Stoning the Devil

The Gulf, its people and landscapes; Arab women's lives; Stoning the Devil, my novel-in-stories

Month: May, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

This famous sail-shaped hotel in Dubai, Burj al Arab, one of the most luxurious in the world (suites come with full-time valets!) is reminiscent of the hotel to which Khalifa takes his mistress, Randa, in “No Free Lunch” (the final chapter of Stoning the Devil. They have lunch at a restaurant, which is described thus:

“On stepping out of the submarine, Randa found herself in a softly lit tunnel, round, ribbed with gold. The floor was black marble. The hushing of the air conditioning gave Randa the impression she was meandering along an inner ear.

“As Khalifa had predicted, the maitre d’, a sallow-faced Indian, looked askance at Randa for a moment. Fortunately, Khalifa was so lordly that everyone assumed he was a sheikh. With an obsequious smile, the maitre d’ wished them bon appetit and summoned a waitress.

“With a wall of glass separating the diners from seawater that seethed with weed and fish, the Al Mahara Restaurant was cold and clammy and bathed in bluish light. Randa felt she had slid into some primitive dimension where instinct governed and reason was useless. A manta ray flapped past with the deathly elegance of a moth.”

Khalifa and Randa meet Sultan there, one of K’s Emirati friends, and his Russian mistress, Oksana. While there, the two men make a proposal which Randa finds repugnant, but prior to that they have a conversation that reminds her of the one in Raymond Carver’s story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”–which is, of course, anything but love.

So far in these blog posts I have talked much about the traditional way of life, but western luxury of an extravagant nature is very much part of the Gulf scene. In fact, so prevalent is it that in many ways I think the Gulf can be regarded as a microcosm of super-capitalism: here consumerism and hedonism are catered to, indeed pandered to (at a cost, of course–an subservient and poorly-paid populace of Third World workers supports it), and the reigning atmosphere is of fantasy. Most visitors remark on how Disneyfied the Gulf is. It has an air of unreality that I find distasteful. Some may object that it’s clean, beautiful, and glamorous, but like the world of Disney, it’s a kitsch world, in which (to borrow Milan Kundera’s definition) shit has been abolished. People are lulled into thinking they are in a perfect fantasy world so that they will be unrestrained consumers and shoppers. Thus capitalism goes hand in hand with sentimentality. The latter is used to further the former. Just as in the west, Emirati girls have Hello, Kitty handbags, and cuddly Disney toys. This is not to say, of course, that all Arabs approve of this. Some lament the loss or exploitation of their culture. And in fact at the end of this chapter of Stoning the Devil, Randa takes a stand. You’ll have to read the book to find out what she does.

This is another photo from the Yolanda Reinoso/Kevin Watson collection, by the way. Thank you, both of you. I shall shortly be back to using my own.

 

The Blue Souk, Sharjah

The UAE is famous for its shopping, particularly its huge shopping malls, which I heartily detest, but some of the more old-fashioned souks or markets can be interesting. This is the Blue Souk in Sharjah, the most conservative of the Emirates (Shariah law holds sway here, because the sheikhdom is supported by Saudi Arabian money, so alcohol is completely forbidden here, even in the foreign hotels). The stalls inside sell carpets from all over the Middle East, but Iran especially, with a fair number from Afghanistan and Baluchistan as well, as well as antiques. You can find the traditional silver jewelry which women used to wear–since the oil boom, they’ve worn little but gold–which is heavy but in my opinion more beautiful than the delicate western-inspired jewelry worn now. I particularly like the forehead circlets, from which silver coins (usually Habsburg Maria Theresas, or copies thereof) hung, and the heavy anklets. There are all kinds of weapons too–the curved dagger or khanjar, which I’ve mentioned before, and which plays a part in “The King of Kandy”–Kamila has an urge to snatch one from an Omani man and go back to the hotel room she’s been in and run amok–as well as scimitars, and more often, rifles. These range from cheap little Turkish guns, about a hundred years old, to the highly prized European army guns, like the British .303 owned by Badria’s father in “Stoning the Devil”, with which he is supposed to have shot a number of enemy tribsemen in a feud when he was a young man. Beautiful brass and silver coffee pots abound as well. I’ve also seen Portuguese sea chests, or chests which the sellers claimed were Portuguese, dating back, so they said, to the sixteenth century. Early gramaphones are common too; I own a His Master’s Voice one, which probably dates to the nineteen twenties. You’ve probably heard that you have to bargain in the souks, and this is quite true. If you don’t, not only will you pay too much, but you’ll deprive the seller of the pleasure of arguing with you. If you do it right, it takes a long time. Usually the seller will order you tea, or a cold drink, and often will invite you to sit on a carpet as you talk. These conversations can take a long time, and at the end of them you feel almost like friends. As a Kashmiri carpet merchant said to me once, a good bargain is one in which both the seller and the buyer come out happy. How true that is! And what a civilized way to go shopping it is.

