When sixteen-year-old Nouf ash-Shrawi goes missing, her prominent family calls on desert guide Nayir al-Sharqi to lead a search party. Ten days later, Nouf’s body is discovered. The coroner determines that she was several weeks pregnant. But even more unsettling is that she died not of dehydration but from drowning. Though her family is suspiciously uninterested in getting at the truth, Nayir is determined to find out what happened.
Now Nayir, a gentle and pious Palestinian living in Saudi Arabia, must delve into Nouf’s secret life—no easy task in one of the world’s most rigidly gender-segregated societies. Shocked by the idea of a woman baring her face and working in public, Nayir realizes that to gain access to the hidden world of Saudi women, he will have to join forces with Katya Hijazi, a lab worker at the coroner’s office. As their partnership leads to surprising revelations, it also challenges Nayir, bringing him face to face with his desire for female companionship and the limitations imposed by his beliefs.
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Before the sun set that evening, Nayir filled his canteen, tucked a prayer rug beneath his arm, and climbed the south-facing dune near the camp. Behind him came a burst of loud laughter from one of the tents, and he imagined that his men were playing cards, probably tarneeb, and passing the siddiqi around. Years of traveling in the desert had taught him that it was impossible to stop people from doing whatever they liked. There was no law out here, and if the men wanted alcohol, they would drink. It disgusted Nayir that they would wake up on Friday morning, the holy day, their bodies putrefied with gin. But he said nothing. After ten days of fruitless searching, he was not in the mood to chastise.
He scaled the dune at an easy pace, stopping only once he’d reached the crest. From here he had a sprawling view of the desert valley, crisp and flat, surrounded by low dunes that undulated in the golden color of sunset. But his eye was drawn to the blot on the landscape: half a dozen vultures hunched over a jackal’s carcass. It was the reason they’d stopped here — another false lead.
Two days ago they’d given up scouring the desert and started following the vultures instead, but every flock of vultures only brought the sight of a dead jackal or gazelle. It was a relief, of course, but a disappointment too. He still held out hope that they would find her.
Taking his compass from his pocket, he found the direction of Mecca and pointed his prayer rug there. He opened his canteen and took a precautionary sniff . The water smelled tinny. He took a swig, then quickly knelt on the sand to perform his ablutions. He scrubbed his arms, neck, and hands, and when he was finished screwed the canteen tightly shut, relishing the brief coolness of water on his skin.
Standing above the rug, he began to pray, but his thoughts continually turned to Nouf. For the sake of modesty, he tried not to imagine her face or her body, but the more he thought about her, the more vivid she became. In his mind she was walking through the desert, leaning into the wind, black cloak whipping against her sunburned ankles. Allah forgive me for imagining her ankles, he thought. And then: At least I think she’s still alive.
When he wasn’t praying, he imagined other things about her. He saw her kneeling and shoveling sand into her mouth, mistaking it for water. He saw her sprawled on her back, the metal of a cell phone burning a brand onto her palm. He saw the jackals tearing her body to pieces. During prayers he tried to reverse these fears and imagine her still struggling. Tonight his mind fought harder than ever to give life to what felt like a hopeless case.
Prayers finished, he felt more tired than before. He rolled up the rug and sat on the sand at the very edge of the hill, looking out at the dunes that surrounded the valley. The wind picked up and stroked the desert floor, begging a few grains of sand 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 into 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 toward the horizon. Crescents meant change was in the air.
His thoughts turned to the picture in his pocket. Checking to see that no one was coming up the hill behind him, he took the picture out and allowed himself the rare indulgence of studying a woman’s face.
Nouf ash-Shrawi stood in the center of the frame, smiling happily as she cut a slice of cake at her younger sister’s birthday party. She had a long nose, black eyes, and a gorgeous smile; it was hard to imagine that just four weeks after the picture was taken she had run away — to the desert, no less —leaving everything behind: a fi- ancé, a luxurious life, and a large, happy family. She’d even left the five-year-old sister who stood beside her in the picture, looking up at her with heartbreaking adoration. Why? he wondered. Nouf was only sixteen. She had a whole life in front of her.
And where did she go?
When Othman had phoned and told him about his sister’s disappearance, he had sounded weaker than Nayir had ever heard him. “I’d give my blood,” he stammered, “if that would help find her.” In the long silence that followed, Nayir knew he was crying; he’d heard the choke in his voice. Othman had never asked for anything before. Nayir said he would assist.
