My first book is being published soon.
It’s a collection of short stories set in the Arabian Gulf emirate of Dubai, where I first came to work in 2003, seduced by a mixture of money (back then I was an impoverished freelancer in London) and a strong curiosity about another continent, another way of life.
What I knew about Dubai when I first arrived could have been scribbled on a restaurant bill. It was a coastal city on the edge of the desert. Its citizens spoke Arabic. It was ruled by obscenely rich Sheikhs. It had more shopping malls than hospitals. A pitiful amount of information, really, gleaned from a handful of websites and the odd magazine travel feature.
So when I began living here I made an effort to educate myself about the city, the country (the United Arab Emirates) and the region as a whole. I read whatever books I could get hold of – which was trickier than I thought.
There were plenty of locally produced guides about etiquette, the Arabic language and the country’s recent history. Photographic collections of a desolate-looking Dubai before the invasion of cranes and tourists were also in abundance, as were hagiographic biographies of local rulers.
One fantastic book I would urge anyone with an interest in the region to read is Mother Without a Mask by Patricia Holton, who became the surrogate mother of an Emirati sheikh's two sons whenever they stayed with her in England to be educated in the ways of the west. She in turn visits the UAE where, despite the obvious religious and cultural differences with her hosts, she becomes a valued member of the family. It’s a brilliantly written, fascinating account of life in the UAE before it became the globally known futuristic metropolis of today.
But it was set in the 70s and 80s, practically ancient history in this part of the world, where new districts, highways and suburbs appear by the season.
I was looking for something that spoke to me about the contemporary Dubai I was living in, especially the fictional. Because, as Albert Camus once said, "fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth". I was especially looking for Emirati fiction written in English. But when I asked people – ie, readers, book shops assistants, other journalists – who had lived in Dubai longer than me I was met with blank looks.
Apart from a handful of deferential, self-published novels and children’s books with cute titles like ‘The Hungry Camel’, I searched and searched and found nothing. I wanted to read about Emirati lives. How did the ‘locals’, as expats call them, really feel about their rapidly changing country, the erosion of their culture, with its Bedouin roots and familial bonds? Would they trade in their post-oil boom wealth for the hardship but restrained dignity of the old ways?
Eventually I found a couple of short story collections by local writer Mohammed Al Mur, which I enjoyed. I found them surprisingly risqué for the censor-stifled world of UAE publishing, with tales of divorce, ruthless Pakistani gangsters and infidelity. But mostly they were about a Dubai that didn’t exist anymore.
My curiosity, then, went unsatisfied and I returned to the UK in 2007, having read a library’s worth of books in my spare time (there’s nothing to do during the scorching hot summers in the UAE apart from read, watch TV and wander the malls), not one of them about the lives of Emiratis.
Back home, with lots of time on my hands, I started to think about stories of my own. “There is a long time in me between knowing and telling,” the writer Grace Paley once said. And for me that gap was a couple of years.
Sometime in 2009, I started to write in earnest. I wrote, as inchoate writers are often instructed to do, about what I knew. And I knew about expat life in Dubai. I knew about the many restrictions of living in an Islamic country, the UAE’s subtle three-tier apartheid with the privileged locals at the top, and the hardship faced by many expats from developing countries who have a much tougher time of it than the likes of me. And I also knew about the extravagance and the excess - the glitzy side of Dubai with which it is synonymous.
I knew that telling stories from a non-Emirati perspective was something that was unexplored in the literature of the region and I began to think about a possible short story collection. In a cowardly way, I chose to write short stories rather than a novel not only because I’ve always been a short fiction junky, but because I wanted to test my aptitude for prose, having only ever written in a journalistic capacity. If I spent a year writing a novel, only for it to end up in the bin, I would have been utterly demoralized. If I spent three months writing a couple of awful short stories, it wouldn’t have been so much of a blow to the ego. I suppose I had a lack of faith in my own ability.
But thankfully I didn’t have to wait that long for success. I entered a few of my early stories in prizes and competitions, three of which won or got shortlisted. A couple appeared in anthologies and journals.
One story, called Zeina – about a young male journalist who puts himself at risk when he dares to defy local custom by giving an Emirati female colleague a ride back to the office – was broadcast on BBC radio in 2009.
Armed with this success, and with more stories fermenting in my mind, I eventually approached an independent publisher in the UK called Parthian, who have a great reputation and are known for being receptive to authors of short stories. Due to some personnel changes, they kept me waiting more than two years before giving me a book deal (I forgive them). And, as of writing, I’m in the exciting pre-marketing phase of manuscript-polishing, cover designs, author questionnaires and collating every media contact I can think of to maximize the ubiquity of the pre-publication press release.
It’s all very exciting, even if the thought of attending book fairs and literary events makes my blood run cold. Bizarrely, there is the possibility that it may not even get past the censors in the UAE, which would be disappointing to say the least, since I moved back here in 2010 and plan to remain here for the foreseeable future. Some of the stories are about subjects considered risqué in this part of the world: there’s one about a gay couple, an abused maid, a western couple who may or may not be part of a secret swinging club...
Clearly the book isn’t going to be one big advert portraying Dubai as an earthly paradise. But it is, I feel, sympathetic and well balanced, a good reflection of the Dubai expat experience in all its varieties.
I’ve already had to scrap the original title. It was naïve of me to think that Martinis & Minarets wouldn’t cause offence to some Muslims, juxtaposing, as it does, the name of an alcoholic drink with part of a mosque (metaphors for the hedonistic/conservative yin-yang world of Dubai). Currently I’m vacillating between two substitutes, which don’t trip off the tongue anywhere near as much. But that's ok. While I’ll need all the publicity I can get for the collection (not knowing the title less than a year before it gets published isn’t doing me any favours, I know) , I’d rather it was of the more insensate variety. Angry Twitter mobs I could handle; getting deported (or worse, getting a fatwah placed on my head) is quite another thing.
This book would never have existed without curiosity, the need to explore another country and find out about its people. And even if, in the end, I didn’t find out as much about Emiratis as I wanted to (hospitable and friendly as they are, they have a tendency to be guarded about their family lives and culture), I have found out a lot about myself and how I fit into a society so disparate to the one I grew up in.
What I’m really curious about now, however, is how readers will respond to the book. And, frankly, that’s the most terrifying thing of all.
Originally from Wales, Craig Hawes has spent the past 15 years working as a journalist in London and Dubai, writing for titles including The London Evening Standard, The Sunday Times and Time Out. He is a voracious reader of short stories but not, to his dismay, as prolific a writer of them as he'd like to be. Somehow, however, he has put a collection of Dubai-based stories together, which is being published in 2013 by Parthian Books, an independent publisher in the UK.