x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The princess died

Saloon In the latest UAE-based novel, Anastasia Romanov avoids assasination by dashing off to Dubai.

In the latest UAE-based novel, Anastasia Romanov avoids assasination by dashing off to Dubai. In March of 1917, Tsar Nicholas Romanov II of Russia gave up his throne, handing over power to a provisional government meant to facilitate Russian's transition to democracy. That didn't go so well; in October the Bolsheviks took power by force, and the country descended into civil war. The Bolsheviks placed the tsar and his family under house arrest in Yekaterinburg, a city in central Russia. On July 17, 1918, as loyalist fighters still faithful to the former tsar drew close to the city, the Bolsheviks took the Romanovs into a sub-basement, executed them and hid their corpses.

Almost immediately, people began claiming that not every Romanov died that night. Specifically, they claimed that the tsar's youngest daughter, Anastasia, had escaped: with help from a compassionate guard, with help from the doctor, with help from a priest, with help from the German government, with some good luck. Several would-be Anastasias came forth seeking public recognition of their royal blood. The theories were kept alive in large part because the Romanov burial site was not discovered until 1981 - and kept secret until the USSR fell in 1991. When it was, it was two bodies short.

Over the years, this scenario and its possible implications have inspired a veritable pantheon of Anastasia entertainment: plays, films, books, television serials, at least one video game - and now The Pearl of Dubai, a novel available exclusively as an e-book download ($15 Australian) from the website of its author, Grant Foster. The book represents the intersection of two small but distinct genres: speculative Anastasia narratives and stories that conceive of Dubai as a sandy setting for the dramatic convergence of world-historical forces (see Six Sacred Stones, The Godstone, Desert England).

The Pearl of Dubai opens before Nicholas has abdicated; the Romanovs are going about their royal business. Palace romances abound. Whispers of discontent trickle in through the high walls. Rasputin mutters lots of menacing things. For Marie Romanov's birthday, Nicholas invites Peter Fabergé (he of egg fame) to the Winter Palace to discuss jewellery designs. Anastasia wants pearls, but Fabergé informs her that she will have to wait four months.

"This is not something I can rush your Grand Duchesse. It takes time for the right pearls to become available, they must then be shipped to Petrograd... They come from Arabia... A small fishing village called Dubai." Cue elaborate plot by a spoiled princess to sneak out of the palace and onto a ship bound for the Gulf. In this, Anastasia is aided most prominently by Regina, a common girl who resembles her a bit.

In the small but bustling fishing village that is 1916 Dubai, after a brief audience with Sheikh Maktoum, Anastasia heads into the desert to visit the Al Maha Oasis and Hajar Mountains. Two hours out of Dubai, however, her expedition party is hit by a sandstorm; Anastasia is thrown from her camel, blown far from the party and buried under the sand. Those who survive assume she is dead. But she is soon discovered by Rashed, a young Bedouin travelling Dubai to sell produce and crafts in the souq.

Because she is recovering in Rashed's family home in the foothills of the Hajar, Anastasia misses her family's execution, and the rest is counter-history. It would be cruel to potential e-readers to spell out exactly what happens next, but, as the tagline on Foster's website ("Today in Dubai — has DNA testing begun?") indicates, the Russian princess comes to enjoy her expat lifestyle quite a bit.

In August 2007, a Russian archaeologist discovered two partial skeletons near Yekaterinburg. For over a year, the remains were independently tested by several laboratories around the world; just this March, it was announced that every Romanov child, including Anastasia, died in 1918. This doesn't worry Foster, an Australian classical composer and lifelong Dubai-phile. "The DNA tests prove some things but not everything. The novel is a fantasy, an opinion, but all the historical research was very carefully done. I just felt very strongly that something like this could possibly have happened. And I think still think it is at least possible that Anastasia is buried somewhere in the forest near Yekaterinburg."

Foster has already written several pieces of music based on The Pearl of Dubai, including a large orchestral work called Anastasia and Rashed. He is hoping to put on a show in Dubai, with the Russian National Orchestra performing his works. "Because of the troubles, we're waiting for sponsorship. But if it happens it will be spectacular; we'll have snow in the desert, a typical Dubai show." Until then, Foster is putting the finishing touches on his second novel, a work of science-fiction. "It's about a group of children who go into a forest. They're told never to go there, and when they do they come across all sorts of aliens. They go to different planets."

"They also come across this woman and become puzzled by who she is. As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly worked out. You would know of her, but I can't tell you. You would know her name, let's put it that way."

* Peter C Baker