For many years he had taken thee Shrawi men to the desert. In fact, he’d taken dozens of families just like the Shrawis, and they were all the same: rich and pompous, desperate to prrrrrove that they hadn’t lost their Bedouin birthright even though for most of them the country’s dark wells of petroleum would always be more compelling than its topside. But Othman was different. He was one of the few men who loved the desert as much as Nayir and who had the brains to enjoy his adventures. He didn’t mount a camel until someone told him how to get off . He didn’t get sunburn. He didn’t get lost. Drawn together by a mutual love of the desert, he and Nayir had fallen into an easy friendship that had deepened over the years.
On the telephone Othman was so distraught that the story came out in confusing fragments. His sister was gone. She had run away. Maybe she’d been kidnapped. Because of their wealth, it was possible that someone wanted ransom money — but kidnappings were rare, and there was no ransom note yet. Only a day had passed, but it seemed long enough. Nayir had to pry to get the facts. No one knew exactly when she had left; they only noticed she was missing in the late afternoon. She had last been seen in the morning, when she told her mother she was going to the mall to exchange a pair of shoes. But by evening the family had discovered that other things were gone too: a pickup truck, the new black cloak she was saving for the honeymoon. When they realized that a camel was missing from the stables, they decided she’d run away to the desert.
Her disappearance had taken everyone by surprise. “She was happy,” Othman said. “She was about to get married.” “Maybe she got nervous?” Nayir asked gently.
“No, she wanted this marriage.” If there was more to the story, Othman wasn’t saying.
Nayir spent the next day making preparations. He refused the lavish payment the family offered, taking only what he needed. He hired fifty- two camels, contacted every desert man he knew, and even called the Ministry of the Interior’s Special Services to see if they could track her by military satellite, but their overhead optics were reserved for other things. Still, he managed to compose a search-and-rescue team involving several dozen men and a unit of part-time Bedouin who wouldn’t even look at Nouf’s picture, claiming that they didn’t need to, that there was only one type of woman for whom being stranded in the largest desert in the world was a kind of improvement on her daily life. The men developed a theory that Nouf had eloped with an American lover to escape her arranged marriage. It was hard to say why they all believed the idea. There had been a few cases of rich Saudi girls falling for American men, and they were shocking enough to linger in the collective memory. But it wasn’t as frequent as people supposed, and as far as Nayir knew, no Saudi girl had ever eloped to the desert.
The Shrawis asked Nayir to focus his search on one area of the desert, with radii extending outward from As Sulayyil. They stationed other search parties to the north and northwest, and one to the southwest. He would have liked more liberty to expand his operations at his own discretion, but as it was, he was hemmed in by strangers who seldom bothered to communicate with him. So he ignored the rules. Two days into it, he ordered his men to follow their instincts even if it took them into neighboring territory. If Nouf was still out there, her chances of survival decreased with every hour of daylight. This was no time to be formal, as if the search were a wedding dinner and the guests should be seated on their cushions just so.
Besides, his team was the largest, and although he didn’t often do search-and-rescue, he knew the desert better than most. He’d practically grown up in the desert. His uncle Samir had raised him, and Samir kept foreign friends: scholars, scientists, men who came to study the Red Sea, the birds and the fish, or the Bedouin way of life. Nayir spent summers chipping dirt on archaeological digs for rich Europeans who sought the tomb of Abraham or the remains of the gold that the Jews had carried from Egypt. He spent winters clutching the rear humps of camels, clattering through the sand with tin pots and canteens. He became an archer, a falconer, a survivalist of sorts who could find his way home from remote locations needing only a headscarf, water, and the sky. He wasn’t a Bedouin by blood, but he felt like one.
He’d never failed to find a lost traveler. If Nouf had run away, he had to assume that she didn’t want to be found. For ten days they scoured the dunes in Rovers, on camels, from airplanes and choppers, and frequently they found each other, which caused some relief, hard as it was to find anything living in all of that sand. But they did not find Nouf, and finally the reports that Nayir’s men placed before him began to suggest alternative theories in which she’d taken an overnight bus to Muscat or boarded an airplane for Amman.
He cursed the situation. Maybe she’d spent a night in the wild and decided it was too uncomfortable, too dirty, and she’d moved on. Yet Nayir feared that she had stayed, and now it was too late. It only took two days for a man to die in the desert. For a young girl from a wealthy family, a girl who had probably never left the comfort of an air-conditioned room, it would take less time than that.
