“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.
From / The National