August 10, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
In her novel City of Veils, Zoe Ferraris not only offers a thrilling, well-written literary mystery, but she also offers a rare and intense glimpse inside the culture of modern Saudi Arabia.
The Independent wrote of the book:
"At one level, this is a fascinating crime novel with an astonishing denouement during a sandstorm in the desert. Ferraris is American, but moved to Saudi Arabia to live with her then-husband and his extended family, a group of Saudi-Palestinian Bedouins, and she uses her experience to bring alive the country's culture and contradictions. But City of Veils does more than that, providing unique insights into the minds of men brought up to fear women and the desire they inspire. Claustrophobic and totally original, this is modern crime fiction at its very best. "
It's odd writing a playlist for a book about Saudi Arabia, a country where music is technically forbidden. You can sing, of course -- isn't that what they do from the minarets five times a day? (Okay, it's chanting.) A little percussion is acceptable. But no pipes or stringed instruments, thank you. At the same time, Saudi has a flourishing underground music scene, including rap, punk and pop. Jeddah and Riyadh have sponsored outdoor concerts – from heavy metal to teenage boy bands. Yet you're still not allowed to study music in school. Totalitarian? Tolerant? Even Saudi doesn't know what it is, which is part of its charm.
Thanks to being an army brat and a nomad in general, I grew up listening to music from all over the world. City of Veils was inspired by a hodge-podge of influences. While writing this book, I was going on the advice of the Prophet Mohammed who said: "Seek knowledge, even in China."
"Under Her Feet" – Illmiyah and Arableak (aka Desert Heat)
In City of Veils, I wanted to capture what Jeddah is like today, in particular the way tradition clashes with modernity. And there's nothing like a little Arabic rap to put me in the right frame of mind. Hip hop sounds conjure images of East LA, not the stifling heat of the desert. But the fusion is an excellent reminder that Saudi Arabia is not as traditional as the clerics would have it: the country has been saturated with foreign influences since the prophet Mohammed worked the spice routes. Today, Saudi sponsors millions of guest workers, who bring their cultural influences from all over the world. Most of the characters in my novel have some connection to other countries even as they call Saudi Arabia home.
This Dubai-based group's debut album was banned in Saudi Arabia (unlike some of the local rappers, whose albums do get produced in that country). They may have been banned for having songs like "Terror Alert," which offers a journey inside the mind of a suicide bomber. But this track is an homage to family and a reference to the Islamic saying that "Paradise lies under the feet of mothers."
The truth is
Everything I am is you
We survived the struggle and we made it through
I say these words in my soul are sincere
Under your feet, I really see heaven so clear.
"Vivi Davvero" – Giorgia
There is of course another end on the attitudes-about-women spectrum. When I'm writing about the fierce determination of my female characters who are up against all manner of discrimination, it helps to have some powerhouse female vocals playing. I've never seen an official translation of this song, but I have one in my head. It's an exhortation to be true to your thoughts and desires.
Giorgia's parents named her after Ray Charles' "Georgia on My Mind" and although her music has a lot of jazz and blues influence, she's good for the powerful pop hit as well. Her music has become so interwoven with my images of my main female character, Katya, that I almost can't write Katya without hearing "Questo e il prezzo che…"
This is the price
These times impose on us
Living life too quickly
A woman eats of the fruits of sin
And I want a piece of the pie.
"For the World" – Tan Dun
I really wish Saudi Arabia had its own Tan Dun, someone to make an orchestral wonder out of that region's traditional sounds. Tan Dun's music is so pervaded with melancholy that it transcends place, for who does not have his share of sadness? But the tracks on the "Hero" album also have a good dose of defiance, and for me that's an electric combination. Most of my characters oscillate between states of despondency and a rebellious urge to change the way of the world, so I found this music very fitting.
"Sampa" – Caetano Veloso
Everything from his early album Caetanear seems simple and light, but this song has a particular quality of hang-dog self-pity and longing for love that sometimes pervades the mood of my main character, Nayir. It played probably more than it should have while I was writing him.
"Rock the Casbah" - the Clash
The victim of my novel, Leila, is a radical filmmaker who is devoted to exposing the most hypocritical aspects of Saudi culture. She's got the Clash written all over her. While writing, I was having visions of Joe Strummer, his yellow shirt, the armadillo….
As a teenager, I completely misunderstood this song. I just assumed they were singing about ugly Americans dropping bombs on the Arabs. Of course, blame the Americans. At some point I realized that they were singing about the oppression of Sharia law, and in particular how it stifles music. I think the song is saying that the people of the Middle East will overcome the oppression and ROCK.
Rhabaouine – Gnawa Halwa
It seems like a sacrilege to pick a particular song from this album. Gnawa music isn't supposed to happen in five-minute cuts. I'm a huge fan of trance music – both the dance floor kind and the real I'm-getting-into-a-religious-trance kind. At one point in City of Veils my main character, Nayir, gets into a kind of trance, but it's mostly thanks to panic at seeing the woman he loves. For me, trance music brings on a kind of ideal writing state: relaxed but mindful, my ears open to the whispers of the universe.
"My Love Is" -- Little Willie John
This song so vividly evokes a scene in Lonestar when Sheriff Sam is driving alone in the dark, facing a secret he doesn't really want to know, that I can't help but want to hear it when I'm writing Nayir – another man trapped in his pursuit of love.
"Alf Layla" – Um Kalthoum
"A Thousand Nights" is quintessential Um-Kalthoum. It always sounds to me like a camel caravan jangling through the desert, with an opera singer on the lead camel, pouring her 60-minute epic into a moon-filled night. But over time it has come to evoke the hours and hours I've spent sipping tea, listening to stories, eating cookies and dates and generally idling around someone's living room to escape the intensity of the Saudi heat. This song forms a basic backdrop to my writing when I need to be back in the Middle East, if not in body, then at least in soul. It even makes a brief appearance in my novel.
Zoe Ferraris and Zoe Ferraris links:
All Things Girl interview with the author
Beliefnet essay by the author
Crimespace guest post by the author
Kansas city Star interview with the author
Newtonville Books Community Blog interview with the author
Paper Cuts playlist by the author
Publishers Weekly review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists