Title: Kingdom of Strangers
Series: Nayir al-Sharqi #3
Author: Zoë Ferraris
Published: 05 June 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown
Genre: crime and mystery
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
The bodies of nineteen women are discovered buried out in the Saudi Arabian desert, all with their hands cut off. The oldest has been there for a decade, and the police are shocked by the fact a serial killer has been operating, completely undetected, for so long. Inspector Ibrahim Zahrani is put in charge of the case, but he soon finds himself distracted by another serious issue – his mistress Sabria has gone missing.
Unfortunately he can’t simply report her disappearance. By doing so he would reveal his relationship to her, and adultery is punishable by public beheading in Saudi. The police wouldn’t bother trying to find Sabria if they knew about the affair either, since no one cares about prostitutes. So Zahrani asks Katya Hijazi, one of the few female officers, to help him investigate Sabria’s disappearance.
This is a great risk for Katya. Helping an adulterer and even spending time alone with a man is a breach of propriety that could disgrace her, or even get her fired. But she is an ambitious woman, and by helping Zahrani she hopes to play a role in the serial killer case as well.
Kingdom of Strangers is the third in a series of mystery novels set in Saudi Arabia, but it reads very well as a stand-alone. I thought it was great, although not because of the two mysteries contained in the plot. These are good, but not as brilliant as some. The real drawcard is the myriad ways in which the extreme social restrictions of Saudi society affect police investigations, as well as people’s personal and professional lives. It’s a place where modern conveniences are juxtaposed with archaic practices. Forensic science and torture are both normal aspects of criminal investigations. Crimes like murder and adultery are punished by public beheading while thieves have their hands cut off. A sword is usually used. However, when a woman is executed, “you don’t cut off her head. You shoot her in the back of the head.[...] If they chopped off the head, it might roll and the burqa might come off, and you would see her face. So they shoot her instead. They sometimes give her the choice.”
Hiding a woman’s face, even in death, is one of the many, many religious restrictions that suffuse Saudi society. Virtue policies prevent men and women from interacting unless absolutely necessary, so many places, such as restaurants, workplaces and even homes, are divided into separate areas for men and women. There are even women-only malls. This an important issue in the serial-killer case – normally a killer could meet women in bars, restaurants or other public places, but in Saudi there’s no legitimate way for a man to meet a woman in public. This is perhaps why all the killer’s victims are immigrants. Their lives are different from a normal Saudi woman’s, and Saudi Arabia is full of them:
Saudi had let itself become a kingdom of strangers. It welcomed its immigrants because they lent the illusion that all Saudis could afford hired help, because the immigrants did the jobs that most Saudis would never dream of doing — housekeeping, trash collecting, taxi driving — and because without them, absolutely nothing would get done.
The authorities cannot keep track of all the immigrants, many of whom are women lured into the country on false pretences, only to end up forced into lives of indentured servitude, frequently abused by their employers. Runaways and disappearances are common, and few take notice or care about the missing women.
On the whole, being a woman in Saudi Arabia is the definition of impractical. You can hardly do anything or go anywhere without the permission or help of a man. Being a female police officer is just as bad, and Katya’s character relates this experience. She works in forensics, but wants to play a more active role in police work. It’s difficult to imagine how she could accomplish this though.
Women are not allowed to drive, so Katya couldn’t get go out to investigate much without a man to accompany her. She can’t even get to work unless her younger cousin drives her. She can’t interview men without a chaperone, because they mind find it improper to talk to a woman. As it is, her job involves a lot of minor interactions with men, and she’s worried that this will upset her fiancé and he will force her to quit.
Interaction with men puts her job at risk in other ways too. When Zahrani first talks to Katya about Sabria’s disappearance, he doesn’t want to risk being overheard so he ushers her into the women’s bathroom and locks the door. Throughout their conversation, Katya is distracted by worry – if she’s caught alone in the bathroom with this man, she could be fired on the spot. She has the same concerns when alone in a car with Zahrani – what will happen if her fiancé or her father hears about this? She’s 29 years old, but sometimes she’s as disempowered as a young child, if not more so.
This is far more than just a personal problem for women though – social restrictions deeply affect police work too. “We do not touch women” the chief medical examiner tells Zahrani, explaining why there’s only one woman working on all of the 19 bodies that were discovered in the desert. It doesn’t matter that they might be able to stop the killer sooner if they can get information from his victims faster – virtue comes first. In normal investigations the police will show people photos of victims or suspects and ask if they recognise them, but showing people photos of women in Saudi is sometimes pointless, because many of them cover their faces in public. As Katya realises, it’s sometimes better to have a full-body shot in a burkha, because the woman might only be recognisable as a black shape, not as a face (this seems unlikely, but Zahrani speaks about how, as a child, he was terrified of losing his mother in the market, and he had to learn to recognise her shape and walk). Some people even have problems with photographing victims at crime scenes – it’s considered immoral to expose certain parts of the body (for women this includes everything except the hands and feet), and in strict versions of Islam it’s forbidden to take photos at all.
Even when Katya proves helpful in the serial killer investigation, most men in the department disapprove of her involvement regardless of her insights. They find it inappropriate for her to come into the men’s section of the building. Even though she does forensic analyses, the men will not tell her what significance they have for the case. Female employees are nevertheless necessary in the department. They can interview other women, go to places like women-only malls, and examine female corpses.
Men don’t necessarily have an easy time of it though. Zahrani is not very religious and he’s annoyed by many virtue policies, especially now that Sabria is missing. We see a bit of his family life and with it a glimpse of marital and sexual relations in the Saudi context. Katya’s fiancé Nayir (after whom the series is named, since he features in the previous two novels as well) worries about how a married man is, in some ways, his wife’s servant. He has to drive her around, wait for her while he shops, and perform all the tasks that she is not allowed to.
It’s a strange, almost surreal society. With all the concerns about purity and virtue, Saudi society is oddly perverse because people see and look for sex everywhere – a woman’s exposed hair, eye contact, casual conversation, etc. At one point a colleague mentions – as a criticism – that Zahrani was seen leaving the station with Katya; it was so bizarre that something as innocuous as leaving a building with a female colleague could get a man into trouble at work.
There are so many things in this novel that you could speak about with disbelief, and yet Zoë Ferraris tells this story with a kind of calm, matter-of-fact style that makes it utterly realistic but still very readable because doesn’t constantly make me want to scream in frustration (as news about the treatment of women in the Middle East usually does). The treatment of women in Saudi society is of course critiqued in the novel, but it doesn’t read like raucous polemic; rather a frank but fair portrayal of a society that few people could speak of in any positive way. This is life, in one of its many forms, albeit an obscene one.
On the whole I see Kingdom of Strangers not so much as a mystery novel but as a detailed portrait of Saudi society with two mysteries as the base on which the story is built. That said, I’d still recommend it to crime fiction readers because it gives such an interesting perspective on police investigation, it’s well written, has strong characters and an entertaining plot. I really appreciated it for its view on such a closed society too. Ferraris spent some time living in Saudi with her then-husband and his family, and although I imagine it must have been a very difficult experience at times, she’s certainly gained something valuable to offer readers.