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