Fact and fiction: three good books about the UAE


Hands up anyone who moved to Dubai with the idea that, one day, they’d write “the great Dubai novel” – the book that would be the ultimate expat read. Naturally, it would include oil barons, rich housewives, stunning beach-front mansions, glittering parties, handsome Sheikhs, racehorses, glitz, glamour, vats of champagne and lashings and lashings of illicit sex.

Because that is, of course, what so many people think about Dubai. Sometimes I wonder who’s to blame for this misrepresentation of expat life in the UAE: the media, for peddling this “aspirational” image as some sort of escapism for its readers stuck in the rain in Blighty, or the expats for playing along with it when their reality is, 99 per cent of the time, far more mundane.


Maybe those stereotypes were true at some point, and maybe, for the über-rich, Dubai still is some sort of a playground, but, for most expats, the UAE is simply a rather lovely place where you work hard to make better money than you might do at home – and, let’s be honest, that’s hardly the basis of the ultimate expat page-turner, is it?

But books do exist on Dubai and – gasp – some are pretty informative. As a nod to the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, which takes place in Dubai this week, here are three books about the UAE from which I’ve learned something. Recommended reading for those thinking of moving here? They’re a good start.

Looking from the outside in:  Hello Dubai by Joe Bennett (Simon & Schuster, 2010)– Intrigued by the bad publicity that Dubai received when the economic crisis hit, travel writer Bennett flew to Dubai to try and find the essence of this “tangled” place.  The fact that it’s written by someone who hasn’t actually lived here is perhaps as much an advantage as it is a disadvantage. At times, Bennett’s pithy observations can seem bitingly cruel but, aside from a few factual errors, it’s a well-researched, acerbic and often informative read. I’m still cackling over the line “Dubai’s got malls like measles”.

Growing up in the UAE: A Diamond in the Desert by Jo Tatchell (Sceptre, 2009) – Having grown up in Abu Dhabi in the 1970s, Tatchell returns to see what all the present-day fuss is about. She has a deep understanding of the city’s history, which allows her to capture its essence in a unique way as she weaves memoir and fact into what’s both an evocative and a thought-provoking read.

The novel: The Sand Fish by Maha Gargash (Harper, 2009) – Far from being the ultimate expat novel, this is the story of Noora, a feisty but penniless 17-year-old Emirati who, in the 1950s, is forced into an arranged marriage as the third wife of a much older, wealthy man. In order to research the details for this story, Gargash, an Emirati herself, interviewed many society elders and she paints a hauntingly beautiful picture of life in the region pre-oil and pre-unification.

Annabel Kantaria is a journalist and author who’s lived in the UAE for 16 years.  An exclusive early edition of her debut novel, Coming Home, (Harlequin MIRA, May 2015) will be available for the first time at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, March 3-7, 2015. Follow her on Twitter: @BellaKay; and on Instagram: dubaipix


Film adaptation of Maha Gargash’s The Sandfish gets distributors

The film adaptation of the Emirati writer Maha Gargash’s best­selling bookThe Sand Fish has secured a distribution deal.

MAD Solutions announced that it will handle the yet-to-be-filmed movie, a coming of age film called Sandfish, which will be directed by the Saudi Arabian filmmaker and actress Ahd Kamel, and co-produced by From A to Bproducer Paul Baboudjian’s new Dubai-based Tharwa Productions and creative producer Alessandra Priante. The screenplay was written by the Oscar-nominated When I Saw You writer/director Annemarie Jacir.

Abdallah Al Shami, GCC managing partner MAD Solutions, says: “MAD’s strategy is to try to work with a pan-Arab mindset with less focus on the country of origin. We also strive to open new channels of distribution for different genres in the film market.”

Kamel said: “I’m very honoured and blessed to collaborate with such great producers who feel very devoted to what they believe in and put so much faith in me to help make their dream come true.”

Sandfish was one of the finalists for IWC Filmmakers Award that was part of this year’s 11th edition of Dubai International Film Festival.

Chris Newbould

The Sand Fish on its way to the big screen

"It has been more than two years since the Emirati author Maha Gargash considered having her first novel The Sand Fish adapted for the big screen.

“A team approached me, having read the book and loved it,” says Gargash. “They saw some good possibilities for it. I think they have a big love for this country and its culture too, which was part of their attraction to the novel.”