The sunset showered the landscape in a warm orange light, and a stiff sirocco troubled the air. It stirred a sharp longing that reached beyond his concerns for Nouf. Lately he’d been overcome by thoughts of what was missing in his life. Irrationally, he felt that it wasn’t only Nouf he’d lost, it was the possibility of finding any woman. Closing his eyes, he asked Allah once again: What is Your plan for me? I trust in Your plan, but I’m impatient. Please reveal Your design.
Behind him came a shout. Quickly stuffing the picture back in his pocket, he stood up and saw one of his men at the bottom of the hill, pointing at a pair of headlights in the distance. Nayir grabbed his rug and canteen and scrambled down the dune. Someone was coming, and a desperate foreboding told him that it was bad news. He jogged along the bottom of the dune and waited as the Rover drove into camp. It stopped beside the largest tent.
Nayir didn’t recognize the young man at the wheel. He looked like a Bedouin with his sharp features and dark skin. He was wearing a leather bomber jacket over his dusty white robe, and when he stepped out of the car, he regarded Nayir with apprehension. Nayir welcomed the guest and extended his hand. He knew he was too big and imposing to put anyone at ease, but he tried. Nervously, the boy introduced himself as Ibrahim Suleiman, a son of one of the Shrawi servants. The men gathered around, waiting for the news, but Ibrahim stood quietly, and Nayir realized that he wanted to speak in private.
He led the boy into the tent, praying that the men hadn’t been drinking after all. There was no worse way to disgrace oneself than to lead a man into a tent that smelled like alcohol. But the tent doors were open and the wind blew in, along with a generous spray of sand.
Inside, Nayir lit a lamp, offered his guest a floor cushion, and began preparing tea. He refrained from asking questions, but he hurried through the tea because he was eager to hear the news. Once it was ready, Nayir sat cross-legged beside his guest and waited for him to drink first.
Once the second cup had been poured, Ibrahim leaned forward and balanced his teacup on his knee. “They found her,” he said, his eyes lowered. “They did?” The tension drained out of Nayir so suddenly that it hurt. “Where?” “About two kilometers south of the Shrawi campsite. She was in a wadi.” “They’ve had men there for a week. Are they certain it’s her?” “Yes.” “Who found her?” “We’re not sure. Someone who wasn’t working for the family. Travelers.” “How do you know this?” “Tahsin’s cousin Majid came to our camp and delivered the news. He’d spoken to the coroner.” Ibrahim took another sip of his tea. “He said that the travelers took her back to Jeddah. She was already dead.” “Dead?” “Yes.” Ibrahim sat back. “The travelers took her to the coroner’s office in Jeddah. They had no idea who she was.” It was over. He thought about his men outside, wondered if they would feel relief or disappointment. Probably relief. He wasn’t sure what to tell them about the girl. It was odd that the family’s own search party had been stationed near the wadi. A group of cousins and servants must have been right on top of her, yet they had missed her completely. They had also missed whoever had been traveling through the area. The travelers must have returned her body to the city before the Shrawis had even figured out that they’d passed through. All of this made Nayir uneasy, but he would have to double-check the information; it wasn’t exactly reliable.
“How did the family find out about it?” he asked.
“Someone at the coroner’s office knows the family and called them to break the news.” Nayir nodded, still feeling numb. The teapot was empty. Slowly he stood and went to the stove. He poured more water into the pot and lit the match for the stove with a clumsy twitch, burning the tip of his thumb. The sharpness of the pain lit a spark inside him, a quick, fierce anger. The urge to find her was still strong. Forgive me for my pride, he thought. I should think about the family now. But he couldn’t.
He went back and sat down. “Do you know how she died?” “No.” There was a sad acceptance in the boy’s eyes. “Heat stroke, I imagine.” “It’s a terrible way to die,” Nayir said. “I can’t help thinking there’s something we could have done.” “I doubt it.” “Why?” Nayir asked. “What do you think happened to her?” The Bedouin looked him straight in the eye. “Same thing that happens to any girl, I think.” “And what’s that?” Nayir asked. Love? Sex? What do you know about it? Ibrahim’s face told him that it had been wrong to ask; the boy was blushing. Nayir wanted to know more, to pry the answers out of him, but he knew too that if Nouf’s death had happened because of love or sex, then any truthful reply would be less proper still. Modestly, he waited for an elaboration, but Ibrahim merely sipped his tea, resolute in his silence.