Uncovering life behind the burqa

An interview with Zoë Ferraris, author of "Finding Nouf" and "City of Veils"

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Zoë Ferraris was 20 when she met her Saudi husband. Just after the first Gulf War, the couple spent a year with his family in Saudi Arabia. Since returning home and divorcing, Ferraris has written two murder mysteries – "Finding Nouf" (Little Brown, 2009) and "City of Veils" (Little Brown, 2010) – which offer US readers a glimpse of life in a society where the sexes do not mingle. She recently spoke with Monitor book editor Marjorie Kehe.

You were born in Oklahoma. How did you end up with an insider’s knowledge of Saudi Arabia?

I was born in Oklahoma as an Army brat. I grew up all over the country. I ended up in San Francisco and that’s where I met my ex-husband [who was a Palestinian-Saudi Bedouin]. He had come here to study English and had just stayed for 10 years. He was a mechanic and he ran a garage here. We met through friends. I fell madly in love with him and I was also completely fascinated with Muslim culture in general. Growing up on Army bases in the 1980s, we had this idea that someday we were going to go to war in the desert. The Russians were the bad guys at that time but the Arabs were the mysterious next enemy. So there was this kind of mystique about Arab culture. And I didn’t know anything about it. So I kind of fell for the mystique. Being with an Arab man was like a front-level education. Everything became so real and so personal. I’m still fascinated by it, frankly.

Recommended: How much do you know about Saudi Arabia? Take our quiz!

Your main character is a Saudi male and your portrayal of him is quite a sympathetic one. Do you think that the world has the wrong impression of Saudi men?

I do. That was definitely my impression of Saudi men going over there, that women are oppressed and men are the oppressors and men have the run of the place while women are restricted to their homes. That was my big revelation going over there, that men struggle just as much with the segregation of the genders as women do, particularly when it comes to finding a wife. How do you meet a woman if you’re not allowed to talk to one? I met a lot of men through my ex-husband who were just looking for wives, who couldn’t meet a woman. I sympathized with their situation enormously. I think that is definitely something most Americans don’t think about. Another aspect of that is how difficult it was for married Saudi men to have a wife, because it’s a little bit like having a child: She can’t drive herself, she can’t go out by herself. If she needs to go to the doctor you have to come home and take her. If she wants to go to the store, you have to take her. You have to take her everywhere.

That’s something I never thought of until I read your books – how incredibly boring life must be for the women who must stay home all day. It must put a lot of pressure on their husbands.

Exactly. That is what my relationship became with my ex-husband. He would walk through the door and just be assaulted by me and his sisters – “Take us somewhere! We’re bored!” He was exhausted after 12 hours of work and all he wanted was for us to cook for him but we couldn’t cook for him if he hadn’t taken us to the store.

When you first moved to Jeddah, did you envision yourself staying? Did you think you could make a life for yourself there?

I did for a while. I didn’t go there to stay. We were just going to visit for two weeks, and we ended up staying for almost a year because his family wanted us there. I liked it there, but [the idea of staying] was more of a fantasy than a reality because I missed the physical freedom that I have in America so much. I think it’s wonderful to visit, but the restrictions are just too much for me.

Are there things that you miss about life in Saudi Arabia?

Yes, definitely. The people are so hospitable. This may be one of the positive things of women being home all the time – that there’s a lot of connectivity and community among women. Emotionally, you are very connected. I miss that companionship. In America, I’m a writer and I spend a lot of time alone. I need that but I kind of miss having people around all the time and really talking and spending time with people. [In Saudi Arabia] they have time to spend. Here, I meet my friends for coffee and we spend a couple of hours together, but really spending days and days with people as they do there is different.

What motivated you to write your books? Did you primarily want to write a thriller or were you more interested in offering readers a portrait of life in Saudi Arabia?

Definitely the latter. I really was surprised when I came back – and I shouldn’t have been, I didn’t know these things before I went – but I was surprised by the things that people didn’t know. For years and years I was feeling that I know so much and [most] people know so little and that would be very, very helpful to present that to them. The mystery novel stemmed from my main character [who is a conservative Saudi male] needing a really strong motivation to pry into the life of a woman. It required something like murder to get him to do that. But it was more out of wanting to paint a portrait of the culture for the average American reader.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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