Stoning the Devil

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

Category: Uncategorized

Stoning the Devil blog – new address

To My Dear Followers:

From now on, this blog is going to be situated at www.garrycraigpowell.com  – in other words, my website.

That means you won’t get the automatic notifications by email from Word Press that you used to get.

So if you want to keep following the blog, which I hope you will, you’ll have to either copy and paste the above link, and check it once or twice a week, or else follow me on Facebook, either on my profile, or on my Garry Craig Powell, writer, page. I will be sharing all blog posts there now that I’ve figured out how to do it.

Thank you for your patience.

Garry

Musandam, Oman

Another test: once again, here are the fishermen of Musandam, a peninsula that belongs to Oman, yet which can only be reached through Emirati territory, or by sea. It’s an area of rugged mountains, mostly barren, and fjords. Fishing is the chief industry, though because of the area’s position, on the Straits of Hormuz, close to Iran, there’s a fair bit of smuggling too. It’s very beautiful, and beloved by divers.

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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.

 

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

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 Oasis in the Hajar Mountains


This is the road to Al Khatwa, just across the border from Al Ain, in Oman. In the middle of the oasis, which is huge and consists mainly of date palm plantations, there’s a modern village, of modest concrete houses with window A/C units. The old village, which was of mud brick, is about 5 kms. away. Once, here, an old man saw me and my family from perhaps half a mile away; he waved, and set off towards us. We waited. When he came up to us, we saw that he had a plastic shopping bag, which was full of oranges he’d grown. He gave them to us, and almost before I could thank him, started walking away.

And here’s a close-up of the oasis. To me, and probably to the locals too, it always seemed miraculously green and lush; you can certainly understand the Quranic vision of paradise as a green place fed by streams and rivers when you travel through the desert and the barren mountains, which change color from brown to rusty-red, orange, crimson, and violet, as the sun sinks. The mountains are jagged, merciless, peaks. They always make me think of the Old Testament. No wonder, it seems to me, that such a harsh place spawned prophets with such uncompromising visions, such certainties, such polarized views of good and evil.

Sheikh Zayed, first President of the UAE

This is Sheikh Zayed, the beloved ruler of Abu Dhabi Emirate from 1966 on, when he deposed his brother Shakhbut, probably with British connivance, and President of the UAE from 1971 until his death in 2004. When I lived there, from 1993 to 1998 and again from 2000 to 2003, portraits of Zayed, almost always grinning, wearing sunglasses, and looking youthful (he was born in 1918) with his black beard, were ubiquitous. He was often seen mounted on a white charger. In “Stoning the Devil”, Badria, who is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, wonders briefly if God looks like Sheikh Zayed, as she doubts both heavenly and earthly justice. However, in the eight years I lived in the country, I never heard a local say anything critical of the President, and most Emiratis clearly adored and venerated him, frequently referring to him as their father. In fact, the historical record shows him to have been an unusually wise and generous ruler. He used the vast oil revenues of the country to bring universal health care, universal free education, including for women–he believed that women must play an important part in the country’s development, and encouraged them to study and work–as well as economic infrastructure. He began the process of ‘greening’ the desert–though that may have some unforeseen ecological consequences. He allowed religions other than Islam to practice their faiths, as long as they did not proselytise. It’s true that by western standards he was not a democratic ruler, but on the other hand, any Emirati could visit him in his majlis, or council, any week, and speak to him in person, so there was a form of direct consultation only possible in a very small population. Some westerners have criticized him for continuing to allow camel racing, which employed child jockeys from countries like Sudan and Pakistan, and others have argued that his rule was absolute, but the fact is that by the standards of the Middle East he was extraordinarily tolerant, generous, and progressive. He was also personally charming, according to everyone who met him, and Wilfred Thesiger, the last of the great English “Victorian” explorers, who mapped much of Arabia for the oil companies in the late forties and early fifties, said that he could ride and shoot like a Bedouin–a great compliment. I have met a Bedouin man of his generation who knew him, an illiterate man who nevertheless had great dignity and self-confidence, like most elderly Arabs (compare them to the elderly in the west, who are treated as fools and often behave apologetically!), and this man regarded Zayed as a hero and the true founder of the nation.

Bida Bint Saud

This is the rocky outcrop that Badria and Alia come to in Badria’s Jeep in the story “The Jinni Crouching Behind Her.” (If you have not read the story, Alia is pregnant, and they come out here for her to take an Omani potion made from camel saliva and crushed ants, which the locals believe–correctly, usually–will cause an abortion.) The hill is popular with expats who come out here to drive their four-wheels, but it also has a more gruesome reputation. It’s said to be a place where honour killings take place. Girls who have disgraced their families are supposedly brought here–and what happens to them is reflected in Alia’s fantasy.

Bida Bint Saud is only about ten or fifteen kilometres from Al Ain, but along the road there are camel farms, a couple of tiny mosques, and not much else, and beyond this there is the only the endless Arabian desert. I used to come out here alone, look at the prehistoric tombs (which are also mentioned in the story), then stand on the cliff edge and imagine myself stepping off and gliding over the dunes, like a bird of prey. For some reason too I would always think of the scene in Lawrence of Arabia in which Lawrence goes off into the desert on his own to put on the robes of a sharif; and making ridiculous gestures, is caught out by an Arab–Omar Sharif, I think. You can’t help feeling a little like Lawrence in such places. You want to be an Arab. The desert has such grandeur, such epic sweep, that if you have an ounce of romanticism in you, you feel inspired.

Gate in a Gulf Arab compound

Most Gulf Arabs live in villas behind high walls, for privacy–to keep prying eyes away from the women. Inside the compound there are usually two separate houses, one for the male members of the household, and another for the women. There is usually also a separate building for the kitchen. Servants, mostly female, from various poorer countries, keep all the buildings clean and do the cooking. Filipina servants are paid the most because they’re regarded as the best and cleanest. Indonesians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, and Indians are also common. In Stoning the Devil, Badria and Alia both live in compounds like this, which often have gaily painted gates like the one in the picture. The fronds of palm trees, for shade, thrust above them. Some younger people in the big cities prefer to live in apartments, but most locals live in the low-rise outskirts of the city in these big villas. Most are painted white, with flat or terra cotta roofs. They often look like big Mediterranean villas. This one is in Bureimi, right across the border from Al Ain, in Oman. I used to work at the national university (United Arab Emirates University) in Al Ain. It’s famous throughout the Arab world for its beautiful gardens, its trees and flower-filled medians.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Corniche in Muscat

Stoning the Devil, the title story/chapter of the book, is written in the form of a letter from a fifteen year-old Emirati girl, Badria, to her best friend and cousin, Alia. Badria is on the haj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca, with her family. While there certain experiences remind her of another family trip to Muscat, the capital of Oman, which was traumatic for her. The title refers to the ritual in which pilgrims on the plain of Muzdalifah, outside Mecca, hurl stones at a jamra, which is a stone column representing Satan. Muslims believe that this purifies them–by stoning the devil, they destroy their own sinful thoughts and impulses. However, in this story the ritual does not go as planned…