The Night of the Mi’raj by Zoë Ferraris

Abacus| 16 August 2012 | 360 pages| e-book edition| My own copy| 4*

The Night of the Mi’raj (published as Finding Nouf in the USA) is the first book in Zoë Ferraris’  Katya Hijazi series, set in modern day Saudi Arabia, featuring Nayir al-Sharqi, a desert guide and a laboratory technician Katya Hijazi. When sixteen year old Nouf ash-Shrawi disappears from her home in Jeddah, just before her arranged marriage, her brother, Othman, asks his friend, Nayir to find her. After searching the desert for ten days, Nayir fails to find her, but then Nouf’s body is found in a desert wadi. It appears that her death was an accident and that she died by drowning in the wadi after a sudden storm.

Nayir is puzzled. Why did Nouf run away to the desert, leaving behind her fiance and a luxurious life with her wealthy family? He’d never failed before to find a lost traveller and he assumed if she had run away it was because she didn’t want to be found. Her family accept the verdict of accidental death, but when Katya tells Nayir she has found evidence that Nouf was murdered he feels compelled to uncover the truth about her death. The more the two of them discover the more problems and challenges arise.

What is most fascinating in this book for me is not the mystery, but the developing relationship between Nayir and Katya and the description of life in Saudi Arabia. Nayir is not a Bedouin or a Saudi, he’s a Palestinian. But the Bedouin had taught him about the desert:

From here he had a sprawling view of the desert valley, crisp and flat, surrounded by low dunes that undulated in the golden colour of sunset. … The wind picked up and stroked the desert floor, begging a few grains of sand the better to flaunt its elegance, while the earth shed its skin with a ripple and seemed to take flight. The bodies of the dunes changed endlessly with the winds. They rose to peaks or slithered like snake trails. The Bedouin had taught him how to interpret the shapes to determine the chance of a sandstorm or the direction of tomorrow’s wind. Some Bedouin believed that the forms held prophetic meanings too. Right now, the land directly ahead of him formed a series of crescents, graceful half-moons that rolled towards the horizon. Crescents meant change was in the air.

I was puzzled by the title of the UK publication – The Night of the Mi’raj, so I was pleased that Zoë Ferraris explained why she chose it in her Author’s Note. The mi’raj is both a physical journey and a spiritual climax, a moment of revelation for Mohammed. She states that; ‘In this book Nayir’s journey to learning the truth behind Nouf’s death is, for him, both a physical and a spiritual discovery too.’

There are two more books in the Katya Hijazi series: City of Veils and Kingdom of Strangers.