Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Sand Fish: A Novel from Dubai by Emirati Author Maha Gargash

Why do we choose to read certain books over others? Is it our mood at the time of purchase that determines what titles we are drawn to or is it a book's cover that lures us? Is it an author's name that stands out or a book's RRP? And once the choice is made should one surrender oneself completely and unassumingly to the adventure ahead or do we determine the book a success if it has fulfilled our expectations of it? Would/should an author's nationality alone be reason enough to buy a book and is it fair to burden the author with our personal expectations of how it should/shouldn't be written?

This time I admit that I chose the book for two reasons. The first being its author's place of birth and the second my curiosity of how Emiratis would have lived their life back before oil was discovered under their sands. Here is a female Emirati-born writer  (one of a handful) who has written a novel about a female protagonist living in the Arabian Peninsula in the 1950s. An era about which not much is known due to lack of documented history and the reliance on the accuracy and authenticity of word-of-mouth relay. This is an author who comes from a trading family with roots that extend way back when the United Arab Emirates was a scattering of tribes here and there. It may be fiction she's offering but my curiosity was aroused and understandably what ensued was a natural presumption that this book would shed light on an era and a private people that only few know about.

The book, in general, did not disappoint kicking off with a gripping first chapter that reveals two match makers who have come to determine Noora's suitability for marriage with a series of demeaning (albeit farcical) tests. If she passes then they are to train her to be a devout obedient wife to her new husband. The scene painfully demonstrates the woman is a mere commodity to dispense with as the male counterpart of the family sees fit. Finally Noora is married off to an older man as his third wife, forced to travel far from family and all that is familiar, and has to live under the same roof of not only an old miserly husband, but with his two other wives as well. The insight into how women such as Noora, robbed of all human decency and rights had to rely on their inner strength and resolve if not deviousness when need be to get by is amazing. It was heartbreaking to see the loss of innocence and the suffocation of Noora's mind and personality so that she ends up as she does by the end of the story. If she is accused of self-absorption, it is a reflection of her self-preservation amid the turmoil and chaos.

And then, there is the sex! Hats off to Maha for highlighting this very basic human need that discriminates not between men and women. Sure it was the 1950s in a remote seaside town whose residents were good practicing Muslims and yet they were also human. Humans with emotions and a need to love and be loved and recognized in return. Gargash's story is by her admission a work of fiction so although the reality would have been more restrictive of women's movements in that era (maybe) and that settings allowing for intimacy beyond marriage are hard to imagine (maybe), it is the author's right to choose how her protagonist will act in certain situations whether the reader agrees with her or not.

Although this book may not be one of the best to come out of the Middle East, this should in no way undermine its author's skill in telling a good story. Gargash is a woman who has spent most of her life researching the history and traditions of her region and I am sure she has much more to give. The Sand Fish is well-researched, accurate historically and is a very gripping book once you get stuck into to. Its ending though has been reserved for the realists as it does not get any more real than that.

About the book:

Seventeen-year old Noora (the sandfish) is an independent, fiery and totally sheltered girl growing up in the mountains at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Her father is a deranged old man, her mother gone, and her brother, a once happy boy turned serious and sour decides to marry her off to a rich pearl merchant. 

Third wife to an old unyielding man, she struggles to cope with her new surroundings. Like a fish out of water she struggles to breathe in her life of captivity where robbed of choice, her will not her own, she is left alone to stand up for herself in the face of a husband she loathes and his two other wives residing in the same house as hers. She soon finds out the real purpose she was selected as a third wife is to produce an heir. In all this misery she does find solace in the arms of a lover, a situation that throws Noora's life into a new kind of jeopardy.


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