An Emi­rati tale of fam­ily se­crets and be­trayal

Rym Ghazal speaks to Maha Gar­gash, the au­thor of this month’s The Na­tional Book Club ti­tle, about her new novel That Other Me, a drama about so­cial con­ven­tions

The National - News - The Review - - Roundup - Maha Gar­gash is speak­ing at the Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture to­day from 3.30pm to 4.30pm. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit www.emi­rates­lit­fest.com Rym Ghazal is a fea­tures writer and colum­nist at The Na­tional.

If Maha Gar­gash could step into a time ma­chine, she would turn the di­als to Novem­ber 4, 1922.

“Imag­ine the thrill of dis­cov­er­ing Tu­tankhamun’s tomb with­out the curse,” says the Emi­rati nov­el­ist, “or the source of the Nile with­out malaria?”

It was this spirit of ad­ven­ture and a nat­u­ral cu­rios­ity that led the for­mer TV doc­u­menta- ry-maker and au­thor of The Sand Fish to ex­plore, dis­cover and record new places.

“I love trav­el­ling to new and dif­fer­ent places to dis­cover some­thing few peo­ple know about. It could be a lit­tle-known plant or an­i­mal, or a cul­ture hid­den away some­where re­mote. I tried to zero in on such places on my many trips when I worked in tele­vi­sion,” she says.

Th­ese days, the Emi­rati’s ad­ven­tures are in the writ­ten word, with the launch last month of That Other Me, pub­lished by Harper Peren­nial.

Set in mid-1990s in Dubai and Cairo, the novel ex­plores aspects of the Khaleeji cul­ture through a prom­i­nent Emi­rati fam­ily, and shows how se­crets and be­tray­als con­sume three of its mem­bers: an au­thor­i­tar­ian father, a re­bel­lious aban­doned daugh­ter and a vul­ner­a­ble niece.

“Fam­ily con­flict in­trigues me be­cause fa­mil­ial bonds usu­ally make it harder to walk away. There are al­ways so many emo­tions and de­ci­sions to sift through,” says Gar­gash.

“That Other Me is about find­ing the per­son that you are. It’s about adopt­ing mul­ti­ple per­sonas to be suc­cess­ful in life.

“There are three main char­ac­ters: the dom­i­neer­ing Ma­jed, who stole his older brother’s com­pany; his niece Mariam, who, as a re­sult, ended up left with no for­tune; and Dalal, kept largely on the side­lines of his life be­cause she is the daugh­ter of his se­cret se­cond wife. I set up this premise to be able to pro­ceed with a tale that would turn out to be mul­ti­lay­ered and full of sur­prises.”

Light in tone, her re­flec­tions on cul­ture and so­cial norms will strike a fa­mil­iar chord with Arab read­ers and will in­trigue, even sur­prise, western read­ers. That Other Me is her se­cond novel af­ter The Sand Fish, set in Dubai in the 1950s and now be­ing made into a film.

“My fo­cus tends to be on all things re­lated to so­ci­ety: col­lec­tive con­ven­tions and tra­di­tions, habits and the in­di­vid­ual’s par­tic­u­lar place in the so­cial struc­ture. Shake th­ese up, and you end up with a taboo topic.

“My themes are not alien. They are to do with no­tions and emo­tions most peo­ple can re­late to. They in­clude for­bid­den love and the im­por­tance of find­ing your best self,” she says. “Dalal and Mariam in That Other Me find out that things don’t come easy. They do not re­alise it at first, but they are on a quest to give mean­ing to their ex­is­tence. ‘ Who am I re­ally? What de­fines me?’

“Th­ese are ques­tions we all ask our­selves to a cer­tain de­gree.” This week­end, Gar­gash will dis­cuss her novel and the role of fam­i­lies in fic­tion, at the Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture, in Dubai.

She de­scribes her cre­ative process as: “Some­thing pings in my head, and I jot it down quickly be­fore stuff­ing it into my pocket. By the end of the day, I could have no less than 50 pieces of pa­per stuck to each other, look­ing like a chunky, messy origami, beg­ging to be un­furled and sorted out.”

Gar­gash says: “I love to put my pro­tag­o­nists in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions or push them to the edge of des­per­a­tion. But we all know how char­ac­ters can get. They take a life of their own and sur­prise you with all sorts of pos­si­bil­i­ties.”

Noora, the hero­ine of The Sand Fish, is an in­de­pen­dent Emi­rati woman who strug­gles with the con­ven­tions and tra­di­tions of the UAE in the 1950s. Why did she choose to set her first novel in the re­cent past?

“I had a lot of in­for­ma­tion about the peo­ple and so­ci­eties of those days, col­lected through in­ter­views with var­i­ous el­ders of my fam­ily and peo­ple liv­ing in far-flung towns and vil­lages that I’d filmed when mak­ing my doc­u­men­taries.

“With the rapid changes that we have wit­nessed in the UAE, it was im­por­tant to me to bring to life that pe­riod in story form for gen­er­a­tions to read and en­joy,” says Gar­gash.

Pawan Singh / The Na­tional

Emi­rati Maha Gar­gash sign­ing copies of her lat­est novel, That Other Me, at a lo­cal book­store.

That Other Me Maha Gar­gash Harper Peren­nial Dh47

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