yet on a deeper level, the book shines its laser-eye on woman who must be resourceful to even feel human while simmering inside, and the men who are raised to fear them and place a lid on their own human desires and compassion. City of Veils does what sometimes seems to be impossible – lifts the cultural veils off and looks gender segregation right in the eye.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from54 readers
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (August 9, 2010)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another author who sets mysteries in the Middle East:

Matt Benyon Rees


August 9, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Middle East, Mystery/Suspense, World Lit

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