x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Worlds of experience

Alia Yunis's debut novel, The Night Counter, about a woman who has nine days to live, draws upon the classic Arabian Nights tale.
Alia Yunis's debut novel, The Night Counter, about a woman who has nine days to live, draws upon the classic Arabian Nights tale.

Alia Yunis is jet-lagged. She has just flown in from Washington via Frankfurt, and although she's back at her desk in Abu Dhabi's Zayed University, she feels as though half of her brain is still floating around somewhere in between. Since mid-July, she has visited eight American cities, giving talks and signing copies of her debut novel, The Night Counter, which is making a satisfying ripple in the publishing pond.

Few first-time novelists get that kind of treatment, but Yunis's publisher, Random House, clearly thought it was worth it to fly her to the US for a six-week publicity tour in order to bring her whimsical tale of Arab-American family life to a wider audience. She travelled from the East to the West coast of America conducting readings and signings at famous book stores such as the fashionable Book Soup in West Hollywood and UPenn Bookstore in Philadelphia, dropping in on the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference and the Arab Festival in Seattle along the way, not to mention doing countless television and press interviews. It's hardly surprising that she drops the word "here" into a conversation, meaning Los Angeles rather than the UAE.

"It has been fairly hectic and I was pleased that my book has been well received, but because I'm a first-time writer it hasn't been received in that many countries," she says. She has had glowing reviews for the tale that revolves around the 85-year-old Fatima Abdullah and her final nine days on Earth, cleverly drawing upon the classic Arabian Nights story and its beautiful heroine, Scheherazade. "An enchanting debut that winks and glitters like the bangles that line Scheherazade's arms," said one reviewer. "A gracefully written multi-generational take, warm, wise and often funny, that reveals the inevitable illusions that push families apart and hold them together," wrote another.

Fatima is dying and knows she has just nine days to tie up the loose ends in her life, including finding a wife for her openly gay grandson, making amends with her estranged husband and deciding which of her troublesome children should inherit her family home in Lebanon, which she hasn't seen for 70 years. At the same time, in post-September 11 Los Angeles, two bumbling FBI agents are eager to uncover links with al Qa'eda.

The immortal Scheherzade, whose storytelling ability saved her life and won her the love of the king, visits Fatima every night to listen to stories of the old woman's life and family. The storytelling will end, along with Fatima's life - just as it does in the epic Arabian Nights - on the 1,001st night. It's a magical tale, filled with humour as the chaotic lives of Fatima's children unfold, and it presents a unique and unusual tapestry of Arab-American life.

"I never wrote about Arab Americans before. So many books and films about them are about terrorists or young people being recruited, but that didn't interest me and it's not representative of the community at large. There's a whole world of Arab-American people who aren't of that mindset. They don't just sit around and talk about September 11, but their reaction was the same as mine and my character Fatima's when they heard about the attack on the Twin Towers. Our hearts sank and we just hoped and prayed that it wasn't Arabs," she says.

Yunis, a former screenwriter who was born in Chicago, has been living in Abu Dhabi for the past year, where she is a lecturer in film studies at Zayed University. She was working in Los Angeles when she applied to PEN, the worldwide association of writers, for a fellowship. "I really don't know how it happened. I was called in for a final interview and a board of seven people asked me what I would do with it. In the room I came up with the idea of turning a short story I had written about one of the characters in my book, Ibrahim, into a book with his wife, Fatima, as the main character."

The fellowship allowed her to concentrate on writing her first novel, which took her two and a half years, including the time spent trying to find an agent. "I wrote it in my little one-bedroom apartment, although during the two years I was offered two writers-in-residences, one for six weeks in Maine and another for three weeks in Seattle, so I also wrote there. "I didn't plot it out. I knew the beginning and the end, and kind of filled it in. Because I come from a screenwriting background, I like having a framework and nine days is a framework. All the characters are imaginary, but I used some names of people I knew, which upset one or two people. One character, a drunk, is called Bassam and a cousin of mine with the same name was a little put out about it.

"I was very lucky with my agent, who had the same vision as I do and thought the concept was important. She said I should get rid of 50 pages and then the editor wanted to make it 150 pages shorter." The novel is rich with poignant symbolism. A fig tree mentioned frequently is all about putting down roots and carrying something from home with you to another country. The family house in Lebanon that Fatima agonises over represents the longing for a place that we imagine is or was perfect.

