x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Creek, memory

Saloon Next up in our quest to read every novel set in the Emirates: a Briton's meandering account of daily expat life in Dubai.

"When we got to the Deira side of the Creek... we each ate a couple of sharwarmas... it was a tasty little snack."

Next up in our quest to read every novel set in the Emirates: a Briton's meandering account of daily expat life in Dubai. The term "involuntary memory" was coined by Marcel Proust in his seven-volume semi-autobiographical novel, In Search of Lost Time. The phrase describes vivid recollections of the past that occur without any self-directed "remembering" effort. Perhaps the most famous literary example involuntary memory is "the episode of the madeleine", in which Proust's narrator experiences a shockingly sudden mental descent into his own past after biting into a petite madeleine cake dipped in tea. The narrator, an artist, concludes that the only path to meaningful beauty is diligent, even obsessive, attention to the shard-like impressions that "time past" leaves in the far-flung corners of the mind.

Stephen Wilkins seems to have taken some version of this notion to heart when writing his 257-page debut novel, Dubai Creek, first published in 2006 but since reprinted and placed more prominently in bookstores in the run-up to the release of his new novel, Camels Love Dubai (to be published May 1). "Dubai Creek flows from the Arabian Gulf into the heart of Dubai," the narrator, Nick, begins. Having nibbled this petite madeleine of truth, Nick is mentally plunged back to Dubai, and quickly commits to letting his whole story spill out. "I will tell you about my highs, my lows, my triumphs and my secrets," he promises. "I won't leave anything out." And he means it; here he is on page nine, making his way to Dubai, where he has accepted a job at the Dubai office of JBNC ("one of the world's top five accountancy firms"):

"After all the passengers had completed their meals, the feature film began on those little screens fixed into the back of every seat. I was disappointed that the film was Free Willy 2, a 'wildlife adventure' about an orca whale. I wasn't really watching the film but I still managed to follow the rather weak plot and I was mildly amused by the model whales. [My neighbour] advised me that the sequel used model whales because there was a bit of a scandal about how the real whale was treated in the original film. I did notice, however, that all of the children in my view seemed to be engrossed in the film."

This excerpt typifies Nick's narrative style, in which no detail or thought is too small or potentially irrelevant to warrant omission. The novel proceeds in a continuous, seemingly involuntary stream of observations about himself, his adopted city and the world. Nick, we quickly learn, is not one to rule things out. To tell a Dubai story, he argues early on, you must live there for months, or perhaps even years. "Maybe that's the same with every city; I'm not sure." Regarding pasta (its preparation having already been described step-by-step): "I never grow tired of eating the same old thing... Maybe one day I will." An Emirati friend asks him whether it bothers foreigners living in England that British people think of them as "foreigners": "Maybe," he responds. "Maybe not." His girlfriend gives him some wind chimes, which he thinks seem rather foolish. But: "Maybe I should keep an open mind and give the wind chimes a go." A woman in his building hits on him and he thinks she is married. After all, he saw her walking around with children in tow. "Maybe they weren't her children. Maybe they were her sister's... Maybe she was single, and fancied me. This was more maybes than I could bear."

Wilkins lives in the UK, but he lived in Dubai from 1998 to 2001, teaching at Dubai University College (now the University of Dubai). "For a few years before moving to Dubai I hadn't really read any fiction," he wrote by email. After he decided to write a book, he "started reading a novel perhaps every two or three weeks. These were mainly from the then bestsellers chart lists." Having perused the market, he decided a novel about expatriate life in Dubai "would be a very marketable product".

Chapter by chapter - Registering my Nissan Patrol, A Morning at the Beach, Another Barbecue - Nick recalls his life in the UAE with a pervasive lack of affect or discrimination. "I left the dual carriageway by doing a U turn," reads one representative passage, "in order to head back in the direction from which we had just come. Moments later, I was back on Al Khor Street, which runs parallel to the dual carriageway that leads to and from the tunnel." This describes not a car chase or a rush to the hospital, but a shopping trip.

Nick, a single man, does like to notice and contemplate women. ("I enjoy ogling," he confesses.) When he walks into a nightclub with his roomate, he notes: "There's plenty of tasty crumpet." After a "tall, slim but shapely woman" talks to him at a hotel, he wonders: "Was the foxy woman asking me out on a date, or what?" At a pool party, he considers what women must think of him in his swimsuit. "My body was quite well toned as a result of my regular workouts ... its golden colour must have added to its attraction." A Filipino lifeguard, he decides, "was probably a good catch for a Filipino girl... with his toned bronze body, long black hair and sexy red shorts".

Towards the end of Dubai Creek, the pace accelerates rapidly: bad choices and worse luck land Nick in a Dubai prison. He is eventually cleared and leaves the next day, slightly one year after arriving. He has asked many questions - "Where is Dubai?", "Was I really in Dubai and not in Bombay or Karachi?", "What do people from Kazakhstan do?", "Wasn't it possible that I had killed Katerina but not remembered doing so?" - and answered a few. And despite having suffered in prison, he leaves Dubai remembering several pleasant things: his girlfriend, some instructive encounters with Islam and lots of tasty food (no fewer than 11 meals are described as "tasty"). In one memory, Nick, his roommate and their girlfriends head to the Radisson for a decidedly tasty meal. "The soup was delicious," Nick recalls. "It was very rich and creamy and full of flavour, but I don't know how to describe the flavour or what it might be compared with." Were Wilkins the sort of author prone to deep metaphors, he could be talking about the problem of writing about Dubai.


* Peter C Baker