(creator: Zoe Ferraris)
|Nayir ash-Sharqi is a pious desert guide who lives in Saudi Arabia. He is a Palestinian whose parents had died in an accident when he was still a baby, and he had then been raised by his unmarried uncle, Samir. This meant that he had no parents to arrange his marriage and, after his first and only love had decided to marry someone else, "his deepest fear was that he'd never marry". In a society in which women were not allowed out alone, and where the religious police might challenge any couple asking them for proof of marriage, it was very difficult for him to meet, let alone go out with, any prospective partner.
He is a devout Muslim. He "wasn't a Bedouin by blood, but he felt like one". He was a big and imposing man with a "tall and hulking frame," and a "deep, rough voice". He makes a determined detective.
Zoe Ferraris (1972 - ) was born in Oklahoma but in 1991, when she was 19, she had married a Saudi-Palestinian Bedouin whom she had met in San Francisco. After having a daughter, they went on a visit to Jeddah in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. She lived there in a conservative Muslim community with her then-husband and his family, a group of Saudi-Palestinians, for nine months. Subsequently they returned to the US and a year later she got divorced.
One of the strengths of the book lies in the convincing and intriguing descriptions of the Saudi Arabian background (the author quite rightly claims that there is "a lot of Saudi Arabia in the book"), as when we are told that "Saudis gave two and a half per cent of all monthly earnings as alms, a practice enforced by law. Every year some ten billion dollars passed from rich to poor." It is a society in which "When you married you were marrying a mother-in-law, sisters-in-law, nieces .... The husband didn't matter so much. He was never home anyway, and if the household was big enough they wouldn't see him even if he was home."
There are frequent quotations from the Quran such as, "The best of women, is the one who is pleasing to look at who carries out your instructions when you ask her." Nayir himself "rejected the idea of multiple wives. The Quran allowed four, but only with the provision that each wife be treated exactly the same, which was, to Nayir's way of thinking, another way of forbidding polygamy, because what man could treat four women in precisely the same way? Give them each the same attention every day, the same amount of money, the same number of children? The same kisses? The same sex? Any men with that much stamina obviously had nothing else to do." Eventually, when confronting the probable murderer, he characteristically suggests to the suspect, "Why don't you tell me what happened? The Quran says there is forgiveness for those who repent."
Another strength is in the characterisation of Nayir himself and his relationships with other people, including the attractive forensics scientist, Katya Hijazi, to whom he finds himself becoming increasingly attached. She suggests they go to "one of those family buffets where you can take an unmarried woman to lunch". When there, she raises her burqa, leaving Nayir wondering "how he would survive a whole lunch with her exposed face in front of him." For him, even glimpsing an ankle could be reprehensible, and, although "he had known Katya only a short time, already he was having licentious thoughts about her."
However, although the book gets off to an arresting start, the pace slows down and some of the descriptions, conversations and explanations are over extended, and the author does not go in for exciting action. But it is interesting how, by the end, the rather priggish Nayir realises that "the wall that held the strength of his beliefs" was crumbling as he began to feel sympathy for women who "felt trapped by their lives, by the prescriptions of modesty and domesticity that might have suited the Prophet's wives but that didn't suit the women of this world, infected as it was by desires to go to school, travel, work and have ever greater options and appetites. He tried not to feel that the world was collapsing, but there was nothing he could do, just watch with a painful, bitter sense of loss."
|In later versions, the white lettering was replaced by red and the figure made smaller to accomodate a quote, as shown below.|
|This cover is more eye-catching.|