Customer Reviews: Finding Nouf: A Novel
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on January 3, 2009
As a western woman and a former resident of Saudi Arabia, who speaks, reads and writes Arabic, I heartily recommend Finding Nouf. In addition to its well-structured plot and stunning prose, I want to point out some of the things I liked about it since I lived in the city where the story takes place.

Several reviewers have noted that the city of Jeddah comes through as a character in the book, and I wholeheartedly agree. More freewheeling and less restrictive than the capital Riyadh, Jeddah is a behemoth-sized eddy in the current of humanity where eccentrics turn up and stay for decades. Ferraris has captured its spirit. She gently leads the reader into the home of a wealthy family, a modest walk-up apartment in the old quarter, "Club Jed" - a foreigners' compound, as well as markets, offices and restaurants.

She also walks the reader through the puzzling issues one faces when trying to negotiate daily life in that social system with its curious customs. Then she shows how it's common and even acceptable to break some of the rules, if it's done discreetly and for good reason. The book's pacing, too, rings true to me. That's how things happen there.

When writing about men and women in Saudi Arabia, it's easy for western writers to slip into a patronizing or judgmental tone. Author Ferraris' never does this. She respects each character and the dilemmas they face.

I found her supporting characters particularly authentic, such as Miss Hijazi's father, her driver or `escort', and the optometrist. They all reflect the fascinating jumble of humanity in Jeddah.

Most important of all, Ferraris' portrayal of Katya Hijazi is splendid. She's a fine example of sensible and intelligent young Saudi women who don't sit back complaining about the social system. Instead, they get the job done within the system and in spite of it.

Mabruk (congratulations) to Ferraris. Please bring us more adventures of Nayir and Katya.
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on July 14, 2008
Finding Nouf is an intriguing, often suspenseful murder mystery set against the backdrop of simmering generational differences in modern Saudi Arabian society. The two central characters, Nayir al-Sharqi and Katya Hijazi, represent opposite ends of the great divide between the older Wahhabist Sunni establishment and an emerging, decidedly less observant younger generation of Saudis. Their unusual partnership, entered into in order to solve the mystery, exemplifies some of the struggles occurring between older, traditional Arab men and younger, more liberated women relative to acceptable roles for women in society.

Nayir, actually a Palestinian, is almost a caricature of the pious Muslim. Despite the bonds imposed on him by restrictive Saudi society, he longs for romance and struggles to reconcile his need for companionship with his strict adherence to Sharia law. Interestingly, he seems to chafe against those oppressive bonds, particularly as they restrict his ability to work with women. Even making eye contact with a woman causes him great angst. As a result of this personal torment and the baggage associated with a previously failed relationship, Nayir is in a sort of self-imposed romantic exile - living a Spartan, reclusive existence on a sailboat in Jeddah harbor.

Katya by contrast represents the newly empowered younger generation of Saudi women entirely comfortable in their hard-won independence. While complying with such government-enforced customs as remaining covered from head to toe in public, Katya reaches considerably higher professionally than many Saudi women - even earning a Ph.D. Employed as a medical examiner, she spreads her wings in investigating a murder that strikes uncomfortably close to home - the home, that is, of her fiancé. Nevertheless, she is both patient and determined in her quest to solve the crime and bring the perpetrator to justice.

Finding Nouf is loaded with twists and turns as Katya joins forces with Nayir in a sort of Sarah Sidle (CSI) meets Columbo. To this odd couple of an investigative team Katya brings knowledge of modern medical forensics while Nayir brings a dogged persistence combined with ample experience in good old-fashioned gumshoe detective work. Their diverging points of view give way to a productive, though at times uneasy, professional collaboration, and their disagreement regarding traditional male and female roles eases into a casual social relationship. Yes, they even go on a date - though Katya (predictably) brings her obligatory (and omnipresent) escort.

In Finding Nouf, Zoe Ferraris quite deftly captures the struggles occurring in modern Saudi society today while at the same time entertaining the reader with a genuine whodunit in the desert. What make this story so compelling is the author's depiction of the challenges of living in a closed, devoutly Muslim society and the effect those challenges can have on members of that society. Particularly for younger Saudis who are perhaps more susceptible to the lure of Western freedoms and, the Saudi government might argue, immoral behaviors characteristic of more permissive Western societies, the restrictiveness can be stifling and might even drive Saudi citizens to extremes of behavior.

Those individuals had better hope that Nayir and Katya are not investigating them. With these two sleuths on the case, their secrets will not remain secret for long!