Yunis, who lived all over the Middle East as a child, says: "I had this longing for Beirut, but when I saw the city again it wasn't the perfect place I imagined. It was Yunis's father's work as an environmental engineer for the United Nations that eventually took the family back to the Middle East. The family moved from Chicago to Minnesota when Alia was five and her brother Isam was four. Isam is now an aerospace engineer at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

They moved to Beirut when she was nine, but when the situation in Lebanon got worse in the 1980s, the UN moved its headquarters to Baghdad, which at the time was considered safer. "I am an Arab American and I feel comfortable in both worlds. When my brother and I were kids in Minnesota, there weren't many Arab families around. We would go to classes on Sundays because my parents wanted us to learn Arabic. The local Roman Catholic priest gave us a room in the church and we used to say we were going to Sunday school. I speak Arabic fluently and can read and write it slowly.

"I finished high school in Greece. The funny thing is that I'm most comfortable in places where I don't obviously fit in," says Yunis, who went on to study journalism and political science at the University of Minnesota. "I was an excellent student in high school and a horrible university student. I watched a lot of soap operas in college. People talk about their college days being the happiest of their lives, but it wasn't for me because I had wanted to go to Harvard but it would have been too expensive."

By the time she graduated, her father's work had taken him to Qatar, so Yunis decided to work for Qatar Television's English channel before going off to graduate school. "I was 21 years old and straight out of college and I loved it because it was so small and I could do whatever I wanted. Everything I suggested they let me do. The Palestinian situation interested me and I also did a documentary about weddings," she says.

After two years in Qatar, Yunis won a scholarship to the American University in Washington, where she studied film. "I did some in-house videos for industry including a recruitment film for the FBI, which came in useful when I was writing the book." Like many aspiring scriptwriters, Yunis was drawn to Los Angeles, and when she won a writing award from Warner Bros through the university, she decided to move to Hollywood. Her first month was a nightmare. "It's such a tough city. In the first month I got really sick from some bugs I picked up from a cat owned by a woman I was sharing the apartment with. Then I totalled my car and quickly went through all my savings. I had too much pride to go home to my parents, and the only person I told was my brother, who I'm very close to.

"I worked on screenplays that went into development, but I never saw anything make it to the screen. I did see a documentary I made on the Oxygen Channel, though. It was about three women looking for husbands and I followed them around for a year. One of the women got very angry about the way we portrayed her life and I always felt a bit guilty about that. "I ended up temping for a studio executive whom everyone warned me I would be terrified of, but I wasn't and he asked me to stay on. He put me into marketing and PR. I worked hard but I didn't think I was a natural at PR. I went to the Cannes Film Festival and to Venice and worked for Miramax for a time, all of which everyone thinks is very glamorous but it's so hard for these PR girls. Sometimes we wouldn't finish till 11pm and I would walk down the hotel corridors at night and hear people crying at 3am. Working with successful actors is fine, they are usually the nicest, but the unsuccessful ones can be nasty. I can spot a PR girl right away by the tense expression on her face. They all burn out in two years."

Yunis says she had a love-hate relationship with Tinseltown, but after five years decided to give up the high-octane world of PR for teaching. At the same time she started reading scripts for film companies. "LA is a nice community if you have lots of money and don't have to drive to work. I hated it for the first five years but it always dangles a carrot in front of you that makes you stay. I just don't have the personality to work on sitcoms. It helps to be male and have gone to certain colleges. It's very male-dominated and in the room every guy is trying to one-up the other guy with their one-liners. I'm a relatively silent person and they totally intimidated me.

"It was funny being back there last month. I went to Michael Jackson's funeral with a friend who had tickets. It was a total LA moment - surreal. To see LA pull off something like that in such a short space of time was amazing, overwhelmed as they are by events in that town. I tell people I was at the funeral of my seventh-grade fiancé." Two weeks after Yunis's agent sold her book to Random House, she was offered the position in Abu Dhabi. "I really needed to leave LA so I applied for the job after a friend from Dubai pointed it out, although I wasn't keen at first to work in an all-girls school. But when I came here to have a look, they were so enthusiastic that I decided to take the job.

"I was the first to teach them creative film. It has been fun and my students have done really well. One of them won the Noor Ali Rashid award and another won the Habib Redu Award in the annual prizes for UAE students. Some of them may find that the hectic, all-consuming life of a filmmaker may not fit in with their dreams and plans, but others could be running the UAE film industry one day." Yunis intends to write a second novel, although doesn't have a plot yet and she is still promoting The Night Counter, with readings planned in Bahrain, Cairo and Dubai in October.

"When I do these book signings, people always want to know how to write a novel and I usually ask them what they are reading. So many people say they haven't time for reading, which is a bit like wanting to bake a chocolate cake without ever having tasted one." Right now she is preparing for the forthcoming term at Zayed. Somewhere in among all of that, she hopes to get some sleep. pkennedy@thenational.ae