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Monday, July 4, 2011

Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris

Finding Nouf was a Middle Eastern fiction I was able to find at my small town library. It was actually a really good story. Maybe bits here and there were contrived, but it really didn't bother me because I enjoyed the story.

I have very few complaints. I was a little put off at how quickly the conservative Nayir was interested in sticking his nose in the not-so-evident crime involving Nouf. The assistant examiner he had to have contact was a woman and his friend/ employer's fiance (he finds out later) that I hadn't expected him to want to get involved with (as in talking to, not romantically). Maybe this was because I hadn't yet gotten into the story. All in all, it was a slight interruption, but wasn't a big deal.

The other thing that stuck out as a flaw to me was the food was never really mentioned. Coffee and tea were often mentioned and that was essential, so I'm glad it wasn't left out, but I think descriptions of food seemed scarce. When we met the American at his house and food was offered, there was some elaboration. In the "families welcome" restaurant, "The Big Mix," the word lunch was used rather than any description of food. I realize food may have been left out because it wasn't the focus of the meeting, etc, but I think it's an essential detail to help us like the characters. What do they eat? What do they like? How does the food in front of them remind them of food from where they are originally from? How do the smells remind them of other experiences? It's an essential part of knowing the characters and it was missing a lot of the time. (Admittedly, the last fiction I read was Crescent, in which food was a major element- but, still!)

Also, it was handy that the main character's uncle happened to have some scientific equipment in his basement- a mass spec of all things and enough stuff to process crime scene samples. That was weird. And kind of unnecessary. Less obvious was Miss Hijazi's job as a tech in a crime lab. It made the story possible, moved it along, but wasn't contrived. It brought an element of women's lib to the table, so she was a great character.

As I mentioned, I did enjoy the mystery very much. I also enjoyed the glimpse into a slice of Saudi culture and the variety of people and attitudes that make up Saudi society. Royalty, the rich, the progressive, the truly and falsely devout, the religious police, vigilantes, Bedouins, and immigrants (the eye doctor and Nayir) were among those discussed.

Several subjects in Middle Eastern culture were woven into the story: hospitality; modesty; attitude toward Americans; helping the American would have been as bad as touching her skin; attitude towards immigrants- even from other Arab countries; contact between or segregation of men and women; women working- various attitudes about it; women driving, escorts/ drivers; concept of such constraints bringing on depravity they were meant to guard against; underground/ hidden brothels and bars; double standards such as it's not as bad to sleep with a non-Muslim prostitute as a Muslim one; there was an interesting but short discussion of the interpretation of the veil- what is should cover- face, bosom, etc (I'd never really heard that one before); there was some Arabic interspersed, which I enjoyed, but I could have done with more! Some of these I I was familiar with, a few were new, some I still didn't understand- all were well done.

I would definitely recommend it. The author is an American who was once married into a Saudi Palestinian Bedouin family. I thought the book was great considering this; I would still like to read more by Arab authors to compare and contrast treatment of various issues like women, religion, etc.

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