x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Creating Rachel: unrequited love in the time of 9/11

Abu Dhabi-based Mustafa Alrawi's debut novel is a measured study of heartbreak. He talks to Ben East about a love story with its roots in a post 9/11 world. 

Mustafa Alrawi. Delores Johnson / The National
Mustafa Alrawi. Delores Johnson / The National

Ah, the pain of unrequited love. From Pip’s infatuation with the frosty Estella in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations right the way through to, er, You’re Beautiful by James Blunt, stories about never quite getting the girl resonate far more deeply than those in which the course of love runs completely smooth. But poor Mohammed, the “unshakeable romantic” in Mustafa Alrawi’s debut novel Creating Rachel, has a really bad dose of lovesickness.

“I will marry you, I believe it,” he says to the object of his affections. Rachel’s indifference, however, is crushing – to the point where one almost wants to grab Mohammed and tell him some home truths. “I don’t blame you,” laughs Alrawi. “If I were Mohammed’s contemporary, I’d probably want to shake him, too.”

Creating Rachel provokes that sort of a reaction. The novel is a short but intense read detailing the infatuation of an Arab man living in London at the turn of the millennium. Mohammed and Rachel meet in a nightclub. He falls for her badly – and perhaps should note the warning signs when he asks for her deepest desire and she replies: “a Mercedes 500SL.” Despite a drunken kiss, she won’t commit, yet Mohammed’s need for her takes him into an increasingly worrying mental state. There is, in the end, redemption for Mohammed, but while he’s working out his feelings, the claustrophobia of his obsession is almost unsettling.

“I don’t think that feeling is that unusual, though,” says Alrawi. “Each person has their own relationship to love and heartbreak, and you do often think about what you might have done differently in a relationship. For some people, those feelings might last a few days, but others genuinely never get over it. And when you’re in that space, however long it lasts, you feel truly lost. It’s only when you come out the other side that you’re able to say: ‘What on Earth was wrong with me?’”

Debut novelists often operate in the arena of thinly veiled autobiography, so it almost feels like an intrusion to ask what inspired Alrawi to write Creating Rachel. Now happily married in Abu Dhabi, Alrawi will admit that he once felt “very close” to his protagonist. But, interestingly, he thinks the initial impetus behind Creating Rachel wasn’t a doomed love affair at all.

“It was the period around September 11 that became seismic for me,” he says. “It was such an odd time to be someone of Arab origin living in London. It had become easier for a lot of Arabs to think of themselves as Londoners, but suddenly it was a case of ‘who are you, where are you from, what do you believe in?’

“So what I wanted to do was explore these issues of identity through writing about a relationship taking place at that time. Even though they are so obviously different from each other, Mohammed can’t help his feelings for Rachel and he wants to have fun and live his life. Everyone in that community at this time had this same inner struggle, between how people saw them, and how they wanted to be. Mohammed simply stands for love and idealism, but he continually has questions thrown at him.”

The title of the book also provides clues to its intellectual heart. Creating Rachel – a nod to Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers – gradually suggests that the object of Mohammed’s affections might even be a construct of his angst-ridden mind. As this deliberately vague character takes on slightly different guises throughout the short journey of the book, it’s left to the reader to work out how close Mohammed’s experiences with her are to the truth.

“Is she manipulative, or an innocent party to Mohammed’s obsessions and neuroses?” asks Alrawi. “Well, she could ultimately be a million miles away from the real person, and in a way that’s the point. How Mohammed paints her in his mind is what gives him the power, in the end, to take what he wants from their journey together.”

And the book does feel like a journey – both for Mohammed and Alrawi. He started writing Creating Rachel years ago and says that it was only the confidence and stability that came with having his own family that gave him the focus to finish it. Alrawi, who has been the editor of The National’s business section since December, had Creating Rachel published last year in the UK and it’s finally out in the UAE this summer. It feels like a long time since he first started writing about a devastated young man in post-September 11 London.

“And you know, if I met Mohammed now, I probably wouldn’t tell him to snap out of it after all,” he laughs. “With the perspective that comes from a life lived, I’d allow him to have this formative experience. Sometimes, unfulfilled relationships are worth it no matter the end result, because you learn and grow from them.”


• Mustafa Alrawi will be signing copies of Creating Rachel (published by Quartet and distributed in the UAE by Arif Books) at Kinokuniya in The Dubai Mall on Friday at 5pm



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