In City of Veils, Zoë Ferraris, who lived in Jeddah as the American wife of a Palestinian Bedouin, explores the interpersonal problems of men and women in Saudi Arabia’s traditional culture.
How has your presentation of life in Saudi Arabia developed since your first novel, Finding Nouf?
I wrote City of Veils to give a broader view of the country, because there’s so much going on there. The people are trying to adapt Western ideas and trends while cherishing their Islamic traditions. For example, in a beauty pageant in Riyadh, women are judged on their moral beauty—how they treat their parents, and so forth. Yet young people’s musical groups like the Spice Babes! perform to huge outdoor crowds, and the religious police can’t do anything about it.
What seems to be responsible for more relaxed attitudes in Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis Western culture?
Young people are becoming more open, because technological advances like cell phones, FaceBook, and Bluetooth have made communication easier and virtually unstoppable.
How then do today’s devout Muslim men and women deal with the strictures of shariya law, especially concerning relations between the sexes?
Many devout Muslims are torn between their faith and their desire for a family. It’s hard for men to find wives when they’re not supposed to speak to unmarried women. My amateur sleuth, Nayir, is closest to traditionally devout, but he yearns for a wife. Katya, who surreptitiously helps Nayir, is closer to the center because she believes in Islam but passionately wants her own career. Another character, Det. Insp. Osama Ibrahim, is more representative of Muslims I knew; he allows his wife to work, but he’s still bound by embedded biases, like his vehement rejection of birth control.
Do you see changes coming soon in the traditional Islamic attitude toward women?
There’s a huge push in Saudi Arabia to liberalize ideas about women, even though, as with any dramatic attempt at social change, there’s also a substantial backlash. Saudi women are now willing to go to jail for the right to drive cars, which is forbidden under shariya law. As women age, too, many become more liberal. Older women don’t have to cover their faces because they’re no longer considered sexual objects.
How should Americans view devout Muslims ?
Their drive is to preserve their national pride and religious traditions, not destroy ours. The United States, with its heritage of welcoming immigrants and benefiting from their contributions, should think of Muslim newcomers as a small colorful thread in its immense national tapestry.