x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Foster city

Saloon Continuing its quest to survey all UAE fiction, The Review reads Stephen Wilkins's new Dubai novel.

A young Sri Lankan boy stands among the ruins of a tsunami wrecked neighbourhood.
A young Sri Lankan boy stands among the ruins of a tsunami wrecked neighbourhood.

Continuing its quest to survey all UAE fiction, The Review reads Stephen Wilkins's new Dubai novel Three years ago, a British schoolteacher named Stephen Wilkins self-published his first novel, Dubai Creek, a meandering account of expat life in Dubai. As such, Dubai Creek joined that ever-growing genre of written works that seek to describe and explain Dubai by reference to elsewhere ("it could have been any large pub in England", "I make five times more here than I would make at home", "a woman wouldn't do a thing like that back home in England, certainly not!"). It also read like a vaguely Proustian memory dump: lengthy descriptions of love affairs, tasty shawarmas, traffic jams, inflight entertainment systems, vehicle registrations and brushes with the law piled on top of each other as if they had gushed unstoppably from brain to paper to Matador self-publishing.

Less than a year after Dubai Creek hit shelves here, Wilkins began his second novel, Camels Love Dubai. He did the bulk of his writing on school holidays, finished a first draft in nine months, sent it to friends for comments and then spent another nine months rewriting. Camels Love Dubai will be released next Friday in the UK; booksellers here are still waiting for approval from the National Media Council. "It's been about the same length of time that it took them with Dubai Creek," Wilkins says, "so I'm not worried yet."

Camels Love Dubai tells the story of Mohar, a Sri Lankan boy who is adopted by Emiratis after losing his parents in the tsunami of 2004. Mohar is a Buddhist, and the Emiratis had come to Sri Lanka to adopt a Muslim, but they take Mohar anyway because he loves camels: his favourite toy is a dromedary named Humpy. After a three-hour Emirates flight and a drive down Sheikh Zayed road, Mohar arrives at his new home, which looks to him "like a ruler's palace".

Mohar takes to his new city and family well. His biggest problem is that he wants to race one of his father's camels, but, according to his father "it's not the done thing for you to be seen as a camel jockey". He also misses his family, has nightmares about the tsunami, falls in love with the maid's daughter (also not the done thing), befriends his father's jockeys (ditto) and sometimes feels like only a partial member of his family. Lying in bed at night, he ponders his transplanted life: "I knew that Dubai wasn't my real home and that the Sheikh's family were not my real family, but they were both jolly nice substitutes."

Mohar doesn't sound awfully Sri Lankan, but his struggle to make sense of Dubai is somehow more compelling than that of Nick, the aimless British narrator of Dubai Creek. This is particularly true in the book's second section, which fast-forwards to Mohar's university years. Camel-racing is a problem of the past. Now his dilemmas have to do with sex, alcohol, fast cars and, less plausibly, membership invitations from an Islamic fundamentalist group that meets over tea in Deira. As in Dubai Creek, the episodes pile up and sometimes lapse into the close, flat descriptive style of a legal deposition. ("Rashid took out four bottles of beer and with his bottle opener snapped off the lids. He gave us each a bottle. They were surprisingly cold, which was very pleasant. I held the bottle close to my nose..."). But they remain connected, however crudely, to Mohar's central question, one ignored by so much English-language literature that considers the UAE: what kind of life am I to make here, and how?

If the response to Camels Love Dubai is encouraging, Wilkins plans to start another Dubai-based novel soon. He will be visiting Dubai soon to conduct research on foreign universities in the Gulf for a doctorate in education, and might collect new material then. (Mohar is based loosely on a Sri Lankan student in one of Wilkins's classes at Dubai University College, now University of Dubai, where he taught from 1998 to 2001.)

As our conversation wound down, I wondered aloud whether Wilkins is worried about being pigeonholed as a "Dubai author". "At the moment I'd quite welcome it," he said. "There are so many sort of mysterious sides to it that are interesting to readers. So I'd like to be associated with the UAE. That would be sort of a privilege."
* Peter C Baker