Review: The Night of the Mi’raj by Zoë Ferraris

This book is also published as Finding Nouf

This is a difficult book to review because I had mixed reactions to different aspects of it. As pure storytelling I have one response but this is underpinned by a some doubts about the authenticity of the setting Ferraris has depicted and as these doubts, which might be unfounded, grew I think they affected my enjoyment of the story itself. As always though these are one person’s thoughts and if you don’t like them there are plenty of other opinions to be had.

When 16-year old Nouf ash-Shrawi disappears from the home of her wealthy Saudi Arabian family her brother Othman asks his friend, Palestinian born Nayir ash-Sharqi, to look for her. Nayir, often mistaken for a Bedouin, is a desert guide and is only too willing to assist his friend. Unfortunately though Nouf is found dead in a desert Wadi and the autopsy reveals she has drowned. What remains to uncover then is whether she ran away or was kidnapped. Nayir takes on the role of the family’s investigator but when Othman’s fiancée Katya Hijazi, a lab technician who assisted with the autopsy, also becomes involved in the investigation Nayir struggles because, being a conservative Muslim, he is not allowed to talk to a single woman.

From a pure storytelling standpoint this is an entertaining, if somewhat slow-moving novel, though probably not one for die hard crime fiction fans as it’s really not much of a mystery. However I think Ferraris’ intent is to paint a picture of the exotic location and society and the plot device of solving a possible murder was simply the most convenient way to achieve that end. It is hard to imagine for example too many circumstances other than the unexpected death of his friend’s young sister that would have prompted someone as conservative as Nayir to interact with a single woman in the way he ultimately interacts with Katya.

Nayir, Katya, Othman and even Nouf to the extent we learn about her after her death are thoughtfully depicted character studies. The competing desire to conform to their society’s strict rules and their frustration at having to do so is shown from both a female and male perspective which is unusual and worth exploring. The kind of claustrophobia that some people, women in particular, must feel in these surroundings especially when they have had some exposure to different cultures including less strict Muslim ones, was very well shown and the highlight of the novel for me. In particular the sad resolution to the mystery was very fitting in that it demonstrated what people will do when there are such limited opportunities for them to change their circumstances.

But on to my qualms about this book. Let me first state I am no expert on either Saudi Arabia or Islamic life but as I read the book I kept picking up on little details that didn’t sound right to me from my limited knowledge of the country and culture. Not only did this make me wonder what else might I be missing, but I couldn’t help but ponder if the book was doing less ‘lifting the veil on a culture we know little about’ and more reflecting back some entrenched stereotypes about that culture that westerners are largely comfortable with. If this is what’s happening I have no idea how much is to do with the author’s mistakes and how much might be due to publishers asking for changes that fit in better with the target audience’s existing knowledge but either way I didn’t fully buy into the story because of my perception of inaccuracy about some fairly fundamental details.

At one point for example there is mention made of a pious young girl who came to visit the family for a short time but has stayed for 2 years and repeated the Haj (or Hajj)12 times. The Haj is an annual event that happens during specific dates on the Islamic calendar and I think that even if the young girl had visited Mecca at other times (unlikely in itself) it would be called an Umrah. Another language discrepancy that I picked up was that the women were referred to as wearing burqas whereas the face covering in Saudi Arabia is of a different kind and is known as a nikab. Even more troubling though than these kinds of inaccuracies were things that I felt served no purpose other than to perpetuate some good old-fashioned stereotypes. The one that immediately springs to mind is when Nayir is pondering whether two particular men might be gay which serves no purpose whatsoever other than an opportunity for readers to be told what horrible things happen to gay people in Saudi Arabia.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that everything in the book is wrong or that I don’t have severe misgivings about the way women can be treated when the strictest interpretation of Islamic law is applied. I’m just not entirely convinced that this book, regardless of how good the story might be, adds much to the western understanding of the culture it is depicting.

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The Night of the Mi’raj has been reviewed at Mysteries in Paradise

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My rating 3/5
Publisher Little, Brown [2008]
ISBN 9781408700952
Length 357 pages
Format trade paperback
Source borrowed from the library

This entry was posted in book review, Saudi Arabia, Zoë Ferraris. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Review: The Night of the Mi’raj by Zoë Ferraris

  1. I read this book last year. In the US it was titled Finding Nouf. I recall liking it, but not loving it. Thanks for such a great, honest review.

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  2. I tried to read this earlier this year but never could get into it and gave up because there are so many other books to catch my attention. So, I’m glad you finished it and reviewed it for me! It seems like a book that people might really *want* to like, but have a hard time doing.

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  3. Bernadette – Thanks so much for this honest and thoughtful review. You brought up some important points about it that do make the reader wonder, so I’m glad you did. There is such a fine line between revealing a culture and contributing to stereotypes, and I think you’ve got that issue spot-on. The language issue, too.

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  4. Kerrie says:

    my limited experience of Islamic culture resulting from about 6 weeks in the Emirates told me that the details were pretty authentic

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  5. kathy durkin says:

    When I read this book, I liked it, although I questioned some stereotypes and assumptions, and wondered if the author was being even-handed and objective, although I do know that conditions for women (and others, too) in Saudi Arabia are tough. Dissent is crushed, there is not an assumption of democratic rights, the government is tough on many, including women.
    The second book in this series–“City of Veils” is even more eye-opening and depicts not only the lack of women’s rights, but a very oppressive criminal “justice” system without an assumption of basic rights for suspects and their relatives; this was jolting to me, in its depiction and severity.
    I aim for objectivity in viewing other countries’ governments and cultures, and opposing stereotypes, but even others from that region speak of the severe restrictions there for many.
    I can’t wait for you and other respected reviewers to read that and comment.
    On a lighter and happier note, I spent the last two days reading a book because you highly recommended it: “A Not So Perfect Crime,” by Teresa Solana, which finally arrived at my library branch. I read a few pages and was hooked. It is “delicious.”
    I haven’t gotten one “productive” thing done as I’m enmeshed in this lovely book.

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