Once again the photo was taken by my esteemed friend, Yolanda Reinosa. Thanks, Yoly.

Mosque in Jumeirah

Here’s an extract from “A Woman’s Weapon”, in Stoning the Devil. Fayruz is the Lebanese-Palestinian wife of Colin, an English professor. She’s in her apartment, worrying about where her errant husband, and while listening to the muezzin call the faithful to prayer from a minaret (in fact the call is usually recorded nowadays) and watching an Afghan truck driver praying, she starts to have a flashback of traumatic memories of the massacres of Palestinians carried out by Christians and Israelis at Sabra and Shatila (refugee settlements outside Beirut) in 1982:

Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar! The muezzins’ cries broke almost simultaneously from a dozen minarets, filling the sky like a flock of wheeling, screeching, scattering birds. The Afghan spread his mat on the ground beside his truck. God is great! God is great! The echoes tripped over each other, moments apart, high and low, harsh and sweet, poignant, pregnant with longing, as the English said. She had been pregnant with the child of a Muslim militiaman, she couldn’t be sure whose, conceived in a car or an alley, who knew, there had been so much sex, snatched in lulls between the fighting. Trousers round their ankles, those boy-men had fired off their semiautomatic sperm. There is no God but God—but God—but God, the holy cretins sang, and Mohammed is his prophet, prophet. The Afghan knelt. Fayruz hadn’t prayed since the massacre.

The mosque in the photo–which was again taken by Yolanda Reinoso, so thanks to her–is a fairly typical modern mosque in the Gulf. I always liked the proportions of this one. Jumeirah, as I’ve mentioned before, is a pleasant part of Dubai, mostly low-rise Spanish-style villas. A lot of western expats live here. So too does Randa, Fayruz’s sister-in-law, after her divorce from her unfaithful husband, the banker Marwan. Randa’s married Emirati lover, Khalifa, provides a ‘love-nest’ for her in a high-rise block with a view of the beach; he also gives her a sports car and clothes. This is a common arrangement in the Gulf, as it was in European countries in the nineteenth century. Incidentally, it’s not at all uncommon to find western women being kept by Arab lovers. They live very well, too. I had a friend from Guinea, a deeply religious man–in fact the imam of the Durham mosque–who told me that I should find myself such a lover when I went to the Emirates. He assured me that I could find a beautiful Somali or Sudanese woman for a very reasonable price.

On Fridays, all male Muslims are supposed to attend the mosque for prayers. In the Gulf women are not allowed into most mosques, though there are mosques for women, for instance on the women’s campuses of the universities. In general, though, women have to pray at home. (However, in some countries, women can attend the mosques. In Turkey, for instance, I saw women in the mosques, though they were kept apart from the men, at the back.) Non-Muslims can’t enter mosques in the Gulf either, so although I have been in mosques in Delhi, in Istanbul, and Kenya, I have never been in one in the UAE. On Fridays the mosques are packed to overflowing. Many worshippers have to spread their prayer mats outside, on the sidewalks or pavements or even in the road, and traffic comes to a halt. (It’s light anyway at this time). The sermons are broadcast on loudspeakers and can be heard all over the city, whether you want to hear them or not. They’re often passionate; you hear angry imams haranguing the faithful about many issues, especially political ones like the ‘Zionist entity’ (Israel). The imams are not professional clerics in Sunni Islam, though

Mosque in Jumeirah

This photo (by Yolanda Reinoso again–thanks!) is a fairly typical modern mosque in the UAE. It is in Jumeirah, the beach district of Dubai, where a lot of western expats live. Another resident is Randa, the Palestinian-Lebanese wife of Marwan in Stoning the Devil. After the divorce she lives in a high-rise apartment provided for her by her married Emirati lover, the businessman Khalifa, who also buys her a little sports car and keeps her in clothes. Incidentally, such arrangements are quite common in the Gulf, as they were in nineteenth-century Europe, and are by no means confined to Muslim women. A lot of western women choose to be kept by rich locals. I had a friend, a deeply religious man–in fact an imam–who told me I should I find myself a lover. He said I could find a Sudanese or Somali woman for a very reasonable rate.  He saw no contradiction with his religion. Women were simply a legitimate diversion for him. This same man also strongly recommended Parisian prostitutes.

