Aimee Peters is a 32-year-old corporate communications consultant living in Dubai. She's also a fan of Harry Potter. When she sent out a Facebook message asking the fellow Potterphiles in her network to identify themselves, she got a mixed reaction. "One of my friends was like: 'I can't believe you're admitting to this. You should bar yourself from Facebook. Everybody's going to de-friend you,'" she says.
"Another of my friends - who happens to be a male journalist working at the DIFC - was like: 'Yes, I have the full Dumbledore outfit.'" He sounds perfect, I say. I'd like to meet him. But Peters' reply is ominous. "He said he wouldn't talk to you if you were a Muggle," she says. Jings, a pure-blood supremacist, I think. I'm out of my depth. If, for you, the above seemed to fall off into gibberish, you probably haven't spent a great deal of time in the magic land they call the Potterverse. JK Rowling's fictional world is part Narnia, part Malory Towers and a large part licence to print money.
The movie franchise, whose latest instalment opens in UAE cinemas today, is jockeying for position with James Bond for the distinction of being the most profitable film series of all time. Rowling is the world's first billionaire author, and Harry Potter, the English boy wizard in whose power the fate of the world rests, is a hero everywhere from Watford to Waikiki. You don't have to be steeped in the books to know that Dumbledore is the headmaster at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, or that "Muggle" is, in the peculiar argot of the magicians, a disparaging term for civilians.
Neither does it require a super-fan to know that the series' villains are magical eugenicists intent on preserving the purity of the wizardly blood stock. Harry Potter is one of those franchises, like Star Trek or Superman, whose central conceits have taken on lives of their own. It only calls for the barest levels of pop-cultural literacy to know about Klingons or kryptonite. That, in a sense, is Muggle stuff. The real Pottermanes go a lot deeper.
Edelita DeGuzman, a 39-year-old cosmetics company employee, lives in Dubai. Like Aimee Peters, she loves Harry Potter, but her love makes some strenuous demands. "Sometimes when I'm watching the movie I will ask myself - it is as if I am having an exam - book one: what was the start of that? Book two, what was the introduction to that?" she says. "If I don't know at the start of the movie, I feel bad."
But DeGuzman isn't the only UAE-based Potter enthusiast with a taxing ritual. Originally from Kenya, Aisha Hamisi has lived in the UAE for the past 16 years. She works as an administrative assistant for NYU's Abu Dhabi branch. Explaining her preferred routine when tackling the latest Potter film, she says: "What I usually do is I read the book again before I watch the movie, and I read it again after the cinema." Bearing in mind that some of the later books in the series weigh in at more than 700 pages, that's a lot of reading. Hamisi is, as she says, a "big time" fan.
DeGuzman, however, is a true devotee. When she arrived in Dubai from Manila three years ago, she says: "I only brought my clothes and the whole series of Harry Potter DVDs. That was the only content of my bag." Given her UAE salary, she was delighted to discover that she could afford the deluxe edition of the last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Then, when it looked as though her neighbourhood was being lined up for demolition, she sent the book back to Manila for safekeeping. "It's precious to me," she says. No kidding. But what is the secret of Potter's power? How does he inspire such devotion?
The unsatisfying answer is that it varies from person to person. This said, there does seem to be an element of wish fulfilment in many cases. As Brett Heeger, a 23-year-old programme coordinator at NYU Abu Dhabi, says: "Harry Potter is a great example of escapism in books... You just enter this entirely different world that of course isn't actually real, but in some ways you kind of want to believe that this could actually happen." Precisely what it is you want to believe in, however, depends on you.
For Hamisi the main thing, despite the fantastical setting, is the realism of the relationships in the story, especially those among the central three children, Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione. "It's something out of this world," she says. Yet at the same time: "It wasn't roses and daisies. It was very, very real... She [Rowling] is talking about a boy, and explaining how he's suffering and not hiding anything about it. It's just blunt."
DeGuzman almost seems to want to participate in the lives of Rowling's heroes. "I wanted to enter the movie and help Harry whenever he is in trouble," she says. "Sometimes I think, what would it be like to live with Harry Potter? What would his kids be like if JK Rowling would continue with the book?" For some, Potter offers a route into a world that is inviting in a different way. Camilla Pascual, an English mother of two living in Dubai, found that she and her husband were attracted to the novels because of their nostalgic associations.
"We were in Miami," she says, "and it was a British thing, so it was something we gravitated towards." She "devoured" Malory Towers books when she was a child, and Harry Potter seemed to hark back to the earlier series. "I grew up with Enid Blyton and all that," she says, "so it was really familiar and nice." For other fans, the escapism is combined with admiration for Rowling's craft as a storyteller. "I just thought it was very well written," Peters says. "The concepts are well-rounded enough that you're not reading fluff. Which, actually, if you read adult literature that's good for downtime, like chick-lit, it is just fluff. It's absolute fluff. Something like Harry Potter has actually got a plot. It's got well-defined characters. Things actually happen." Heeger agrees: "It's just very fun."
Heeger, by the way, is a rarity: an adult male Potter fan who is willing to talk to the press. Even he exercises a level of reserve, stressing that he didn't like the films much and that he hadn't reread the books. "I enjoyed them at the time," he says. "I haven't found a reason to return to them since." Heeger emphasises that his reading tastes don't generally run to Potter-type work. "I enjoy more literary fiction and classical stuff," he says, "and I read about international politics and relations."
All very laudable, of course, but it sounds like a man who is anxious not to be too closely associated with the series. Compared with the frank admissions of love from many of other interviewees, Heeger, though identifying as a fan, is notably cautious and non-committal. Other potential interviewees were even less forthcoming: "Sorry. Not a chance," came one representative response. "Did you find many men to talk to?" Peters asked sceptically at one point during our conversation. She was unsurprised to learn I didn't.
But why should this be? Other cult objects have their quorum of proud male supporters: take the Star Wars series, for instance, which has nearly the same plot as Rowling's series. And yet, in public at least, Potter fandom is the preserve of women. Are the men ashamed? Are they in on something they don't want the rest of us to know about? It's a mystery the boy wizard himself might like to pry into.
If you're planning to to watch the sixth filmic instalment in the Harry Potter series, be sure to take a look at the rest of the audience. How do the chaps strike you? Are they there under duress? Are they trying not to be seen? Or are they as enchanted as Potter's legions of female fans? This Muggle would like to know. email@example.com