The book, which has been adapted by the filmmaker Annemarie Jacir, is up for a US$100,000 (Dh367,000) IWC Filmmaker Award on Thursday, December 11. The story is set in the UAE of the 1950s and tells the tale of Noora, an independent Emirati woman who struggles with the conventions and traditions of the day. Gargash is particularly happy with how Jacir has treated her story.

“The screenplay is pretty faithful to the book,” she says. “And I was, of course, able to have my say. I’ve had regular contact with the producers and they’ve always asked for my thoughts. Once the screenplay was ready, they sent it to me and I read the whole thing, adding my comments. But there were no major changes, just some small things I suggested.”

How long Gargash will have to wait for the premiere of Sandfish – as it has been renamed – is impossible to predict. One thing is for sure: if the film’s director, the Saudi Arabian filmmaker and actress Ahd Kamel, wins the IWC, the cash prize would be a welcome springboard in gathering the funding needed to move the project forward.

“That’s what the producers are working on and hopefully it will happen soon. How much money is needed? I don’t know, you’ll have to ask them that,” says Gargash, laughing. “After all, I’m just an artist, what do I know about these things?”"

Rebecca McLaughlin-Duane

Summer Reads: Maha Gargash's favourite books

Maha Gargash has always enjoyed reading.

"Even as a child I devoured books," she says. "These days I read more than ever. As a writer, I realise how important it is, but also I read because I enjoy it."

The bestselling author of The Sand Fish was born in Dubai but studied in Washington, DC, and London. She completed a degree in radio and television before returning to Dubai to pursue a career as a documentary maker. In fact, she never intended to be a writer and spent 20 years making films before she wrote her first book.

These days she devotes herself to writing full time.

"The two mediums are so different but they can complement each other," she says. "For example, I used to do my own scriptwriting for documentaries. But it's very different to writing a novel."

So what inspired her to write The Sand Fish?

"I was interested in telling the story that is the subject of The Sand Fish, and I wanted to write about this area [Dubai] in the past. Not many books have been set here. In fact, there's very little written information about the area. So for me it was a big challenge."

It was a challenge that paid off, however. The Sand Fish, published in 2009, quickly became one of HarperCollins' best-selling novels in the Middle East, selling more than 25,000 copies and establishing Gargash as a respected writer. It also broke new ground with its subject matter: based in Dubai in the 1950s, it tells the story of a rebellious young woman trapped in a restrictive society.

Gargash is aware that she's among a new generation of Emirati writers, given that there is little history of a literary tradition in this part of the world. She points out, however, that that is fast changing.

"The literature scene here is growing year-on-year and it's very dynamic. It's really exciting to be part of it," she says.

Now in the process of writing a modern novel set in the UAE in the 1990s, she says she is finding it easier to write than her first book. "It's more modern and so I have less research to do," she explains, adding that she has no intention of returning to making documentaries, having found her true calling.

"I'm enjoying the whole 'writerly' thing," she says. "I love to write, but equally I love the freedom that comes with it. Put it this way - I love the lifestyle of a writer."

This lifestyle also allows her more time to read. She favours fiction over fact. "If I'm interested in a particular person, I will read their biography or memoir, but mostly I read fiction. And I really like historical fiction.

"Well-written books appeal to me and I read any chance I get but rarely during the day. I always read in bed at night. It's the best way to fall asleep."

The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

"The God of Small Things appeals to me for a number of reasons. I like the fact that I can read it over and over again. It starts at the end of the story with the death of one of the characters and you don't know why he died. Then it finishes at the beginning. This way of writing is very clever because you can't figure out what's happening. It makes you want to read on."

A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry

"Set in Mumbai in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during the Indian Emergency - a period of expanded government power and crackdowns on civil liberties - this book is about four people from varied backgrounds who develop a deep bond. I really admire Rohinton Mistry's ability to describe detail. It's as if he has tentacles all over his body and is able to pick up the smallest of things. The pace of his writing in this book is also beautiful - it never bores you."

Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

"I first read Pride and Prejudice a long time ago but it's a book I find myself returning to time and time again because it's so detailed, and I always find something new about it. Am I a romantic? I like the concept of romance, but I would not describe myself as a romantic. This book appeals to me nonetheless."

A Case of Exploding Mangoes - Mohammed Hanif

"A comic novel based on the plane crash that killed General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, a former president of Pakistan. It's a very witty story that is rooted in fact and it has a dark, satirical side to it. It's quite unique."

An Atlas of Impossible Longing - Anuradha Roy

"I'm reading An Atlas of Impossible Longing at the moment and really enjoying it. It's about a family living on the outskirts of a small town in Bengal, an eastern India state. There are lots of twists and turns to the plot so it keeps your interest at all times. I'm always happy to find a book that is well written."