Well worth the read!
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on August 25, 2008
Despite the fact that the Middle East's role in world affairs increases as each decade passes, most Westerners have only a hazy comprehension of the region's culture and its people. And, ever since the chain of events that began with the September 2001 murders in New York City, what we do know is largely distorted by the media coverage that tends to deal almost exclusively with the terrorist segment of the Muslim world. That makes a novel like Finding Nouf, one that tells its story through the eyes of ordinary Saudi citizens trying to do the right thing despite the constraints of Saudi Arabian society, one of the more intriguing books of 2008.

When sixteen-year-old Nouf ash-Shrawi disappears from her wealthy family's isolated home, it is at first hoped that she has simply run away, perhaps suffering a bad case of nerves about her impending marriage. But an examination of her body after she has been found dead in the desert leaves little doubt that Nouf has been murdered and Nayir ash-Sharqi, a family friend and desert tracker who failed in his quest to find her before she died, feels both the guilt of that failure and a responsibility to determine exactly what happened to the girl.

Nayir finds a ready ally in Katya Hijazi, a lab technician who, like Nayir, is a friend of the Shrawi family (she is the fiancée of Nouf's adopted brother, Othman) and who has been asked to keep an eye on the official investigation into Nouf's death. But Katya is more than Nayir, a strictly religious Palestinian who has had only limited contact with Saudi women, knows how to handle. He finds her aggressiveness and willingness to display her face in all but the most public of venues to be shocking, especially when he learns that she is engaged to his good friend, Othman.

But even more shocking to Nayir is his realization that Katya's personality and behavior make her so attractive to him that he has to continually remind himself that she is to be married to his best friend. Part of the charm of Finding Nouf is watching the relationship between Nayir and Katya evolve during their investigation into one of mutual respect and affection, something that neither could have dreamed would ever happen.

Nayir and Katya link their individual skills in a way that slowly uncovers the facts surrounding Nouf's disappearance and death and, although what they find brings them dangerously close to disturbing truths about the Shrawi family, they remain determined to bring her killer to justice. Zoë Ferraris has created two very likable amateur Saudi sleuths who deserve a sequel, a hope that the book's ending seems, in fact, to encourage.

Finding Nouf is a fun mystery that, along the way, allows the reader a look at ordinary Saudi citizens and their relationship to each other and to the wealthier class. It explores both the formal and informal relationship between Saudi men and women and wonderfully illustrates the pressures felt by both sexes in a society willing to deal out harsh punishment to those not strictly observing the sexual mores of Islam and Saudi Arabian culture. Zoë Ferraris has written a first-class mystery but what makes it special is the unique setting in which she has placed it. This one is not to be missed.
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on December 4, 2011
I wish I could give this book more than 5 stars. In the beginning you know that Nouf is missing and most likely dead. The Palestinian desert investigator, Nayir, initially is not the most likable character, seeming to be a rigid and judgmental religious fanatic. He meets Katya, a technician working in the coroner's office, who is a much more liberated and free thinking Muslim woman. The story continues with their joint and separate investigations of Nouf's death. The investigation is hampered by Nouf's very wealthy family who don't seem to want the truth to come out. The investigation itself makes for a very interesting story, but what makes it a five star plus book is how the author brings to life the struggles of everyday Saudi citizens to live within strict Muslim law. Nayir becomes much more sympathetic as you realize how conflicted he is between his desire to have a relationship with a woman and his religious beliefs. Katya has her own difficulties as her beliefs are much more liberal than the law allows. Following the two of them through their travels around the city and with their visits to Nouf's family, we get a vivid picture of everyday life in Saudi Arabia. It's fascinating to read about what the young women want to wear under their modest robes and the freedom many of them desire. By the end of the book, some of the outcome was predictable and there were some definite surprises, but it was a very satisfying conclusion. I can't recommend this book highly enough as both a very enjoyable story and a wonderful way to better understand a culture that is largely foreign to us.
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on August 12, 2008
I LOVED this book. Everything about it speaks to Zoe Ferraris's arrival as a major (and enormously talented) novelist. I especially enjoyed the developing friendship, cooperation and love between Nayir and Katya (the novel's two principal characters) as they work to solve the murder of 16-year-old Nouf, the daughter of an ultra-rich Saudi family. (Nayir, by the way, is a *WONDERFUL* male protagonist who strikes the perfect balance between masculine strength and tenderness.)

Praiseworthy as well are Ferraris's magnificent descriptions of the city of Jeddah and the Arabian Desert (which, through the author's lyrical detailing, become not just settings, but characters in and of themselves). One of the novel's best passages, for instance, tells of Jeddah's bestial heat and how the city is so hot that the rubber soles of Katya's sandals melt and stick to the concrete.

