x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Debut novel tackles issues affecting young Emirati women

Rym Ghazal meets the author of a new novel that, while lighthearted, nonetheless faces head-on issues that are typically not talked about.

Kaltham Saleh, author of Made in Jumeirah, at the public beach in Umm Suqeim. Jaime Puebla / The National
Kaltham Saleh, author of Made in Jumeirah, at the public beach in Umm Suqeim. Jaime Puebla / The National

Picture the scene: a power cut strikes one evening in a girls’ dormitory at an unnamed Dubai university.

An electrician is promptly summoned and the staff tell students to cover up because a “riyaal” (man) is coming to fix the problem.

“We put on our hijab,” writes Kaltham Saleh, “but soon there was a great commotion in the dorm. Right then, carrying a toolbox, in steps Shahrukh Khan, the knight of our dreams.”

Or rather, an Indian electrician who looks a lot like the so-called “King of Bollywood”.

Later, by some fanciful quirk, this same tradesman ends up performing a Bollywood-style dance routine for the girls.

“It was a truly a comical scene ... we saw our supervisor faint from shock.”

Just six pages in length, this is an episode from a chapter entitled Shahrukh Khan: Torturing Innocent Hearts in Made in Jumeirah, Saleh’s broadly enjoyable debut novel.

It is typical of the kind of comedic moments that appear throughout this collection of unconnected stories, told in diary form, which together tackle the issues that young Emirati women encounter in contemporary society.

“It is meant to be entertaining, but has advice and messages for the next generation of Emirati youth,” says the 25-year-old
author.

Launched earlier this year at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, this 187-page book almost appeared on the shelves under a different name.

“Until the last minute, I was going to name it Mouzakarat [diary] of a Young Emirati Girl from Jumeirah, but then I decided to give it the name of one of my chapters,” she says. “I am glad I did.”

A Barbie-like character adorns the book’s cover, dressed in a figure-hugging abaya and shayla, holding a BlackBerry smartphone in one hand and a Dior handbag in the other. She also dons a pair of pink sunglasses while balancing what is widely called “camel hump” hair that has been aided by the gambooa’a, a hairpiece worn beneath the shayla to create a distinctive beehive effect.

“She is what a typical Jumeirah Emirati girl looks like, whether they like to admit it or not,” says the author, who has been criticised in some quarters for her choice of illustration on the book’s jacket.

Saleh, who works in the government sector, says Made in Jumeirah has allowed her to explore her “artistic side”.

“Jumeirah is my home, and I love it, and so I wanted to write a book using it as my setting.”

Unfortunately, unless the reader is overly familiar with the neighbourhood, there isn’t enough rich description of its streets and shops within her pages to fully bring Jumeirah to life.

That said, it is a generally engaging, if whimsical, read and the book goes on to tackle some very serious subjects including blackmail, relationships, reckless driving and even rape.

One chapter tells the story of a young girl who wonders out loud: “What does it feel like for a woman to get raped?” Later she is brutally attacked by a Pakistani labourer and then has to live with the consequences of this terrible violation.

“The shame, the disappointment and the scandal ... I found out my brother did not report the crime to the authorities to avoid scandal,” the reader later discovers.

Made in Jumeirah may deal with the subject a bit too breezily, but it succeeds in opening up an area of discussion that is usually kept behind closed doors. Another such issue is the controversial social phenomenon known as boyat, a subculture whose members are described as “alien,” “shameful” and “disgusting”. Boyats are generally short-haired young women who dress in masculine clothes and adopt a tomboy style.

“They said a lot of what I mentioned doesn’t happen in the Emirati community. But I say this is all true and based on stories I have collected from other people,” she said.

A chapter entitled How are We to Escape Death? is about a mother struggling to cope with family life after she has a stroke.

“If someone doesn’t like the messages in Made in Jumeirah, they can at least enjoy it as a light and fun read, and perhaps even practice their Arabic.” Overall, for all its interesting diversions, there isn’t much depth to the book and, because the chapters are so short, the reader rarely has a chance to properly connect with the characters.

The exception is in its heartfelt closing pages, which the author admits are based on her own life.

Despite courting controversy in some quarters, the book is doing “very well” according to its publisher, Jamal Al Shehhi, who set up Kuttab Publishing two years ago.

“It is currently our bestseller,” said Al Shehhi, who has published about 40 titles, the majority of them written by first-time Emirati authors.

Made in Jumeirah is different, and people are attracted to its title and cover,” he said, before adding that the book’s first edition of 2,000 copies is close to selling out and that Kuttab plans to make available a further 4,000 copies when a second edition rolls off the presses. He is keen to publish Saleh’s debut work in English language translation.

Al Shehhi, who is also the author of a series of children’s books featuring a naughty cat called Hassoun, says he aims to publish titles that are “unique” and enjoyable, and admits the world of book publishing is not without its hazards.

“Arab readers can be a bit too critical, so it is always a fine line you have to walk when writing for that audience.”

Made in Jumeirah is available at all major book stores, priced at Dh30.

Rym Ghazal is a senior features writer at The National.