Emirati fiction writer offers window onto reality of creative process

"It's very spicy!" says the Emirati author Maha Gargash of her new novel.

"The story is based in Cairo and Dubai, with its theme in the roots of a family. It's a cautionary tale about what bad roots can lead to and what is born out of deceit."

With the working title of her book a closely guarded secret, Gargash reveals only that her latest offering will be considerably longer than her first in 2009,The Sand Fish, which quickly became one of HarperCollins's top-selling titles in the Middle East and resulted in more than 25,000 copies being printed worldwide.

"I started the new book about two years ago," she says, "and I thought it would be finished by now. But there are so many layers to the story that it's not yet time to draw a conclusion. It's set between 1995-98 and the three main characters are related, interconnected - which is what's making it even longer, as you have to give each of them enough time to develop."

Born and bred in the UAE, Gargash studied in Washington, DC, and London before returning home to forge a successful career in television and documentary filmmaking. It was then, after more than two decades of scripting, directing and presenting sociocultural affairs, that she made her foray into the world of literature.

Her debut novel, The Sand Fish, is set in the 1950s and tells the poignant tale of Noora, a spirited young Emirati woman who wrestles with the traditions of her era and the prospect of a loveless arranged marriage. The author's second book, also featuring a family of Emiratis, tackles different issues and offers another glimpse into an Arabian society that still holds much mystique for readers worldwide.

Fearless and steadfast in her approach to storytelling, Gargash denies she's ever felt bound by convention to self-censor or dilute the content of her books.

"I think what I did was just not think about these things!" she says "With The Sand Fish, I later softened some bits that I thought were too open and I ended up taking a few bits out - but they really didn't affect the story or the narrative. And I don't think it was that risqué - I mean, some people didn't like the fact the girl did what she did, but that's personal opinion. You're not going to like everything you read."

That's not to say Gargash doesn't court her reader's affection. She relies on a trusty trio of friends to critique her work before it passes under an editor's nose and heads for mass market.

"Lina and Mimi read everything, chapter by chapter, and they are very verbal! They'll tell me: 'I don't like this … that's too clichéd; take this away', and strangely enough I follow their advice," she says, laughing. "Of course, I take it personally and we'll have a fight about it, but in the end and even if I'm feeling passionately about it, I'll just remove a big chunk and not remember having written it to begin with.

"My friend Ali helps me with local issues and gives me the male perspective of a world we can't see. He tells me how men think, could be insulted or would react in certain scenarios, for example. So I'm lucky to have very good friends who like to mull over these things and they push me to write, which is really a blessing."

When it comes to actually putting pen to paper, Gargash takes a disciplined but not regimental approach. No two days are the same, she says, with her writing time varying from two to eight hours. Getting started is the hard part.

"Writing is like exercise - you have to quickly put on your jogging shoes and just get out there, then you are fine," she says. "So what I do is open the computer and before I can change my mind, sit behind the desk, stare at the screen for five minutes and then just start typing. Otherwise I'll be looking for any excuse not to write, like cleaning the windows."

A peaceful household, regular coffee breaks and the occasional turn around the garden for inspiration might best describe an average day for Gargash while she is in the throes of completing her current novel. However, she's candid about the mental pressures writers face as they endeavour to create an atmosphere, describe complex relationships, keep the dialogue sparkling and pace a story well to its climax.

"With writer's block, if it's a really heavy block, then there's usually a real problem," she says "There may be an issue with the logic, for example, and it's often hard to pinpoint. You basically have to look at the story and shred it to bits to see where the problem is. If it happens, I have my friends, so I'll sit with them, throw things at them and usually we manage to get it flowing again."

"But you need to have a lot of patience," she adds, "and it can be a very lonely job sitting alone for many hours - just you and what's in your head."

It's questions about the frustrations, isolation but also the gratification of a creative career that Gargash will likely field when she participates at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai this March.

"I would tell aspiring writers to write, write, write," she says. "If you have the passion, then put your head to it and come up with something great."

Alongside her fellow novelist Selma Dabbagh and Silent Night author Charles Ellingworth, Gargash is delighted to find herself in esteemed company once again this year.

"It's a privilege to be asked to join because so many of the writers are heroes of mine," she says "It's a great event and very enjoyable because you get to spread the beautiful activity of reading to different people who come to attend."

