The Night of the Mi'raj, By Zoë Ferraris

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The Independent Culture

Zoë Ferraris's debut novel arrives in timely fashion. A look at how Saudi Arabia's Muslim mores and sharia laws affect gender relationships, wrapped up in a murder mystery, The Night of the Mi'raj is an antidote to the ever-increasing numbers of books set in Afghanistan or Iraq with war as their subject. Arriving so soon after Rowan Williams's controversial remarks about law derived from religious texts, Ferraris's book examines the results of those beliefs on people's lives.

Nayir is a Bedouin desert guide, though he is ethnically Palestinian and therefore an outsider to both Saudis and Bedouins. In love with the solitude and romance of the desert, he serves the wealthy, powerful Shrawi family and his only real friend, the eldest Shrawi son, Othman. Nayir is also a devout Muslim; he cannot glance at a woman without self-vilification and keeps himself apart from others by living alone on a boat in the marina. When Nouf ash-Shrawi, the most charismatic and wayward of the family's teenage daughters, is found dead in the desert, having apparently drowned, Othman enlists Nayir's help to investigate a crime that everyone else seems keen to brush under the rug.

The search throws Nayir together with Katya Hijazi, a forensic pathologist and Othman's fiancée, whose forthrightness and independence clash with Nayir's traditionalist views of women. The guide quickly learns too, that the Islamic law he is devoted to prohibits serious investigation of crimes against women. As Katya and Nayir discover what really happened to Nouf, they find that the people and social structures they trust hide darker realities.

Nayir is a difficult, distant man, internally torn between his natural male urges and his religious beliefs: he makes for a compelling hero. As the mystery unfolds, he almost becomes a kind of Muslim Rebus. His personal life and the crime get inextricably intertwined, his reputation put on the line. Touching details, such as buying a Columbo-style detective's coat on a sweltering day but being too shy to wear it, contrast with his displays of male arrogance and intellectual timidity.

This is not a crime novel, and Ferraris determinedly keeps Nayir away from the clichés of the genre. The figure of Katya adds something approaching a police procedural touch, but the real focus lies on the way in which her investigations are hindered by her gender. As a character, she is less compelling than Nayir, perhaps because we have seen strong, boundary-pushing women in other novels about the Middle East. But the duo's interaction is fascinating, always aided by Ferraris's use of well-drawn locations: the American Ladies of Jeddah meeting, the zoo, and most of all the desert with all its heat, danger and calm. Ferraris is also a natural storyteller, with a lightness of touch and a skill for drip-feeding clues to keep the reader turning the pages.

It bodes well for Ferraris's future that she can exploit the language of different genres while focusing on well-drawn characters who ultimately power the narrative. The Night of the Mi'raj approaches its important themes through simplicity and that, sometimes, can be a virtue.

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