Envisioning herself as a Saudi man

Times Staff Writer

Zoe Ferraris’ Ukrainian American grandmother thought her so spoiled that she would only marry a sheik. But Ferraris, then a San Francisco teen, didn’t quite catch her meaning.

“I thought it was some fairy-tale punishment, having to marry a sheet, having to do all the [house] work,” Ferraris said. “When I did get married, she said, ‘I told you so.’ ”

Ferraris married not a sheik but a middle-class Saudi Arabian, who, upon hearing the story, good-naturedly accepted the “fabulously wealthy oil baron” stereotype. But neither grandmother nor granddaughter could have predicted the couple and their young daughter’s two-week visit to Saudi Arabia would end up lasting nine months, or that it would inspire Ferraris’ first novel, “Finding Nouf.”


The book has won wide acclaim for its incisive portrayal of a conservative Muslim man’s navigation of tightly rule-bound Saudi society as he tries to solve the mystery behind the suspicious death of a 16-year-old girl. And the novel has its own bit of a mystery: What compelled an Oklahoma-born woman to capture a culture that for most Americans remains mysterious at best and threatening at worst?

“When Americans think of Saudi Arabian men, they think they’re abusers and they’re cruel, that they enjoy the gender segregation or enforce it,” Ferraris, 38, said recently at a Westwood hotel. “And sure, some of them do, but most just have to live with it.”

Ferraris felt drawn to portraying such a man. Her main character, Nayir, is a gruff but sympathetic Palestinian living in Saudi Arabia who avoids directly speaking to or looking at women. He’s unmarried, orphaned, sister-less, and consequently unfamiliar with the opposite sex -- until he’s confronted with the murder of a friend’s sister, which requires him to team up with a young female forensic scientist.

Ferraris minutely details Nayir’s inner thoughts, such as when he first sees scientist Katya Hijazi: “He was surprised to see her first name on the tag -- it should have been as private as her hair or the shape of her body -- and it made her seem defiant. . . . He blushed again and turned away from her, trying not to turn completely but just enough to indicate that he wouldn’t look at her. The woman’s shoulders dropped slightly, which seemed to indicate that she’d noticed Nayir’s discomfort and was disappointed by it.”

Their delicately waltzing interactions -- punctuated with misread gestures and intent, with her exposed skin and his exposed reactions to it -- make the book as much a study of a society tale as a mystery.

Ferraris met her future husband in San Francisco. He had come to the city from Saudi Arabia to escape an arranged wedding; an American woman would be a fine antidote, Ferraris thought, especially one who had surprisingly similar values. They were married in San Francisco in 1991 when Ferraris was just 21 years old.


Ferraris had traveled widely -- first as a child of an Army colonel hopping from base to base, later in a high school exchange program to Germany -- but she had never been to an Islamic country. During her visit, she was cloistered with her husband’s female relatives. Her mother-in-law disapproved of her son’s American wife. That it was shortly after the Gulf War didn’t endear her to anyone. She kept quiet enough that her mother-in-law assumed she knew no Arabic.

When out in public, Ferraris always wore the veil and traveled with a male escort. She still often ended up on the wrong side of the religious police because of her skin color. They would ask her to wear socks or gloves or just to stay home.

“They would tell me nicely, ‘You’re too white to be out,’ ” she said. “My mother-in-law thought it was because white skin is considered the most beautiful, so it’s even sexier and more seductive.”

Still, she saw enough of Jidda to faithfully render it in “Finding Nouf”: the overbearing public art dotting the city’s roundabouts, the well-air-conditioned modern meeting places where women could forgo veils and a market selling unnecessary jackets to the showy Saudi rich.

And Ferraris found many similarities between her own upbringing and life in Saudi Arabia.

“I often thought that growing up in the military was a lot like growing up as an Arab. Culturally there were similarities, like marrying young and having lots of kids and being nomadic, but still having a very regimented life.”

As a teenager, Ferraris said, her “big dream was to be a mom.” Security and stability, not college and freedom, were her goals, and her husband shared them. Even in Jidda, the dawn summons to prayer didn’t bother her, because it reminded her of waking up to reveille.


But Ferraris was also pulled by the nontraditional and unfamiliar about him. “I think there was a desire for exoticism, and in a sad way, he was that. . . . This whole world opened up, and he was capable of conveying it to me without it being dry and academic. It was real, and present.”

But the reality of life in Jidda soon became suffocating, and she and her daughter soon left. “The lack of physical freedom was really frustrating,” she said. Women there, she said, “either spit in the face of it, or find a way around it. It forces aggression or cleverness.”

For Ferraris, it forced a return to San Francisco, after finally growing tired of her mother-in-law’s inopportunely timed “heart episodes” that delayed each impending departure. Her husband eventually joined her in the U.S. for about a year before the couple got divorced and he returned to his childhood home. He has had three wives by arranged marriage since -- with some overlap. Ferraris, who remains close to him, notes his long-distance calls to complain about his new companions.

“Three wives,” she said laughingly. “I can’t imagine. After all the fuss that happened with me, just one wife.”

After coming back to the U.S., Ferraris worked odd jobs that led to stints living in Italy, New York (for an MFA at Columbia), Los Angeles, and finally back to San Francisco, where she and her daughter, now 17, live.

Ferraris initially hesitated to write from the perspective of a Saudi man, worried about questions of authenticity. Her first crack at writing a novel was a straightforward mystery, set in Saudi Arabia, told from the perspective of an American woman. It had “car chases and interrogation scenes -- everything but a nuclear bomb.”


But when an agent asked her to edit out the lone supporting Muslim character, Ferraris realized he fascinated her most. The next draft had him at its center.

Now, she’s resurrecting her first mystery tale, and has a memoir in mind of her time in Saudi Arabia. Her sojourn in Italy has inspired her to write a historical novel about Arab influence in Salerno. And she has already wrapped up a young adult fantasy novel, which she described as “Patrick O’Brian’s navy stories meets ‘Star Wars.’ ”