Gargash will also partner with the distinguished poet Nujoom Al Ghanem who, in conjunction with Khalid Al Budoor, produced the award-winning documentary Hamama. Holding one of the festival's workshops on March 10, the duo will seek to demystify the process of crafting and adapting scripts for film, with particular emphasis on capturing a bygone age with authenticity.

For Gargash, film may be an equally prevalent part of her future as it was in her past, for the idea of seeing her novels grace the big screen is something she relishes.

"I would love that," she says. "But it's very difficult. I have sent it [The Sand Fish] to a few people in the States, but I think you have to know the right people and have someone to lobby for it, push the script. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. Much like publishing, the film world is a business and it has a lot to do with timing."

For now, Gargash is squarely focused on the perfect timing of her new novel's publication.

"I'm at a stage where it's very difficult to predict how long it will take," she says "Things are unfolding and one twist is leading to another, so I'm still writing it. But hopefully it will come soon."

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2012 will be held from March 6 to 10 at Al Mamzar & InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City. For more information visit www.emirateslitfest.com.


Life Camera Action

It may be one thing to land a cushy job at Dubai TV but it's quite another to be Director of the Arabesque series. When you meet Maha Gargash, you would have seen a UAE national woman, who has bravely stepped out of the archetypal woman's role into a profession that is tough yet very rewarding, writes Vijaya George. 

Maha with her cameraman Yousef Salamah, out on a shoot

"We had to wake up at 4.30 every morning. By 5.30 we were in the airplane ... travelling. Then, get to the next site ... pick our bags, go to the hotel room, wash our faces and out from 7 am to 7 pm on rough rough roads ... it is really exhausting". Maha Gargash is no dainty darling. If she was, she probably would not have been the Director of Dubai TV's Arabesque programme or deserve to be declared the Top woman employee at the Dubai Government excellence awards for the year 2000

Jostling with the crowds in a hot Yemeni market filming the local population buying the local drug called qat, walking from dawn to dusk through the long and rough roads of Uganda and Ethiopia for days on end documenting the history of these ancient lands, their peoples and their cultures, and driving beyond the urban to the harsher ends of the UAE's desert landscape seeking out new stories, has become a way of life for Maha and her tiny team of two.

All year long, the team travels extensively seeking out untold stories of dying traditions, and documenting Arab culture and heritage, transitional phases in local lifestyles and, sometimes, a stubbornly unchanging past. Being part of a small team, Maha often doubles up as researcher and scriptwriter, does the voice over and edits the shots as well.

Schooled in Dubai during her formative years, Maha's greatest advantage is that she is a native of Dubai and has lived here for the most part of her life. That gives her easier access to the most impenetrable part of the local population -- the native Arab woman. Out of that emerged her early documentaries An Invitation to a Wedding, which gives an inside look into local weddings and preparations, andZena, which focuses on local women as in the past and in the present. But now, she works full time on Arabesque, a documentary series, which portrays life in different Arab cultures, both home and abroad.

When she left for a college education to the United States in 1980, Maha had dreamt of returning home as a journalist. "But when I reached there, I changed my mind and decided no! TV is more to my liking ... I became more interested in the moving image and the combination of music and sound effects than the written word although I end up writing a lot of scripts ... but then, a TV script is very different from print," she says. That, coupled with a fantastic professor, who helped her discover where her talents lay, enabled her to start afresh in television.

In 1994, she returned home, joined Dubai Television, worked patiently on news and local programmes until she got the opportunity to dig her hands into what she'd been itching to do for many years -- documentaries.

Documentaries demanded extensive travel and commitment to the project. The very nature of her work left her with no time to settle down into married life -- at least, not yet. But having a supportive family around has made things easy in a region where women often get married early. "My family knows that my work and career are important to me. So they are not bothered as long as I am happy," says Maha. As the only daughter among three brothers, one would presume that she must have been pampered. "No," she says. Rather, "I was pushed to strive for better things in life. So I became ambitious like them."

Reversing the lens on herself

And ambition is what has driven Maha Gargash to her current position.WomenOne chats with the Director of the Arabesque documentary series to find out more about her work and what makes her tick.

Why television?

My interest in television stems from the possibilities in expression through the medium. It is a versatile tool for articulation. One can be artistic, innovative, straightforward, or completely unconventional.

How would you define your style?

Well ... depends on the stories. Some stories demand much faster edits ... the way you cut it ... the way you chop it. Some stories demand a slower style ... where you can take your time ... like wild life stories ... people want to see the animals ... so you have to huddle along with the elephants.