In the UAE, almost all mosques are reserved for men; women have to pray at home, in general, though in many Muslim countries they are allowed to enter the mosque, but they pray at the back, apart from the men. At the Friday noon prayer, all male Muslims are expected to pray at the mosque and they are very crowded. So crowded are they, in fact, that many people can’t get in, and will pray outside, spreading their prayer mats on the pavements or sidewalks, or even in the roads. Outside my apartment block in Abu Dhabi, for example, every Friday I could see a big crowd in the street outside the closest mosque–so big that traffic couldn’t pass. In any case traffic is very light during the Friday prayers. For this reason, westerners often use that time to run errands. Incidentally, non-Muslims aren’t allowed in the mosques in the UAE either, so I haven’t been inside one there, though I have in Kenya, Turkey and India.

Here is an extract from “A Woman’s Weapon” in Stoning the Devil. Fayruz is Randa’s sister-in-law. She is listening to the muezzins calling the faithful to prayer and watching an Afghan truck driver from her apartment as she begins to relive the trauma of Christian and Israeli massacres carried out in Sabra and Shatila (refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut) in 1982:

Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar! The muezzins’ cries broke almost simultaneously from a dozen minarets, filling the sky like a flock of wheeling, screeching, scattering birds. The Afghan spread his mat on the ground beside his truck. God is great! God is great! The echoes tripped over each other, moments apart, high and low, harsh and sweet, poignant, pregnant with longing, as the English said. She had been pregnant with the child of a Muslim militiaman, she couldn’t be sure whose, conceived in a car or an alley, who knew, there had been so much sex, snatched in lulls between the fighting. Trousers round their ankles, those boy-men had fired off their semiautomatic sperm. There is no God but God—but God—but God, the holy cretins sang, and Mohammed is his prophet, prophet. The Afghan knelt. Fayruz hadn’t prayed since the massacre.

All over the cities in the Gulf you can hear the Friday sermons, broadcast on loudspeakers, whether you are inside the mosque or not. The imams (men who lead the prayer–not strictly clerics in Sunni Islam, though they do receive a stipen, and are often from poorer countries like Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia) get very passionate, and often political. Furious denunciations of ‘the Zionist entity’ (Israel) are common for example. People tend to be more devout on Fridays, and non-Muslims are advised to be especially sensitive then.

Bedu Men with Falcon

I took this photo in the men’s quarters in the home of my student and friend, Musabbah, who has been featured in a couple of these posts, including one I deleted. (A cropped version of the photo is on my website, http://www.garrycraigpowell.com) Musabbah and his family lived in Medinat Zayed, a little town in the desert on the edge of the Liwa Oasis. The town was built for the Bedu, as were a whole ring of towns around the capital, Abu Dhabi, by Sheikh Zayed, with oil money. Fifty years ago the grandparents and parents of these people were living in tents. They are immensely grateful to the royal family for having given them ‘everything,’ as they put it. In truth, their villas are very comfortable, they have servants, drive luxury cars, have completely free education, for men and women, up until the end of college, and free healthcare in hospitals reserved for the locals. It’s certainly true that oil has brought undreamt-0f riches to these tribesmen, who fifty years ago lived without air conditioning in one of the harshest climates in the world. Infant mortality was very high then, too.

However, although they enjoy modern comforts–I rarely heard anyone sentimentally long for the ‘good old days’–Emiratis are traditional in their customs and pursuits. Probably no sport is so symbolic of the culture as falconry, or hawking. This was once the sport of the nobility in Europe, though it’s long ceased to be practised commonly there. But in the Gulf, men still love to train their birds, usually peregrine falcons, to hunt desert hares and the hbara, or Arabian bustard. This game bird breeds in central Asia in the spring, then flies south to the Arabian peninsula for the winter. More than once I’ve been in the desert and have come across a lone Emirati training a falcon. He’ll have it tied to a light string, and will toss pieces of meat into the air for the falcon to catch. The falconer has to wear a thick gauntlet, like this one, to avoid serious injury from the falcon’s talons. Emirati men are immensely proud of their birds, which are often very valuable, and you will frequently see a man with one on his wrist in a luxury hotel, having coffee with his friends, just as westerners take their pet dogs out with them. However, they are almost always hooded. An unhooded falcon is supposed to be dangerous. These birds can be aggressive; I’ve heard that they can peck at your eyes if left unhooded. By the looks of it, Musabbah’s brother, the man with the bird on his wrist, was unworried by this. In general, I found the Bedu to be as close to fearless as any people I’ve ever encountered. I’m not sure if that was because of their trust in God, which was certainly great, or if it was because the harshness of their lives in the past simply inured them to danger or suffering.

