Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Zoe Ferraris' Finding Nouf - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Reads a Book about Arabian Culture

Zoe Ferraris’ first novel, Finding Nouf ,  is a detective story.  Not my favorite genre.  It always seems that the author promises to have given you enough clues, but the critical element is withheld so that you can’t quite solve the problem on your own.  That is the case here, and the whodunit aspect feels familiar even to someone who doesn’t read many detective novels.  What the author is attempting, though, is something a bit more daring.

The book jacket tells us that Ms. Ferraris was married to a Palestinian Bedouin and lived with he and his family in Saudi Arabia.  Not a world that many westerners of any stripe, much less women, have access to.  The novel creates an unlikely detective team – two friends of the brother (Othman) of a Saudi woman (Nouf) who has been murdered.  The male friend, Nayir, a Palestinian whose desert guiding ways lead him to be perceived to be a Bedouin, is paired with Othman’s fiancée Katya, a woman who, though half Saudi, has a PhD in Chemistry and works in a CSI type lab.

The central relationship in the story, then is between Nayir, a devout, naïve, but not stupid man who is both the sympathetic mouthpiece for the fundamental Muslim views that define the traditional Saudi society, and Katya, who can empathize with Nouf’s wishes to escape a gilded birdcage that she, like other wealthy Saudi women, inhabit.  Katya is about to join the gilded group, through her marriage to Othman, but she has been caged her whole life as a Saudi woman. 

Ferraris paints what is, to my ear, a very sympathetic portrait of both protagonists.  Nayir is someone who is bound by a rigid code, lives by it, and is affected by it.  He is human, but tightly bound by moral strictures.  This neither prevents him from seeing the ways in which others exploit the system nor from being cynical about the motivations of other men, but it does create a vantage point of the possibility of someone internalizing a very strict set of guidelines and using them to keep his baser self in line.  He has, from a psychoanalytic perspective, a very successful neurosis.  His baser desires, despite showing up in his dreams, are well controlled and he strives to lead an upright, sober, and moral life and he is not totally out of touch with the internal struggles this creates for him.

Katya, too, is quite believable.  She is a proto-feminist in Arabia, though she has the advantage of a second-generation feminist as an author.  To my western ear, she is working from within the confines of the system to change it – or more precisely her place in it.  She carves out a reasonably free existence as a woman in a culture that is, objectively, quite oppressive of women.  She also cautiously and carefully helps Nayiz see the inherent conflicts in his position.

Nayiz, on the other hand, experiences his enlightenment as a violent reworking of all that is near and dear to him.  He feels the edifice that supports his worldview collapse beneath him as he reconsiders women as deserving of freedom and self-direction.

I am curious about Ferraris’ intended audiences.  Certainly we in the west are one of those audiences and, from a position of having survived some weird parallel shift – we live in a postmodern world, one that Freud helped us create, we can root for Katya as she tries to build a similar bridge to a brave new world in Arabia.  We can also appreciate the internal dilemmas, but also the inherent nobility of Nayir’s positions regarding women.  Perhaps Ferraris should take up writing novels about Christian fundamentalists for the rest of us to appreciate that approach as well!

But I am curious about how this will be read in Saudi Arabia.  Ferraris is described as having moved to Saudi Arabia “… to live with her then husband.”  A woman, an infidel, who no longer has a relationship with a man – unless he died – is an unlikely proselytizer no matter how good her prose.  But the dilemma of how to change a society is an interesting one.  One aspect of Freud’s genius is that he recognized that he was not talking about them – about the objects, his patients – but about us – about himself.  He discovered that he, himself was a hysteric with symptoms, an unconscious and a need to be analyzed.

Katya and Nayiz are both members of the Arabic society.  They are also projections of the author.  They are also likely based on observed individuals from the Arabic society.  I think it is likely more from the perspective of the flesh and blood Saudis who are reconsidering the role of women in their society that change will emanate and ripple, and that Saudi Arabia will have to have its own home grown Harriet Beecher Stowe – the little woman whom Lincoln credited with starting the Civil War through her sympathetic portrayal of enslaved Americans.   But Ferraris’ does, I believe, give us as outsiders an interesting glimpse, through her own outsider’s eyes, of the imagined inner workings of a people that seem, from a distance, to be quite foreign.   They become, through this text, familiar, known and even loved.  We can imagine our way into their world and find that it is not that dissimilar from our own.

P.S.  I also read “City of Veils”, Ferraris second novel, which continues the characters in new interactions around a new mystery.  Psychoanalytically, it continued the themes from the first novel.  As a mental health professional I was dismayed that, in an attempt to profile a gruesome killer, Katya considered the psychotic as a reasonable class of individual likely to have committed the crime.  This is not consistent with what we know about the frequency of crimes, particularly violent crimes, that are committed by the mentally ill.  In a book that is fighting stereotyping it was particularly disappointing to see the stereotype of the mentally ill as a menace being promulgated.

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