Also worth mentioning is Ferraris's skillful crafting of Nouf as a complex and enigmatic character. For, although her murder is heartbreakingly callous and brutal, Nouf herself is not particularly sensible or sympathetic (at least she wasn't for me). And yet it is through Nouf that the novel gets its name, tone and direction ... and that Nayir and Katya find each other.

Finding Nouf is not just a fictional glimpse into everyday life (and death) under Saudi Arabia's strict Islamic laws. It's also a phenomenally well-written view into how hatred, jealousy, passion, deceit, sex, humor, and love function in that society because (and in spite) of those laws. Finding Nouf is one of the best novels I've ever read, and it's one of the best summer reads I've had in a LONG time. Major kudos to Zoe Ferraris, and I look forward to reading her future books.
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VINE VOICEon July 25, 2008
Imagine a new novel, let's call it "A Passage to America," which purports to be a "trenchant portrait of American society." The action is set in New York City, where a young woman may have run away into the hinder land, or been murdered, in a place no more than an hour from her home, but the investigator is told to confine his search to "radii extending outward" from Peoria. One theory is that she may have taken an "overnight bus" to Mexico City. Her family is quite rich, typical of people located so close to Wall Street; they have their own island, connected by a causeway, two kilometers out in the East River. Being typical Americans, they have a stable on the island filled with horses, which they can all ride, just like the Marlboro man bringing his Christmas tree home in deep snow. America is truly a sex-obsessed society, and virtually all married couples swap partners nightly. All the wives are blondes, with pendulant breasts, in the best Bay Watch fashion. And if they are not having sex then they are killing someone, which is what cowboys normally do. A few people in deep back waters outside the United States believe these stereotypes hold for all Americans.

I just finished a great novel, Wallace Stegner's "Angle of Repose." A deep, true inquiry into the human condition, with honest human interactions, in settings depicted with careful accuracy. Would Stegner have had his leading protagonist, Susan Burling, fly back to the East Coast in the 1890's?

In Ferraris's novel you have numerous errors in time and place. As Sulayyil is no where near Jeddah; it is impossible to take an overnight bus from Jeddah to Muscat; the Saudis do not allow "rich Europeans" to make archaeological digs searching for the tomb of Abraham; there are no islands two kilometers off the coast near Jeddah, especially not ones surrounded by steep cliffs (p23). First prayer call occurs much before first light, and for sure, save for the month of Ramadan, young women are not shopping at that hour, nor are any shops open! (p51) A medical examiner could not have flown from Riyadh, and have been examining the body before the protagonist, Nayir, arrived at the morgue. The above is just a very small sampling, all within the first 100 pages, but even in outright fantasy books, there should be the discipline of internal consistency; early in the book we learn that the cause of Nouf's death is drowning in the desert, yet on page 91 we are told: "In Jeddah it rained once a year, for approximately five minutes if they were lucky." They are also drilling for oil near Jeddah, and not in the Eastern Province, where it is located.

Far more troubling than the wild pastiche of time and place are the human interactions. They ranged from the truly impossible, to the highly improbable, to the very unlikely. No Saudi family, rich or poor, would hire another Saudi, totally unrelated to be a young woman's "escort." In fact the entire concept of an "escort," as opposed to the accompaniment of a male family member is totally alien to Saudi society, yet both Nouf and Katya had one, doing the most improbable things. In the real world of Saudi Arabia, if a Katya wanted to go to an optometrist, she would have had her driver taker her there, and she would have gone in herself. There would have been no need for a related or non-related male to accompany her. No professional Saudi woman, who in her work environment did not wear the burqa, would suddenly put one on because a male was displeased. (p13). The free-lance "detective," Nayir, wonders how Nouf might have learned how to drive a car, yet never wonders how she might have learned to ride a camel! The most hackney cliché is of course the answer: they are all "camel jockeys." No rich 16 year-old Saudi woman can ride a camel - in America at least, some 16 year olds can ride horses. "The punishment for having sex out of wedlock - for even being caught with a single woman...was a public beheading."(p 83) Pleeeze! In another scene, Nayir, the Palestinian "detective," in civilian clothes, accompanied by Miss Hijazi, a Saudi wearing a burqa, somehow gain access to a Western compound, walk up to a Western resident, and inquire about the another Westerner, Scarberry. `"Do you know the address?" Nayir asked. "We're investigating a crime and we need to ask him a few questions." "Sure. He's on Peachtree." The man gave him the directions and the house number.' Pleeeze! In reality the Westerner would have challenged his identity, and given him no information. Nayir somehow manages to waltz his way through the entire novel, with people in the most improbable situations opening their hearts to him and "trusting" him. Hussein, Othman's father, who is a guest worker from southern Iraq, somehow brings his six year old son to the Kingdom without his mother. In reality, the child would have been left in Iraq, with relatives, like all other guest workers do (p175) All of the above is only a small sampling of the improbable to impossible.

