Friday, November 19, 2010

Off the Beaten Track: A Paper Grave and a Red Sea

Our guest today is mystery author Zoë Ferraris. Zoë moved to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the first Gulf War to live with her then husband and his extended family of Saudi-Palestinian Bedouins. She has an MFA from Columbia University. Her debut novel, Finding Nouf, was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and has been published in twenty languages. The sequel, City of Veils, was released in August 2010. She currently lives in San Francisco.

I had never heard of a ‘paper grave’ until I started doing research for City of Veils. In 1972, archaeologists in Yemen unearthed "an unappealing mash of old parchments and paper documents" – a thousand codices of what many now consider to be one of the earliest copies of the Koran.

Some Muslims believe that old copies of the Koran cannot simply be thrown away but must be disposed of properly – either buried or cremated. Or, in this case, walled inside a loft in the Great Mosque of Sana’a. (I found this idea very touching and subsequently decided that I would like to be buried with my favorite books.)

Anyway, what seemed remarkable about the find was that many of the texts varied slightly from the Koran as it is today. In the Christian part of the planet this doesn’t seem odd. How often has the Bible gone through permutations? People edit! But orthodox Muslims claim that the Koran today is the word of God exactly as it was when it was first written down. Exactly. In thirteen centuries not a single diacritic mark has been changed. The Koran is the perfect embodiment of God’s word, and humans shouldn’t go messing with it.

So the discovery of earlier “versions” of the Koran was a little upsetting.

In City of Veils, a radical filmmaker named Leila Nawar goes in pursuit of this explosive story and winds up dead. She’s kind of like Molly Norris - someone who sticks a cattle prod into a tangle of hyper-sensitive religious issues and gets a shock.

Leila’s body is found in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, not far from the Tomb of Eve (yep, the Eve who was married to Adam). According to Muslim tradition, Eve is buried in Jeddah, and she was over 100 meters tall. (It’s a very long gravesite.) In Arabic, the name “Jeddah” means “grandmother” and is a supposed reference to Eve, the grandmother of all. I even met a militant feminist once who insisted that the Red Sea got its name because although Eve was dead, her menstrual flow was not. And when the Red Sea turned red (which it occasionally does) it was a sign that Eve was still procreating the human race.

Investigating a murder is a little bit like archaeology – but at least with murder, there’s usually someone still alive who can tell you the truth. As the investigators in City of Veils discover more about Leila, they find other reasons that someone may have wanted to kill her…

You can find Zoë online at and Pilgrimage.


  1. Hi Zoe,

    I just finished City of Veils and I was completely swept away by your wonderful characters and the amazing, sometimes horrifying but always wonderfully fascinating world of Saudi Arabia. I love the depth of your characters and the way you avoid simplistic stereotypes.

    Thank you so much for one of the best books I've read this year.

    Nancy Adams

  2. Zoe, thanks so much for this wonderful post.

    There are so many things to love about both your books, but one aspect that really grabs me is the way the characters push the envelope of their world and find compromises between tradition and modern life. I see the same thing every time I go to Iran, but it wasn't how I viewed Saudi (not that I had much to go on).

  3. Zoe, thank you for such an interesting post. Your books sound fantastic and I have now put them in my To Be Read pile (near the top!).

  4. Zoe, what a fearless author you are, and I cannot wait to read this book. Heidi, thank you for bringing Zoe to us.

    Zoe, would you discuss how many drafts it took to bring this book to fruition and the obstacles and challenges you met along the way, including finding a publisher to publish it?

    Thank you.

  5. Nancy, Heidi and Alli - thanks so much for your comments! And Donnell, where to start? There are sooo many obstacles. The first draft of my first novel, "Finding Nouf," involved a serial killer and a lot of car chases - it was completely different than it is now. It took years of frustration and many rejections to get it to where it is. So the creative struggles of an amateur and getting an agent's interest were the biggest difficulties.

    (Finding a publisher was my agent's job, and she performed WONDERS.)

    "City of Veils" was easier because I already had developed my characters, and had some experiencing writing a mystery. But some obstacles are always there: self-doubt and impatience. Most things in writing and publishing happen at the speed of dutch elm disease. Or so it feels.

    Thanks for all your comments!


  6. Zoe, thank you so much for guest-blogging for us and for such an educational post! I am in love with all things Middle-Eastern, so of course I love your books; I’ve read Finding Nouf and am now reading The City of Veils, one place on earth I really want to visit, but won’t be able to, probably never, because I’m Jewish. So your books are my trips to Saudi Arabia through a peep-hole. I also love the fact that Katya has Russian roots because so do I. Interestingly enough, during my travels to Jordan, I’ve heard from a few locals about how much they like marrying Russian women – supposedly they make great wives. And as interestingly, I came to know that many Russian women like marrying Middle-Eastern men – because they never come home drunk!

  7. Zoe, what a wonderful post! I'm hearing only rave reviews of your books so look forward to reading them soon. And I've been following your blog for some time now. What fun--I love it. Thanks for stopping by.