by Rana Asfour
Maha Gargash will be discussing her latest release 'That Other Me' at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on Saturday 12 March. To book tickets, click HERE.
My belief is that it’s always unfair to compare a writer’s recent work to any of their previous work, for authors are like chameleons; their writing shaped by circumstance and mood at the moment of their latest creation. Let’s face it: they’d be boring and repetitive if the case were any different.
However, I will make an exception, just this once, when I write about Maha Gargash’s recent novel ‘That Other Me’. I first picked up Gargash’s first novel ‘The Sand Fish’ (a review here) when I was on a visit to the UAE - a year or two before moving there. The cover caught my eye and of course I was curious to read the work of an Emirati writer and to see what women writers of the Arabian Gulf got up to when they decided to write books. I was frankly quite blown away. I wasn’t alone, and her book has been an international bestseller in several countries and still garners much appreciation whenever it is read anew.
Cue Gargash’s recent novel ‘That Other Me’ which is extremely well written and engaging just like her first, yet unlike ‘The Sand Fish’ this one came across slightly as a modern yet cautionary but not preachy, Arabic TV sitcom – which is not a bad thing at all and which is what Gargash also does – writes television programs that deal with traditional Arab societies. Also, where this book fell slightly short is with its characters that, although believable, lacked the depth that is required for a reader to feel a genuine bond with any of them and then to sustain that bond well after the last page has been turned.
‘That Other Me’ is about two Emirati girls of the same family and how their lives interweave and intersect with the different lives of other members of their family as they grow up in different circumstances. The author writes of their woes and their tribulations as each of the girls tries to forge an independent life for herself in spite of the limitations and expectations each comes up against whether from the other family members or from society.
Dalia and Mariam al Naseemy are cousins who are controlled by the same despotic, selfish, cold-hearted, conniving ageing Emirati man Majed – father to Dalia, and uncle and guardian to Mariam. A man who believes that his role as head of the family and as the one who controls all the wealth entitles him to full say in the lives of his household members – both male and female – irrespective of the family’s desires, wants and needs. He is an alienating character to everyone around him and it is not long before he starts to reap the seeds of all the hate he has sowed among his divided – quite numerous - family members.
On the surface this is a modern tale narrated in modern cities with the characters seeking present day aspirations, which to some readers may seem unremarkable dreams to have. Mariam wants to become a dentist, Dalia a popstar. However, when it comes to the Naseemy family, these dreams become proper groundbreaking milestones because of the dynamics of this family in particular.
Mariam is sent to study dentistry in Egypt and as such becomes the first female in her family ever allowed to travel abroad for an education. This is a situation that does not sit well with the other members of the household, and it is interesting to note the particular resentment the female married cousins harbour towards Mariam’s situation. It is also particularly poignant to note why Majed, this misogynistic, sexist man would agree to such a move in the first place.
Dalia’s situation is slightly more complicated. She is the love child of Majed’s brief relationship with Zohra, an Egyptian he’d met in Dubai and took as a second wife. After Dalia is born and his well-hidden secret is scandalously exposed, Majed swiftly disposes of mother and daughter who leave Dubai to Egypt to live in a ‘wretched alley where rats grow fat and roaches don’t scurry to hide’.
An unwanted, uncared for child Dalia seeks to find her place in the world as a nineteen-year-old following rules she makes up as she goes along planning her path to stardom. There is no doubt about her singing talent, however that does not spare her the wrath of her hateful resentful father who, like most khaleejis, looks down on such a profession, as he consequently makes it his business to plot for her failure to secure her demise.
‘That Other Me’ tells the tale of the Naseemy family through the perspective of these three family members - Majed, Mariam and Dalia - although at a later stage in the novel we do have two peripheral characters that as if inadvertently or even unknowingly steal the limelight – Majed’s wife Aisha and her sister Shamma - who play a pivotal role in the shaping of the novel’s poignant ending. It would have been a real bonus to garner more insight from their perspective as well.
‘That Other Me’ is in a way a novel about women in Arab families and the niche they carve for themselves to secure a position from which they can be acknowledged and taken seriously. There is the compelling and quite frightening figure of ‘Mama al Ouda’ – the grandmother – who because of seniority exerts a lot of power and commands respect even from a despot such as Majed. The plotting daughters of Majed’s household – think Cinderella’s ugly spoilt sisters – who bicker and squabble and are resentful of and hateful to both Mariam and Dalia. And then there is Zohra, Majed’s second wife, an emotionally disconnected woman who comes from a broken background and is ultimately a product of a harsh and cruel existence and how all that translates itself in her attitude towards her own daughter.
‘That Other Me’ spins a tale about the relationships that bind the members of one Emirati family together and a view into how the dynamics of modern life is redefining Gulf Arab culture and challenging the core values of a tribal patriarchal society and the possibilities and repercussions this all presents for the future of the young men and women of the 'Khaleej'.