As a particular pet peeve, during Ms. Ferraris brief stay in the Kingdom she apparently learned what a "miswak" is, and the term appears repeatedly, yet she never learned that the Saudi "robe" is called a thobe.

For those, Saudis and expatriates, who are familiar with the actual life in the Kingdom, it would be a useful exercise to expand the partial lists above.

It has been only a few months since the "Love and Consequences" book fraud was revealed. The circumstances are similar, a book is hyped, receives a wide assortment of positive reviews, yet no one, the agent, the publishing house and its editors, or the reviewers challenged the book's authenticity. It took a truthful sister to reveal the scam. There is a difference however. L and C claimed to be a memoir, "Finding Nouf" is a novel - but does that mean "anything goes"? Aren't the best novels, the ones that really should be hyped, authentic, truthful to the time and place, and insightful of the human condition?

The promoters should at least be embarrassed. They can decide to be angry at the "truthful sister," as was often done on the L and C fraud. Or they can take the far more constructive approach, and ponder how something like this could happen yet again. Does anyone who "reviews" these books, or loans their name to a blurb, actually READ the book? And if so, do they always set their critical faculties aside? There was a subset of people who claimed that they did not care that L and C was a fraud, it was still a "fun read." No doubt, some will take the same approach to "Finding Nouf," but please do not think you will obtain "unparalleled insight into (Saudi) daily life" or that the book "yanks the veil off of Saudi Arabian culture." The book is a profound measure of our willingness to accept the wildest caricatures of those who "live on the other side of the river."
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on October 3, 2008
This is the book that I have recommended most, in recent months. Although it follows a standard detective procedural format, it delves into Saudi culture in a way that few novels can. The protagonist is intriguing, because his traditional Palestinian-Bedouin attitudes should be repugnant, but are treated respectfully, and help contribute to the reader's understanding of Arab society. The lives of wealthy Saudi women (especially those with traditional Bedouin origins) are portrayed sympathetically and convincingly.

I hope that this is the first in a series of detective novels featuring the desert guide, and the medical examiner, as protagonists.
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on February 16, 2009
I have never taken the time to review a book on Amazon, as I generally read novels that have benefited from many reviews or already are on best seller lists. I make an exception for this book, a sleeper that deserves attention. It is well crafted, written, and paced, delivering an intriguing plot with complex characters. The book is not easily characterized -- it is equally a mystery, an insight into Saudi culture, and a reflection of how humans can develop and change. It is highly accessible, grabbing readers from the first few pages with the plot and then completely winning us over with the two main characters. The prose is beautiful, capturing a sense of place and time and reflecting the tensions of modern day Saudi Arabia. I could go on...but suffice it to say that three family members read this: my Mom, who likes character driven stories; my husband, who is a hard core mystery junkie; and I, who read all sorts of genres. We all loved it -- but for different reasons. This book is well edited -- it efficiently packs in a great story, interesting characters, insights into foreign cultures, and a lot of images and questions that we readers will think about long after turning the last page. I hope we see more from Ms. Ferraris.
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on April 28, 2012
I couldn't finish this book, the plot was simply too boring. However, the reviewers complaining about the inaccuracies of the depiction of Saudi social life seem to be apologists for the unequivocally appalling treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. To a woman in a free society the nikab rather than a burqa is a distinction without a difference. Not surprisingly the apologists appear to be men. Complaints about geographical inaccuracies seem equally unreflective. You better sit down for this news boys, but in Conan Doyle's time there was no 221 Baker Street, B or otherwise.
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on October 31, 2009
I enjoyed this book, but not because the murder-mystery was well written. It wasn't. In fact, I know who did it halfway through the book.

What I did enjoy about the book was the portrayal of life. I knew some about the gender issues, but never thought as to how they would affect life - especially when it comes to investigating the murder of a young woman. There are so many barriers and the investigator would have to be incredibly crafty, especially if he was not working in any sort of official capacity.

Really fascinating from that stand-point, and I very much enjoyed Katya's character. Strong woman and well portrayed.
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