x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Kingdom of Strangers: bodies pile up in the Saudi desert

Zoë Ferraris displays a nuanced understanding of life in Saudi Arabia and makes the most of the setting, but the narrative contains so many subplots it becomes entangled in its own web of intrigue.

The Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah is the setting for Zoë Ferraris's novel Kingdom of Strangers. Getty Images
The Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah is the setting for Zoë Ferraris's novel Kingdom of Strangers. Getty Images

“Saudi had let itself become a kingdom of strangers,” muses Katya Hijazi, a police forensics technician and the heroine of a new book whose title echoes that phrase: Kingdom of Strangers. “It welcomed its immigrants because they lent the illusion that Saudis could afford hired help, because the immigrants did the jobs that most would never dream of doing – housekeeping, trash collecting, taxi driving.”

But when the bodies of 19 mutilated women are discovered buried in the desert near Jeddah, some of them a decade old and most of them young housemaids from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, it’s hardly a surprise that few of their employers had ever reported their disappearance. Even the ones who have been missing for years haven’t been sought very hard and the police simply assume that the women ran away from abusive employers.

The unearthing of that mass grave is only the beginning of a complex trail of murder and other crimes stretching back two decades. To follow that trail, author Zoë Ferraris – an American who lived in Saudi Arabia for about a year in the 1990s with her then-husband and his Saudi-Palestinian-Bedouin family, and who has written two other books set in the kingdom – has produced an engrossing but, ultimately, overly long novel.

One key plot twist arrives with the discovery of a woman’s hand in downtown Jeddah. Unlike the other cases under investigation, this victim is a Saudi housewife and may still be alive.

From here, the plot strands continue to multiply. The two main police investigators – Ibrahim Zahrani, the world-weary, unhappily married chief of homicide, and Katya, a forensics lab assistant in the force – are both besieged by turmoil in their private lives.

Ibrahim’s mistress, Sabria – herself a Filipino expatriate – is now missing. Of course Ibrahim is terrified for her safety and afraid to contemplate that she might be the latest victim of the apparent murderer. But he cannot report her disappearance or call on his police colleagues to help investigate, because he is married. If his relationship with Sabria were discovered, he would be charged with adultery.

Meanwhile, Katya chafes at the limited role allowed to her as a woman in a traditionally male profession. All she is supposed to do is analyse the 19 bodies for clues, “the lowest of grunt work, once again without understanding its relationship to the case at hand”. Whenever she tries to push her way out of the forensics lab and more directly into the investigation, she is thrown back with universal disapproval.

Katya is also debating whether to marry Nayir, a handsome Bedouin desert guide possessed of somewhat traditional values. At 29, she knows that this may be her last chance at wedlock. Yet, “Nayir wasn’t the type to be comfortable with her working such long hours,” she frets. To complicate matters still further, Katya must pretend to her co-workers that she is already married, because the police department would never have hired an unmarried woman.

Katya agrees to help Ibrahim search for Sabria. She quickly discovers that Sabria has not been working at the expensive boutique where Ibrahim used to drive her to. That’s not all. Ibrahim is furious that his wife has taken their elder daughter to a ritual healer who has maimed her using a branding iron.

At this point, the reader is less than a third of the way through the book and in danger of getting lost. Gripping though the tale is, there are simply too many subplots and characters. Indeed, sometimes it seems as though Ferraris has forgotten where she left some of her storylines dangling. After setting up one particular quandary, Ferraris essentially abandons it for the next 250 pages. Meanwhile, she spends too much time describing the “slightly too small and sunken” eyes of one minor character or the “thinning yet still handsome face” of another. By the time the identity of the mass murderer is revealed, the reader can’t remember if this person is connected to a mysterious taxi driver, an equally suspicious Red Crescent driver, a skulking police detective or a host of other players.

But if the author periodically loses the plot, she is in sure command of her setting. Ferraris goes far deeper than the usual and routinely shallow takes on the kingdom. She knows, for instance, the tricks by which women manage to wriggle around some of the gender rules, and the ways children can recognise their mothers by “the curve of her shoulders ... the shape of her head.”

Ferraris also understands how prejudice and social mores can impede police work. Every time Katya and Ibrahim want to confer about their unofficial investigation into Sabria’s disappearance, they must sneak into an empty lavatory, since they can’t be seen publicly together; then, they must be careful to exit separately, with coded knocking signals, when no one is watching. And the husband of the housewife whose hand was severed at first refuses to release her photograph, even though it’s the only way to alert people who may have seen her.

Many of the detectives initially insist that the serial killer must be a foreigner, and most likely an American. However, their confidence is shaken when Nayir (that’s Katya’s potential fiancé, in case the reader has forgotten by now) and his uncle notice that the bodies have been laid out so that each forms an Arabic letter, spelling out the phrase: Bism’allah, ar-rahman, ar-rahim.

For all her expertise, Ferraris strikes a surprisingly jarring note with the introduction of an American FBI specialist who is brought in to explain the psychology of serial murderers, a woman named Charlie Becker.

Would any educated westerner – let alone a trained law enforcement agent – be so ill-informed as to suggest that a male killer in an Islamic country could meet a potential female victim if “he sits next to a woman at a bar”?  And if she’s meeting a group of local police officers for the first time, an agent like Becker would probably make a gesture towards social mores by wearing appropriate clothing.

Another discordant note is the narrative voices of Katya and Ibrahim. While these characters may be unusually progressive for their milieu, their viewpoints often seem too European.

Kingdom of Strangers is a book that takes full advantage of its setting, although readers may just want to keep a running outline and list of characters handy.

Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning US-based author and journalist.