By Roz Kay
As Maha Gargash notes herself, few books come out of the United Arab Emirates that are written by and about Emiratis.
So her second novel, That Other Me, is a rare gem in more ways than one. Beautifully written, meticulously detailed, humorous and warm, it explores Emirati life in the 1990s through the eyes of three characters bound by family ties and struggles.
“You’ll be reading about a very different, much more conservative culture,” Maha says. “A segregated society, a different way of doing things.
“But the feelings are universal. The same emotions, the same kind of worries. So whoever reads it would be able to relate to it.”
The change of pace in Maha’s country is so rapid that some aspects of the society she writes about are alien even to Emiratis.
“This was in the nineties, but I’m sure the youth who read it now would think, oh my goodness, it’s so ancient, did they really do these things at that time?” she says.
Maha is herself an Emirati, born in Dubai where she now lives. She studied in Washington DC and London. For more than twenty years, she worked in television in Dubai, directing and making documentaries. She was also involved in Nights of Dubai, an early singing reality show much like American Idol, which features in That Other Me as one of her characters, Dalal, tries to become a star in the glamorous Arab showbiz world.
“A lot of the things take place in Cairo because I dealt with many people in TV, singing and the film industry in Egypt, which is the center for Arab cinema and stars,” Maha says.
Getting below the surface in Dubai
I suggested that her novels offer an insight into a slice of Arab life that even frequent visitors, ex-pats, or immigrants in the UAE might never see. Maha agrees, telling me that native Emiratis make up only ten percent of the country’s population. (She asked me to check this figure; I did, and she’s right).
“[Visitors] will definitely not know what’s going on in local society unless they have a good friend who takes them to the house, and that happens less and less,” she says.
“People will come here, they’ll hardly meet any locals, and they would definitely not see something like the societies that are described in here.
“So I had to think about who’s reading this book and make sure they’re not alienated. Whoever is going to read it, whether they know about the society or not, needs to be able to connect to the characters and the story.”
So Maha goes to some lengths to explain things that Western readers might find mysterious, without making the reader feel that things are being explained, by bringing a sentence here or there into the flow of the story to shed light where needed.
“Which is a tricky business,” she says. “But I always think about that when I write my novels.”
Perhaps most important of all, Maha’s deep and detailed research means that her novels also preserve rapidly vanishing features of Arab life—from the dramatically changing infrastructure of Dubai to the eclipsing of aspects of Emirati culture and society.
Her first novel, The Sand Fish, is set in the fifties and was an international bestseller, praised for its pure, poetic language as it tells the story of three wives in one household.
“I think it’s important to have kind of a record,” Maha says.
“I did a lot of research [for The Sand Fish] to find out what life was like in the fifties, the kind of social structure, the kind of lifestyle, which the younger generations don’t know anything about.
“So that was really important to me, to get that out in a descriptive way so that a reader can open the book and enjoy it, and feel like they’re there. And with the second book, again it’s nice to see the mechanics of the society, how people interact, what’s important.
“But at the end of the day it’s about telling a good story.”
Betrayals and secrets
And a good story depends on the characters.
“I’m always interested in people and what motivates them,” Maha says. “What gets their blood flowing, and especially families. There’s a lot more at stake when you’re talking about families.
“I put the three characters in this situation where there are betrayals and secrets. Each one of them sees themselves in a way, or would like to be a certain way, but there are things always holding them back.
“All three characters don’t really know who they are. They’re not exactly the way they see themselves. But we as readers understand what they are.”
Whereas The Sand Fish told the story from one point of view in third person, Maha pushed herself in That Other Me to take on, in first person, the voices of three very different characters.
“At the beginning I had two girls, and then I thought I need to put the man too. And then I regretted it because it was much more difficult,” Maha says, and laughs.
The male character, Majed, was the hardest for her to get to grips with and to understand, to see from his point of view what was important for him.
“Not just as a male: as an Emirati male, as an Arab male, from a culture that’s very conservative,” Maha says.
“This was very difficult for me because you have to get into his head and think like a male, on issues such as shame, your place in society. How important are these things? And they’re very important for both males and females, but I think more so for males because if they fail at that, then they would be looked upon as failures in society.
“Our society is a very closed society. It’s one that judges, it’s one that even if it doesn’t judge, you’re always judging yourself. And as a male you’re doing it doubly so, so the females of the family do reflect upon you.”
As she was writing, she had male friends review her drafts.
“And they’re like, no, no, no … he’d never be like that,” Maha says. “I had to change him, make him more gruff, more tough, and it was a very alien thing for me to do, because women express themselves much more.
“But for males, and especially in this society, a lot of these feelings have to be hidden very, very deep, and even when he discusses his problems with his male friends, really he doesn’t discuss anything.”
Which, as Maha says, doesn’t sound that alien in any society. Universal feelings indeed.
© Roz DeKett
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About the author
Maha Gargash, an Emirati born in Dubai to a prominent business family, has studied in Washington DC and London. With her degree in radio and television, she joined Dubai Television to pursue her interest in documentaries. Through directing television programs that deal mainly with Arab societies, she became involved in research and scriptwriting. Her first novel, The Sand Fish (HarperCollins, 2009) was an international bestseller. That Other Me was published by the HarperCollins imprint Harper Perennial in 2016.
You can learn more about Maha on her website, www.mahagargash.com