A new anthology of short stories about Middle Eastern cities hopes to convey the region’s true spirit to the West
‘He knew he was doomed as soon as he saw her at the arrivals hall at the Dubai International Airport.’ So begins ‘The Week Before The Wife Arrived’, Fadwa al-Qasem’s short story about guilt, longing and a haemorrhaging marriage, set in our very own desert city. ‘Dubai is a character in the story,’ Qasem tells Time Out. ‘I think that any city you live in is your playground and it has rules, you play by the rules, you break the rules, and sometimes the rules break you. In that sense, a city is a character in your own life story as well.’ The city shapes experience.
As a character in our life, Dubai is probably one of those sneaky types who pretend to be a friend – promising glamour and wealth, but instead ensuring you gain weight and spend all your time in the office. But in the anthology Madinah: City Stories From The Middle East, it is just one of 10 city ‘characters’. Each short story in the anthology is set in a Middle Eastern city, written by an author from the region and translated into English (bar two, including Qasem’s, which were written in English). The project aims to show Western readers that there is not just an ‘Arab world’, but a selection of cultures. So, rather than treating Arab writing as a single voice, it showcases the literatures of Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and other countries across the region.
You would be hard pushed to find someone more qualified than Qasem to talk about cultural exchange. Born in Libya, she is in fact Palestinian, but holds Canadian citizenship. Oh, and she speaks four languages (Arabic, English, French and Spanish). First arriving in Dubai in 1984, she has lived here for 20 years, having left and come back again. ‘I’ve known Dubai all that time, so I’m very familiar with this particular playground,’ she says, explaining why she chose to write about it for Madinah. ‘But the story is not intending to represent Dubai. The story is about guilt, which is a very human theme.’
Qasem’s story is in the form of a diary, told in reverse order. This creates a disorienting effect mirroring our male protagonist’s state of mind. His wife is due to visit from Amman, where she lives with their children while he resides in Dubai, carving out a mediocre career in marketing. But her imminent arrival induces in him a cloying paranoia. We are inside his mind as he desperately, sometimes comically, sets about concealing his bachelor lifestyle, and his yearning for a woman that is not his wife. What was Qasem’s inspiration for this tale? ‘Do you want names?’ she laughs. ‘I was trying to tackle the idea of guilt and how it affects you so much, you start to think that you did do something. All of the things he tries to cover up never actually occurred. But guilt is a powerful feeling, it affects the way you react and behave, and it is overwhelming him. It’s a feeling everybody suffers from and can relate to.’
Notably, Qasem’s story is one of few in the anthology not set against a backdrop of war. Rather than focusing on an experience particular to the Middle East, its themes establish a sense of commonality, of what it is to be human.
‘I’ve been lucky not to have lived under war myself, even though I’m Palestinian,’ Qasem explains. ‘It didn’t come to me to write about violence.’ But, she concedes, perhaps there was an unconscious need to write about a different Middle Eastern experience. ‘Maybe it’s this idea that we’re always seen as violent places and war-torn. I don’t like to be pigeonholed as a region. There are lots of other things going on that don’t get enough attention – the art, the literature, the creativity – there’s so much. But it’s covered up by this other view, which is a great shame.’
While the anthology is about sharing cultural experience, Qasem is also a female writer trying to understand the perspective of a man who wants to cheat on his wife.
‘That was the hardest thing,’ she admits. ‘But it’s enlightening and informative for me to put myself in the man’s shoes, to see how he might see things and feel and think.’ The anthology, then, is perhaps more of an experience exchange, coming down to more than just culture. ‘I think any kind of exchange is a good idea,’ responds Qasem. ‘If nothing else, it forces you to open your eyes. Hopefully your mind will follow.’ Madinah: City Stories From The Middle East is published by Comma Press and is available to order from Magrudy’s for Dhs52