In any case, an interesting consequence of Emirati men’s love of falconry has been that the numbers of desert hares, and particularly hbara, declined disastrously, to the extent that a conservation station was set up near Al Ain, staffed by mainly western biologists and ecologists. These studied the breeding habits of the hbara, made recommendations about how to limit hunting, and so on. So important is falconry as a national symbol that major efforts have been to save their habitat.

You will notice that I have been discussing men all along, because traditionally this is a men’s sport, unlike medieval Europe, where it was enjoyed by both sexes. However, while I taught at UAE University in the mid-nineties, a group of girls on the women’s campus formed a falconry club, which got national media coverage. I believe the girls trained their own falcons, and certainly took them into the desert and hunted with them. In Stoning the Devil, Badria is a member of this falconry club; it suits her fierce and fearless nature. Alia, her cousin and friend, on the other hand, is afraid of the birds, fearing that they might peck out her eyes, as her father has warned her, and on the whole prefers shopping.

I don’t suppose there are all that many women in the UAE who practise the sport, but once again, to my mind, this is an indication of the boldness, the initiative, and independence of Arab women. They will do whatever men do, as long as they are not actively prevented. I have seen the founder of the university women’s falconry club, a slight, pretty girl who designed jewelry, in her black robes, with a falcon on her wrist. This girl hoped to be allowed to study art in Europe. Perhaps the falcons were a symbol to these women of limitless freedom, as well as of power.

Liebster Award

I want to thank Amber James for nominating me for this award. Amber has a very interesting blog about crossing borders, helping immigrants, being a teacher, a mother and a writer, and other things. You can read it and follow it at http://letterspeoplewontread.wordpress.com

She was once my student, at a time when I had very little idea of what I was teaching, unfortunately. Now she has an MFA and is about to start her PhD. Anyway, what is this damned Liebster Award?

The Liebster is a pay-it-forward kind of award, meaning that once you receive the award, you pass it on to others. The rules are as follows:

  1. Thank the person that gave you the award in a post on your own site
  2. Nominate up to five blogs with less than 200 followers
  3. Let the nominees know they’ve won by leaving a comment on one of their posts
  4. Add the Liebster image above so all your readers know that you are generally awesome

I can’t do # 4 because I’m a bit of a dunce with technology. Sorry. It seems I’m NOT generally awesome.

*Note: There is no general committee that bestows this award. It’s just a recognition from one blogger to another for how awesome they are. Kinda like a really big Internet hug!

So: I don’t nominate Amber, even though she deserves it, because she’s already won the award.

But I would like to nominate the following (sorry, I can’t nominate everyone whose blogs I’m following; I’m mostly trying to promote those people whose blogs are about their writing):

David Joiner – http://avietnamesenovel.blogspot.com/ – this is about David’s excellent novel (which I’ve read), Lotusland.

Joe Revill – http://acaseofwitchcraft.wordpress.com/ – about the novel of the same name, a Sherlock Holmes novel that delves into deeper issues than the detective usually tackles. I’ve read this book too and recommend it.

Carol Johnson – http://vadasmaker.wordpress.com/ – Carol is the author of the moving novel Everlasting, but the blog is about anything that moves her to laughter, anger or tears. It’s very witty.

Rowan Johnson – http://rowanofficial.wordpress.com/ – No relation to Carol. Rowan is a stunt co-ordinator. She’s also a brilliant martial artist, sword-fighter, actress and circus performer, and this is a thoughtful blog about her training at the Accademmia dell’Arte (which I may not have spelt correctly) in Tuscany.

Sara Shumaker – http.notkeepingscore.wordpress.com/ – difficult to define – Sarah meditates on her life and on living in the country with animals, plants and a baby.

Ok, this is semi-incompetent and unlike my normal posts, but I’m going to publish it anyway. Hope you enjoy these blogs. More on the Gulf coming from me soon!

 

An Elderly Emirati Takes a Walk

This picture, taken again by Yolanda Reinoso (thanks, Yoly!) shows a ‘street’ in Al Ain. In the residential districts where the Emiratis live, most people live in villas behind walls like this. The roads are six lane highways, and it’s very unusual to see anyone walking beside them, especially a local man, like this one. One occasionally sees an Indian or Pakistani man or bicycle, but the locals travel in luxury sedans–the Lexus and Mercedes are their favourites–and in big four wheel drive vehicles, especially Toyota Land Cruisers and Nissan Patrols.

