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'.
Three Arab films supported by SANAD, the Development and Post-Production Fund of Abu Dhabi's twofour54, have won awards at the 66th annual Berlin International Film Festival, held in Germany from 11 to 21 February 2016.
Mohamed Ben Attia, director of 'Inhebbek Hedi' (Hedi), supported by SANAD in development and post-production, received the Best First Feature Award (50,000 EUR) during the official closing ceremony, and the film’s lead actor Majd Mastour received the Silver Bear for Best Actor as part of the official competition awards.
Tamer El Said, director of 'In the Last Days of the City', received the distinguished Caligari Film Prize (5,000 EUR) and Maher Abi Samra, director of 'A Maid for Each', received the distinguished Peace Film Prize (5,000 EUR). Both of these films received support through SANAD at various stages of their production. Mahdi Fleifel, a previous SANAD grantee for his widely acclaimed film 'A World Not Ours' (2012), won the Silver Bear Jury Prize for Short Film for this year’s 'A Man Returned'.
Ali Al Jabri, Director of SANAD said: “This achievement is a testament to SANAD’s success in supporting and developing international quality Arab films. It also demonstrates twofour54’s continued support for Arab filmmakers in the region.”
Al Jabri added: “SANAD serves as a vehicle for identifying and supporting remarkable projects and we are confident that such films will go on to create a meaningful body of work that ensures greater Arab artistic representation in contemporary world cinema. This recognition of the calibre of films we support from the Berlin International Film Festival is hugely encouraging, and demonstrates the growing demand from global audiences for seeing the latest films from the region.”
Inhebbek Hedi (Hedi) was a hit for the festival’s jury as well as prominent industry critics with the official jury comment: "Everyone on this jury was unanimously moved by the tenderness of this performance. In this hard to play role, of this diffident young man, who holds back his feelings you see and feel every emotional shift he is going through. It’s a brilliant performance - sensitive, delicate precise and totally absorbing!"
SANAD supported films have continually been featured at international film festivals such as Cannes, Berlin and Venice, and have received international recognition by receiving prestigious co-production support, winning distinguishing awards and accolades. SANAD provides not only funding but valuable industry support at critical stages of production and continues this support during later stages of release and distribution.
Following on from the success of her appearance at last year's Gibraltar International Literary Festival, Soul Bay Press has announced that London author Samantha Herron will be appearing at the Oxford Literary Festival this April. She will once again be talking to author and critic Iain Finlayson about her experiences living with a family of former nomads on the edge of the Sahara Desert and the stories in her debut collection 'The Djinn in the Skull: Stories from hidden Morocco'.
The event will take place on Wednesday 6th April 2016 at 2pm in the Bodleian: Divinity School, Bodleian Library, Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3BG. Tickets cost £12 and can be purchased online via the festival website.
When Samantha visited Morocco for the first time it changed the course of her life. On her return to London she abandoned her successful art career and, knowing that language is the key which opens the door into another culture, she devoted herself to studying Arabic. She went on to spend time living with a Berber family of former nomads, living in a small village in Morocco's Draa Valley on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Here she immersed herself in the language, traditions and culture of the family and the community in which she was living.
Samantha comments: 'I studied classical Arabic and the Quran with the women of the village, travelled in the desert, learned how to take care of camels and sheep, how to ablute and pray, and helped the other women in the family with the day-to-day running of the home. I fell in love with storytelling and stories, which are at the heart of everyday life in Morocco: sharing old stories handed down from generation to generation, embellishing jokes, spreading gossip or simply recounting a personal experience. I began to document the stories I was hearing and then found myself imagining and composing my own.'
This debut collection of her stories, all set in contemporary Morocco, takes the reader on a journey into the hearts and minds of ordinary Moroccans and offers a glimpse into life in this magical and ancient land.
Tahir Shah, author of 'The Caliph's House' and 'In Arabian Nights', comments: 'Samantha Herron has succeeded triumphantly in doing what many Occidental writers have failed in for centuries - showing Morocco from the inside out. The stories she has so eloquently told are part of the 'real' Morocco, a kingdom that is so often invisible to visitors. This magical realm has traditionally been received orally, and not through written text. It exists, not in the grand touristic sites, but in the ancient fabric of places like the Draa Valley, from where her stories come. A wonderful collection, highly recommended.'
Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Arabist and author of 'Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah', comments: 'Samantha Herron found some of her Moroccan stories ready-made. Others she imagined or dreamed. In size they are miniatures; but they all express big things on a small scale. Reading them is like peering through a series of keyholes – and, each time, glimpsing something momentary but momentous, instants with life-long consequences. They will make you smile, and shiver. And they will tell you as much truth about their Moroccan setting as a shelf-full of ethnologies.'
Samantha Herron’s previous work includes the English and Arabic publication 'Dardasha: Testimonies of Migration by Moroccan Women' (Soul Bay Press 2011) which was produced in association with the Al Hasaniya Moroccan Women’s Centre in London and featured at London’s Nour Festival of Arts 2013. Samantha presented some of the stories from 'The Djinn in the Skull: Stories from hidden Morocco' as part of The Storytelling Circle at Nour Festival of Arts 2014 and recently appeared in conversation with author and critic Iain Finlayson at the 2015 Gibraltar International Literary Festival. This is her first work of fiction.
