Rym Ghazal talks to Noura Al Noman, the author of Ajwan, the UAE's first full-length sci-fi novel, at the Sharjah Book Fair.
Star Wars-inspired Emirati pens novel
When Luke Skywalker grabbed Princess Leia in Tarzan-like fashion and whisked her across a bottomless pit inside the Death Star in Star Wars, the film captured the heart and the imagination of a young Emirati girl, who 35 years later, still gets goose bumps watching this scene.
"It was out of this world! I was blown away," said Noura Al Noman, who saw the scene in a trailer for the 1977 movie on the Dubai Channel, which was then the only English channel in the UAE.
She later watched the film in its entirety at Sharjah's Concorde Cinema.
It was one of the few American movies showing in the UAE at a time when Indian and Arabic films dominated.
"It was a whole new world, with characters that touch you, anger you and you love and hate. It was a world with different rules," she said.
"It made me dream."
The self-confessed nerd said it was common to find her throughout her youth and even after her marriage with her nose buried in a sci-fi or fantasy book or magazine ordered from abroad.
"It was a daily ritual for me to check our mailbox. It was the time of snail mail, where we waited patiently and lovingly for the book or magazine that continued the story where it left off."
When she wasn't dressed as Ellen Ripley from Alien or Trinity from The Matrix, Al Noman was rewriting the endings of sci-fi films that she had watched with her family.
Then one day in 2009, her husband suggested, "Why don't you write your own sci-fi film?"
To make sure she took it seriously, he stuck a note on the wall above their bed that said "Today I will finish 800 words" to encourage his wife to write.
This year, at the age of 47, Al Noman finally finished creating her own world where she made her own rules, breaking new ground with the publication of Ajwan, the UAE's first full sci-fi novel. The author has previously written two books for children.
Written in Arabic for young readers, Ajwan is the story of a girl who can breathe both water and air who rebels against the restrictions imposed on her as the daughter of Emperor Mandan and Empress Mandana, rulers of an underwater world.
"Ajwan, which means little seas, is like many teenagers. She wants to break free, to be true to herself. She was destined to be the wife of a ruler, and that was not enough for her," said Al Noman.
Inspired by the Man from Atlantis films and short-lived television series, which follow the adventures of a man with amphibian abilities, the 420-page book is published by Nahdet Misr and is the first part of a trilogy.
"Yes, I am one of the survivors. Yes, my planet was destroyed. Yes, my family was lost. Yes, my life is over. Any other questions, cruel woman?" reads an excerpt from the book.
The book follows the adventures of the girl as she falls in love with an older man from another world, learns to kill and destroy her enemies, and uses her superpowers to understand characters she meets along her journey.
"I know people are used to superheroes with obvious powers, but I chose the gift of empathy for her, and she struggles to understand and use it. The world I created is crowded. There is no personal space, it is almost suffocating. So they adapted to this by not feeling much emotion," said Al Noman, who feels that "lack of empathy" is already a problem in today's world.
Written in conversational rather than formal Arabic, the novel is relatively tame by the standards of the genre.
"I did self-censor, yes, and I hope in the next two novels of Ajwan the content will be more mature as my readers mature," she said.
Al Noman struggled to find a publisher to take on her book, with local publishers declining on the basis that it was inappropriate for readers under 18 years, and regional ones unwilling to venture into the genre.
"The Arabic book publishers seem unaware of what young readers read these days in English," said the mother of six, four in their teens and two in their early 20s.
"I see what my kids read in English. They can't find those kinds of challenging books in Arabic, one of the reasons our young have given up on Arabic books."
After several rejection letters, Al Noman finally got an offer from the Egyptian publishers Nahdet Misr.
Ajwan was launched at the 2012 Sharjah International Book Fair, where models dressed as characters from the book wandered about with plastic machine guns.
"We need more sci-fi books and initiatives to make our young love science," she said.
Before completingAjwan, Al Noman accidentally found a mentor in a writer she had once reached out to in the 1980s.
Alan Dean Foster, the prolific American author of fantasy and sci-fi books and novelisations of films, including Star Wars, Star Trek and Alien, exchanged dozens of letters with Al Noman after she wrote to his publishers asking for permission to translate some of his short stories into Arabic for a women's association newsletter.
From political discussions on everything from Palestine to the art of writing, the two pen pals from different worlds shared their love for the imagination at a time when letters were sent through the postal system, not emailed.
Commenting on the letterhead used in his typed letters, Al Noman noted: "It says Thranx Inc. That's the name of a race in one of his series of books. They are insectoid. The alliance between both humans and Thranx became the Humanx Alliance. These are the things which inspire authors to create worlds and give those worlds details and depths. And he uses it as a letterhead!"
In one of the letters, he wrote: "Why don't you write your own book?"
But instead of picking up her pen, Al Noman focused on raising her children and eventually ceased correspondence with the author.
But, during a trip to London in 2007, she saw a poster at a book store announcing a personal appearance by Foster, which gave Al Noman the chance to finally meet her famous pen pal.
"It was serendipity," recalls Al Noman.
After standing in line with her teenage son, Saoud, who is also an avid fan of the sci-fi and fantasy genres, she finally got to meet Foster in person.
"He looked up and saw a woman in a hijab, so he got more reserved.
"Then I quietly asked him if he remembers a girl from the Emirates who used to write to him. Her name is Noura. And he looked shocked, banged his head against the table and yelled, 'Where have you been?'" she said.
Al Noman then pointed to her son and said: "It's his fault."
The two authors reconnected and have been in touch ever since.
As part of a panel for the forthcoming Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2013, Al Noman and Foster will share the stage and talk to the audience about science fiction.
"I am angry at myself that I didn't write my book earlier ... But then again, maybe if I didn't have all this experience, I wouldn't have been able to write a complete novel."
The Sharjah International Book Fair ends on Nov 17 at 10pm. Details: www.sharjahbookfair.com
Rym Ghazal is a columnist and senior features writer for The National.