This elderly gentleman is wearing the dish-dasha, which is basically a very long shirt, and a gutra, or headcloth, which is wound round the head like a turban. In the first chapter of Stoning the Devil, readers meet Badria, a fifteen year-old Emirati schoolgirl, and her father, who might be imagined to look something like this, although his features remind Badria of a monkey’s. Men of this generation are rarely literate, and even if they can read a little, their education has been at the hands of a mutawa, or religious scholar, rather than at a recognizable school. The elderly grew up in tents and barasti huts (made from palm leaves), without air conditioning, and led lives of incredible hardship. They behave with great dignity, although they don’t necessarily follow western manners. In a bank, for example, an elderly Emirati man will usually go straight to the front of a line, not deigning to queue along with everyone else. (Women don’t have to queue either. It’s considered immoral to make a woman queue along with a lot of men.) In the Emirates, men of this generation were the last who grew up as armed warriors, prepared to fight for their tribe in feuds and raids. In Oman, men still wear thekhanjar,a curved dagger, but it’s more for show than anything. In Yemen, on the other hand, in the south of the Arabian peninsula, men still wear daggers and carry rifles, and use them. The authority of the government is much weaker there.

In this picture you can’t see the flower-beds and lawns that fill the medians in the middle of the road. They are watered, morning and evening, and are often very beautiful. Al Ain is known all over the Arab world as the Garden City. I lived here for five years in the nineties, in the Al Khabisi district–not in a compound for foreigners, as segregation of the Saudi Arabian type isn’t practised in the UAE. I did live in an apartment building provided by the university, but my neighbours included faculty from Syria, Algeria, and Jordan.

 

Florence – or Dubai?

At first glance this is a Renaissance loggia that’s been enclosed for shoppers; note that all the business names are Italian. However, this mall is in Jumeirah, a beach suburb of Dubai, where a lot of wealthy locals and expats live. In Stoning the Devil, Randa, after her divorce, is a kept woman in Jumeirah. In the final chapter of the book, when Badria asks her if she has ever seen Khalifa’s wife, Randa admits that she has–in this very mall. Until that moment she hadn’t felt guilty, but seeing that his wife is an actual person, she starts to feel remorse.

Shopping malls are the focal points not only of commerce in the United Arab Emirates, but to a large extent of social life as well. People of both sexes spend a great deal of time shopping–an activity whose attractions I have never been able to understand–and the cafes are important venues for meeting lovers. They sell luxury goods with internationally-know designer brands. Poorer people, particularly the expat servant class, shop in the souks or markets, which are mostly run by Afghans and Iranians. The malls are selling jewelry, clothes, perfumes, shoes, electronic goods, and so on. Dubai hosts a shopping festival each year, which attracts huge numbers of visitors. Luxury goods are relatively cheap there because of lower customs duties. At least that’s what they claim.

The man in the picture is my old friend and colleague, Kevin Watson, who used to teach with me at UAE University. The photo was taken by his wife, the writer Yolanda Reinoso. (Thanks once again for the photo, Yolanda!) Kevin was the drummer in a band I formed in Al Ain in 1994 or 1995, The Break. I mention this because people often don’t imagine rock bands playing in the Middle East. But in fact we played often, for money, at the Al Ain Hilton and Intercontinental Hotels, as well as the Bureimi Hotel. The audience was mostly expats, though by no means all westerners. The luxury hotels are frequented by people wearing western dress, including Arabs from the Maghreb (north Africa) and the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean), and even Emiratis who simply want an alcoholic drink. If you’re wearing traditional dress, in the Emirates, you won’t be served alcohol. (I didn’t find that this restriction applied in Oman.) Alcohol is prohibited to Muslims, but non-Muslims can get an alcohol licence and buy from liquor stores, as well as drink in the hotels. Naturally there’s a Prohibition-style bootleg trade to locals as well. In Al Ain there was an Egyptian-style nightclub with bellydancers frequented mainly by local men who drank enthusiastically, and locals could buy any drinks they wanted at inflated prices from back doors of certain hotels. But westerners are able to enjoy a more or less western lifestyle, with some restrictions. Women are encouraged to dress more modestly, but don’t have to wear a veil. In Dubai, the most liberal city in the UAE, dress codes are hardly different from any western city. In Saudi Arabia, it’s a different matter.