At the same time, I have tried to present a clear picture of what I want to say through my programmes while maintaining as much as possible my original stamp on the programme.

How would you define your role at Dubai TV?

Although I am employed as a Director in Dubai television, more and more I find I am more than that. I am an investigator, a scriptwriter, a researcher, a creator, a translator, and a listener. I suppose all that goes into the creation of a successful programme.

What is Arabesque all about?

The programme consists of three or four features -- of about 12 minutes each -- in an episode. It deals with a range of subjects including art, environment, nature, tourism, animals, social subjects and personality profiles. Some 50 stories are needed to make up the full 13 episodes of the programme.

All episodes are done in both Arabic and English. So, 13 Arabic and 13 English. We do 50% Arab region, or rather 40% local and 10% Arab and the other 50% is from the rest of the world. We like to stress a lot on local stories because we speak the language ... we are local ... we can relate to the people better. So, we try and find dying cultures or people who are isolated, or something you don't see here because it has become so modern here that we have lost touch with what it used to be.

What do you do when you are not working?

Well ... it's usually reading or daydreaming or playing the piano or singing. I studied Opera at the University. I'm also a Black Belt in Karate but I have an injured knee at the moment. So, now I'm trying to learn to ride horses.

What do you think is your greatest strength in this profession?

The fact that I am bilingual and quite comfortable with both Arabic and English. So, I can understand the sometimes very difficult accents of remote regions and relate to their way of thinking.

What are you working on currently?

We just went to Ethiopia. So part one will be a historical background of Addis Ababa and the history of Ethiopia. Of course, we just filmed for 5 days. It's not enough if we are going to do a proper Ethiopia story. We'll need a full month to cover the whole thing.

Tell us one of your favourite stories.

Actually, there are many! They are all interesting because we see different things. And they are all good and bad in their own ways. Ethiopia was very fantastic in terms of so much material and stories and subjects but very difficult and rough.

In God's own country

Kerala was beautiful. Ayurveda was very interesting. It was one of those stories that we decided to do when we got there. We went to this very old factory in Trivandrum, which had these really old machines. The family's been around for a 100 years. It was a fantastic factory. That, was a good story.

Do you find it limiting that you film for so many days and have to condense it to 11 or 12 minutes? How do you manage to bring out the essence then?

Well, that is the art of TV scriptwriting. You have to say a lot with few words. Ethiopia's history, for instance, goes back to 3000 years ago and we have to condense it.

You have filmed animals at close range in Africa. Are they dangerous?

No. Not with the animals. It's usually dangerous with people.

With people?

Well ... not danger danger. I mean, once we did a story on the qats -- the plants that the Yemeni population takes like a drug. It's very expensive and one of the major problems in their economy because people are spending so much money on buying it and living poor as a result. We did a story on that. We went filming in the market where they sell it. Because it's a drug, they get withdrawal symptoms if they don't take it. So, by 12 o'clock midday, our driver was like all flustered and said, 'I need to go and buy it.' There are these huge bushels in the marketplace. The people just sit there and chew it like a cow. They store it at the side of their mouth and swallow the juice slowly and it gives them that energy. We were filming that. Someone at the market thought we were making fun of them and the police came and arrested our cameraman. But luckily, we managed to get out of it.

Did your education abroad help?

Yes! Because you broaden your horizons, you see new things and you are exposed to new mediums.

But you were sure you would come back home?

Yaah! Somehow I knew it. If you don't come back, give your input ... if everybody does that, then what's the point? Moreover, I like to live here. Here, we are very close to the family. It's difficult to uproot yourself and give up everything you believe in. If you live in an American society, it's a very different society -- one that swallows you up. If you want to fit in, you have to become americanised. You cannot keep your identity and be happy there because the whole framework ... the whole system is like that. They all have the same kind of lifestyle ... same type of high school, university, the same input. So it is limiting ... you don't get the individualism that you get in other parts of the world. In Europe, you would get individualism. People live very happily as an Arab in Paris. They can be Arab and stay Arab. But you cannot do that in America. On the other side, there are various opportunities there. It is advanced technologically.

Do you think you missed out on that bit there?

No. Because in the end you want to do something with your skills and be happy as well and I think I have achieved that balance.

Most people eventually hope to do a dream project. Do you have one?

Yes! It would be nice to do a good budget feature film -- a local production on an international scale. Right now, there is no film industry here. I want to set it just before the oil and how it was before and after. Technical skills, we can always bring from abroad but what we need is local talent like a good scriptwriter and Arab actors. That will be the day!