Anna Zacharias talks to a graduate student who has studied the issue of identity in six contemporary novels written by local authors
Wealth and modernity have not brought Emiratis happiness but rather confusion, alienation and a tendency to withdraw into a romanticised past, writes Rehab Al Kilani in her Arabic literature master’s thesis. The local humanities student has examined the manifestation of identity in six contemporary novels authored by Emiratis.
The “Emirati novel” is a budding literary phenomenon and early themes have already emerged, she says. Al Kilani chose from dozens of novels she read for her Arabic master’s programme at the College of Islamic and Arabic Studies in Dubai. They represent a cross-section of emirates and authors’ backgrounds.
“I studied identity in general, how do we look at others, how do others look at us and who makes us what we are,” says Al Kilani, who’s from Al Ain. “Sometimes it’s not only about how you look at yourself, it’s about how others look at you and how they address you.
“How do they [Emiratis] feel about themselves? Are they really changing if the place [country] changes?”
An orphaned alcoholic teenager, a devout housewife, an unwed professor and a bidoon’s best friend are among the novels’ characters who struggle with self-image in a fast-changing country. Internal conflicts arise when modernity and new cultures penetrate what is considered authentic Gulf culture.
The characters cling to an imagined, simplistic view of the past to safeguard society from change. This vacillation between an embrace of the contemporary and a longing for the “simplicity” of the past indicates a shift in the collective consciousness, writes Al Kilani. The past is the yardstick that measures and defines the present.
“All these Emirati novels are talking about the society,” says Al Kilani. “Who are we? Who are The Others? They’re all talking about history, the past, the grandfathers, in all these novels.”
In Mohammed Ghobash’s Mazoon, for example, a teenage Emirati orphan retreats into drink and memories. Angry at the rising skyline, resentful that the trees of his childhood are being cut down to make space for motorways and bitter at his own missed opportunities, Mazoon ultimately rejects his own country, flinging his passport into the sea.
Aliya, the central character in The Smell of Ginger by Salha Ghabesh, embraces modernity and thrives with changing societal norms that have allowed women greater independence and mobility but will not abandon her own old-fashioned ideal of chivalrous perfection in a partner. The university professor, who is in her 40s, is successful in all aspects of life, except, some would say, for the most important one: finding a husband.
Religion is ever present in the works reviewed, both as a source of conflict and redemption. Its centrality is best exemplified in The Bells, a novel by Zainab Al Yassi that focuses on an hour in the life of a dutiful housewife accused of infidelity.
Morality is defined by the past, regarded as a pure and untainted time of clear rights and wrongs. New changes can thus represent a departure from the past and therefore the good. In Seih Al Mahab by Nasser Jibran, a police officer who witnesses corruption in the force frames morality on his perceptions of past values. He monitors the rise of an illegal immigrant and a pimp, but is equally unsettled by the perceived vulgarities of modernity, like that of a woman in an abaya displaying her voluminous hairdo.
“This is a static image in his mind derived from the past,” says Al Kilani. “Always there’s a comparison of the past to the present.”
Peripheral expatriate characters, such as the Lebanese girlfriend in Lil Hosn Khumsat Asaba’a or the illegal immigrant pimp in Seih Al Mahab are used to understand and define identity.
The Saddest Five Fingers, by Mohammed Hassan, traces a man’s struggle with the death of his best friend, Murad, a stateless bidoon born and raised in the UAE. Nasser, an Emirati citizen, is dissatisfied with his privileged, cosmopolitan life. It is Murad who found contentment entirely within the UAE borders, despite not holding citizenship.
Migration and emigration are common themes, but characters seldom frame identity in political terms. Instead, identity is determined by marital status, religious devotion and income.
“The ideas are always the same,” says Al Kilani. “It’s all about change. Characters don’t have a connection to the changes of the city. They all just hope that they can return to the old city. They feel that it’s not their land.”
Anna Zacharias is a senior features writer for The National.