Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book 85, United Arab Emirates: "The Sand Fish" by Maha Gargash

The UAE - or more specifically, the Emirate of Dubai - has a special significance for us Singaporeans: it's a tiny country that became a late capitalist success story by specifically emulating our path from third world to first world. But of course, ever since the exposé from the Independent came out, we know there's a dark side to this success too: massive income inequities, overdependence on foreign labour, ruthless exploitation of low-paid foreign workers, rampant pollution, complete erasure of heritage.

I haven't been to the country yet (have talked lots to friends who've worked and travelled there, though), so I was pretty interested in reading a non-fiction book explaining the rise of the city-state: Syed Ali's Dubai: Gilded Cage or Jim Crane's City of Gold, maybe. But then I decided I wanted to hear from a voice within the country. Was there an Emirati author out there, published in English? There was.

Maha Gargash actually wrote this in English. She's been educated in the US and London, and now makes documentaries for Dubai Radio and Television, so she's had to scour her country (and others) for exotica, remnant communities who still remember the Emirati way of life before the oil boom.

In the afterword, she talks about how she was inspired to set her tale in the 1950s, right between the dying age of pearl fishing and the rise of the international petroleum trade. She abandoned an early draft which told the story from the pearl fishers' point of view; now the heroine's Noora, a young mountain girl married off as the third wife of a wealthy trader.

Honestly, it's not a fantastic work of fiction. Perfectly acceptable, yes, but not a must-read. There's something oddly generic about the story, even though the author doesn't make completely conventional decisions. Noora's fundamentally a damsel in distress, reactive rather than proactive, abused by the elder wives, afraid of her fat husband, loins burning for the handsome young manservant Hamad. She does nothing truly heroic throughout the story; she doesn't venture beyond the walls of her sheltered harem life. Of course, the author's furnished her with a modicum of spunk and intelligence to make her seem like less of a doormat.

What's really interesting, I suppose, is Gargash's choice in subject matter: how she refrained from describing the chaos of Dubai today and instead mined history for material; even mapped out the old cities and houses to mark out a believable, tactile setting, bringing the past alive again. It's actually a lot like what Singaporean writers like Catherine Lim and Dawn Farnham have been doing: farming the past for treasure, precisely because so little trace of it persists in the present. Their flavours are ultimately very different: Singapore's past is colourful, noisy and violent, while Dubai's is quiet, parched, detached from the hubbub of urban developments. But we both have that desire to use fiction to remember who we are.

No, not who we are. Who we were. The trouble with historical fiction of this sort is that it's escapist: it concentrates on the terrible social problems of yesterday, allowing us to triumphantly declare that they've been fixed. It makes us ignore the terrible social problems that persist today.

The West is happy to fill the gap with its own Emirati fictions - even in film. What are Emiratis talking about amongst themselves?

Oh, and by the way, a sand fish is a kind of skink.

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Representative quote:
"Listen to you, you do every filthy thing. Then you pretend you didn't." There was spite in his voice now. "I don't know who you are, what you are. Something very different from the Noora I treasured." He threw his arms in the air. "You dug a hole in the sand and filled it with your shame, thinking it will be buried forever. But the sand is soft and the wind never stops blowing. And one day..." He bit his lip and looked away. "You are like a.. a..."

"Sand fish," she mumbled."

Next book: Hugh Miles's Al-Jazeera: The Inside the Story of the Arab News Channel that is Challenging the West, regarding Qatar.

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