Soul Bay Press is an independent publishing house based in London, Eastbourne and Sydney. It specialises in publishing both new work by emerging authors and old classics which are out of print or copyright.
Source: Press Release
by Rana Asfour
I’ve been busy on a path of discoveries; I’ve discovered that I do have the courage, at my age, to own a sports car with red leather seating. I have discovered that I can write a full work of fiction – albeit a short story. I have discovered that humans can be immortal.
After I read of the death of American author Harper Lee as well as Italian author Umberto Eco, who both passed away a few days ago, my first and frankly quite natural reaction was to rummage through my stacks of books for these authors’ works that I had tucked within my collection. Most recent, of course, was that of Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ and a less recent one that I owned by Umberto Eco, ‘The Name of the Rose’.
As I read excerpts from both, it was hard to imagine that these brilliant writers could ever be truly silenced by an inconvenience such as death. As the words jumped out at me, I believed with all my heart that they were truly there and that their distinct voices spoke to me in the here and now reinforcing a life-long friendship that had sprung without ever a personal meeting or conversation having taken place.
My memory strays to the time when I lost my father over ten years ago. Thinking back to that time, I now realize that he must have had a premonition that he wouldn’t be with us for long after his diagnosis, so he’d done the best thing he knew how to do to. He wrote us a letter; one we would find in his desk drawer a few days after he had passed. As heartbreaking as it was to find the letter, signaling a finality to an unbelievable truth the living are unwilling to accept when a loved one is taken from amongst them, and yet it was as comforting as any we could ever have hoped to receive.
‘Words are immortal’, Cornelia Funke once wrote and yet sadly many of us shy away from doing so believing it is the sole profession of writers to do so. And yet we, as humans, are natural communicators, who have from the beginning of time used the written form in one way or another to document who we are and where we come from, to establish identity and to discover meaning. We write to understand and to be understood. We write as a form of therapy and relief, to entertain and to sadden. We write for personal fame or to change the world. We write for immortality.
And as refreshing as my discovery is to myself regarding the immortality of authors, it is hardly new. According to Wikipedia, The Immortality of Writers is an Ancient Egyptian wisdom text likely to have been used as an instructional work in schools. It is recorded on the verso side of the Chester Beatty IV papyrus (BM 10684) held in the British Museum.
The scribe advises that writings of authors provide a more sure immortality than fine tombs. The text is dated to the transition period between the19th dynasty and the 20th dynasty.
‘...Those writers known from the old days, the times just after the gods. Those who foretold what would happen (and did), whose names will endure for eternity. They disappeared when they finished their lives, and all their kindred forgotten. They did not build pyramids in bronze with gravestones of iron from heaven. They did not think to leave a patrimony made of children who would give their names distinction, rather they formed a progeny by means of writing and in the books of wisdom they left...
They gave themselves [the scroll as lector]-priest, the writing board as loving son. Instruction are their tombs, the reed pen their child, the stone surface their wife…Man decays, his corpse is dust. All his kin have perished; But a book makes him remembered through the mouth of its reciter. Better is a book than a well built house…
The Book: 'Nip The Buds, Shoot the Kids' by Kenzaburo Oe
Where does she find the time one wonders? the fabulous De Smith chilling at Abu Dhabi's Circle Cafe ahead of this Friday's 'Little Birdie Pop Up' Boot Sook at Zayed Sports City!
by Kubra Mubashshir - Guest Reviewer
'Still Alice' is a moving story of a woman with early onset Alzheimer's disease, now a major Academy Award-winning film starring Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart.
Human beings take many things for granted; Life, family, comforts and even memories. We are what our memories, thoughts and experiences make us. But what if we lose our memory and can’t summon our thoughts? Will we be the same people if we have no memory of the past, no dexterity of thought and no recognition of the people/places that surround us? This question is debilitating as much as it is disturbing.
I started reading ‘Still Alice’ as part of my book club read. Of late we have been able to select books that have satisfied the reader in us.
Anyways the start looked promising and casually normal. A Harvard professor who has a successful teaching career spends her time lecturing students, attending and speaking at seminars/conferences still managing to make time to spend with her family.
Slowly I became engrossed in her character and was able to feel her anxiety when the beginnings of her illness began to take hold. Her denial to accost the dilemma at hand felt real. From being a brilliant professor of cognitive psychology at Harvard and a renowned expert in linguistics, the illness turned her in to someone who couldn’t remember words, identify faces or places or keep track of a conversation.
I could feel her frustration at forgetting words/people/faces and for being shut out because not everyone would like to be around a forgetful lady they might think is annoyingly repetitive and capricious.
Without her memory, thoughts and her job she is left with more time and less prospects. This is one book you have to read more so for its realistic portrayal of the life of a patient. The only thing that annoyed me was the occasional long descriptions of Boston along with the cold and drawn out medical explanations (made it feel like a medical journal). However these are minor flaws compared to the plot.
I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Kubra Mubashshir runs the Abu Dhabi-based bookclub 'Ravenous Readers'. You can find them on Facebook.