Uncovering life behind the burqa
An interview with Zoë Ferraris, author of "Finding Nouf" and "City of Veils"
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.