Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 August 2019

'The Pact We Made' is a complex novel championing feminism in the Arab world

Literary agents responded to US President Donald Trump's travel ban with a call for more Muslim voices - Layla AlAmmar answered

Leila AlAmmar grew up in Kuwait with an American mother and Kuwaiti father. Courtesy HarperCollins UK
Leila AlAmmar grew up in Kuwait with an American mother and Kuwaiti father. Courtesy HarperCollins UK

Shortly after Layla AlAmmar finished her first novel, American President Donald Trump made his first attempt to pass what became known as his Muslim travel ban. Of the many protests at the time, there was one initiative which did have the potential to effect lasting change.

Literary agents announced a collective call for submissions by Muslim writers, to “help contribute to bringing more empathy, compassion, understanding and tolerance into this world through books”. And The Pact We Made is the first major novel to come directly from that call.

“I hate that I have to mention Donald Trump,” AlAmmar jokes over breakfast in a London cafe. “But I’m sure he’d love to know that his Muslim ban helped this happen!

AlAmmar grew up in Kuwait with an American mother and Kuwaiti father – so she wasn’t directly affected by the immediate consequences of Trump’s travel ban. But that wasn’t a stipulation of the submission; the idea was merely to seek out unheard voices of Muslim heritage so that others could hear them.

And Dahlia, the unmarried protagonist of The Pact We Made, is certainly a fascinating voice.

The Pact We Made by Layla AlAmmar published by The Borough Press. Courtesy HarperCollins
The Pact We Made by Layla AlAmmar published by The Borough Press. Courtesy HarperCollins

“Dahlia is a young woman in Kuwait at a transitional time in her life,” explains AlAmmar. “She’s out of school, has been working for a few years but isn’t completely settled – there’s an uncertainty about who she is. So she’s a modern woman and nominally independent in that she’s making her own money, but there is a struggle with the traditional aspects of Kuwaiti society that she can’t really reconcile – it doesn’t feel like she is fully able to make her own choices in life. But she knows she needs to.”

“Amid the trauma, there is resistance, recovery. Feminism. It doesn’t look like western feminism, but it makes sense in our lives”

Layla AlAmmar

This juxtaposition, between being a modern young woman and a daughter being pressured to be married, is at the beating heart of The Pact We Made. But what makes AlAmmar’s debut so interesting is that it doesn’t take sides.

For all the fact it’s been billed (by fellow author Leila Aboulela) as a Kuwaiti #MeToo novel – and there is a very well-handled historical abuse subplot – The Pact We Made is a lot more nuanced than that.

In AlAmmar’s words: “This is not my story, but an amalgam of stories I have heard.” Which means the ­author felt able to step back and ­explore in depth – and without ­resorting to polemic – how a young woman like Dahlia approaches arranged marriage. It makes for a thoughtful, well-considered and illuminating novel.

“It’s a complex thing, arranged marriage,” says AlAmmar. “A lot of people in Kuwait think a love match is better, it’s more progressive, it’s what will make us happy. But that’s not always the case, and I wanted to explore that in Dahlia’s friendship group. Arranged marriages have a negative perception in the West, but it’s not the reality; many last happily for decades and they find love. I’m certainly not against them.”

In that light, it will be interesting to see how The Pact We Made is read and received in the West.

Layla AlAmmar. Photo by Penelope Fewster
Layla AlAmmar's new novel has been billed a 'Kuwaiti #MeToo' story. Photo by Penelope Fewster

It’s all too easy to cast the mother, who seems to be maintaining the traditions and status quo of generations past, as Dahlia’s nemesis, but AlAmmar hopes that it’s clear she’s motivated by a fear of the unknown. “It’s not so much that she doesn’t care, she doesn’t love her or want her to be happy. It’s just that the ground that her role as a mother is based upon becomes shakier.”

Still, the ominous subtitle on the cover is: “What if you had to choose between your family and your freedom?” The narrative drive in the novel comes from the kind of escape Dahlia wants to make. She is an artist in her spare time and dreams of studying in the United States, but she can’t leave the country without her father’s consent. She also suffers from anxiety attacks, partly triggered by the abuse she encounters as a child – kept secret in case it shames the family.

If all this context sounds slightly grim, Dahlia can be a lot of fun, too. She goes out, she parties, she has a really strong group of friends. She wonders, with some wry humour early on, whether it might be “better to eradicate the nuclear family altogether” and instead “disperse like loose seeds, striking our roots into some foreign earth”.

AlAmmar smiles at the suggestion.

“In the Arab world, the family is extremely important; it’s a very communal ethos. People don’t think of themselves as individuals, rather, they’re members of families, clans, tribes – you can’t really escape the idea of your family when it’s there in the chain of your name.

“There are good parts to that structure, in terms of support, the safety net it provides. Your family will always come to help you. You’re not really on your own. Of course, the flip side is that it can be constricting, it creates a herd mentality which is unforgiving of outliers. That’s so different to how the West operates, where things are a lot more individualistic.”

Still, AlAmmar isn’t sure that she’d like her book – or books like Saud ­Alsanousi’s prize-winning The Bamboo Stalk – to be held up as shining a light on Kuwaiti society, given its diverse character.

“You would never say a book by Kate Moss is ‘the story of all ­British women’, would you?” she asks. “You’re looking for a truth, not the truth.” And it is true that Dahlia feels particularly realistic. The choices she eventually can and does make might not fit with Western expectations of freedom, but they make sense in her context.

“Look, the trope of Arab women’s fiction is that it features a weak, passive female living under the suppression of men,” she says, with the passion of someone who is about to embark on a PhD in the UK on the subject. “It gets criticised for confirming Western stereotypes. But the books I read, and my book I hope, are a lot more complex than that.

“Amid the trauma, there is resistance, recovery. Feminism. It doesn’t look like western feminism, but it makes sense in our lives.”

The Pact We Made (The Borough Press) is out now.

Updated: May 5, 2019 03:02 PM

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