Stoning the Devil

The Gulf, its people and landscapes; Arab women's lives; Stoning the Devil, my novel-in-stories

The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing is a sort of writers’ tag–the idea is to interview yourself about your current or next book, mention the person who tagged you, and tag five more friends. I’m grateful to my super friend and colleague Stephanie Vanderslice for tagging me. Her blog, which is at http://wordamour.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/wordamour-does-the-next-big-thing/ is already up. Because my current project is far from complete, I might sometimes answer with respect to the last one. I just don’t know! I can be unpredictable like that.

What is your working title of your book (or story)?

I can’t give away the title of the new novel yet. It’s too good and I’m afraid someone might nick it. The last one was Stoning the Devil. I’m good at titles, I think.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Where do ideas come from? Heaven? Dreams? The murky, bubbling stew of the unconscious? All I know is that in general you don’t think of them; they visit you. There is magic in this, and in my case, there are muses. The idea for the historical novel I’m working on gripped my throat like an assassin. If I fail to fulfill its wishes I will be throttled, strangled. The same with Stoning the Devil. It’s a cliche but true all the same: you don’t choose these subjects, they choose you are. If you’re choosing consciously the material is rubbish.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction. I am only interested in writing that is art.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I like this question because it’s so symptomatic of our culture, isn’t it? We have become a culture of movie-goers rather than readers. Sitting at a conference a couple of years ago with a group of English professors, I was shocked that when they asked each other if they had read such and such, their answers were most frequently, “No, but I’ve seen the movie.” And in the Writing Department where I work, people discuss their favourite TV shows and movies with more passion than the books they have read (which are fairly infrequent topics of conversation). If you publish a book, you can be sure that most of your own colleagues will not read it, though they would watch the movie of it, as long as it’s in English and has famous, glamorous actors in it. But if I’m pressed, I would need a very charismatic man for my lead (I’m talking about the historical novel here), not too big, late middle age: Ben Kingsley would be perfect, if a little old, or Sean Penn. There are lots of women in this book. The most important one should be middle-aged, histrionic, somewhat maternal in appearance. Judi Dench twenty years ago? As for Stoning the Devil, Ralph Fiennes would make a good Colin, Penelope Cruz a great Fayruz. I could see Javier Bardem as Khalifa. Any number of French actresses for Randa: Sophie Marceau, perhaps, or the divine Emmanuelle Beart. I love those French actresses, my God! Why don’t we have women like that? 

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Historical novel: a world-famous poet, playwright, novelist, playboy and war hero takes a band of Italian deserters into Dalmatia just after the First World War and starts a utopian republic there, incidentally (and accidentally) influencing the rise of fascism massively. Believe it or not, it’s a true story.

Stoning the Devil: a group of young Arab women, some from the Gulf, others Palestinian refugees, strive to find love and freedom and fulfillment in the UAE, in the face of brutal treatment by men, cultural misunderstandings and their own tragic flaws.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Stoning the Devil was published by Skylight Press in August 2012. The new book will not be self-published, though I do not have a publisher for it yet. I don’t know whether it will be agented or not. At present it isn’t.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

STD: (unfortunate acronym, eh?) several years. New one: still in the middle of it. Should be done by August. That is the Divine Plan. So perhaps a total of 10 or 11 months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

STD:  Naomi Shihab Nye said “there is no other book like this one” but the closest I can think of would be Andrew J. Keir’s Bloody Flies (which shares the story sequence format and the setting, the UAE), Hosseini’s Kite Runner (my book is more serious, less melodramatic), Mantel’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, or Hanan al Shaykh’s Women of Sand and Myrhh. I suppose Fadia Faqir’s Cities of Salt might be another point of comparison.

New masterpiece: G by John Berger; C by Tom McCarthy. (No, my title isn’t a single letter.) But much as I admire both these novels, mine will be very different.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Who: all the people I knew in the Middle East, for STD, especially the brave women; for the coming chef d’ oeuvre (you do realize this is tongue in cheek, don’t you? remember I’m English), the Italian poet Gabriele D’ Annunzio. What: all the demons, angels, jinni, spirits and sprites residing in my mind and wafting around in the ether.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Stoning the Devil provides, I think, not only a fascinating glimpse into life in the contemporary Gulf, particularly into the lives of women there, but introduces the reader to extraordinarily complex characters; and the book is written in lyrical prose of (I hope) great beauty and transcendence. I’m afraid I had to abandon my English diffidence to say that. The new work will continue to investigate my usual themes of sexual politics, this time from a more masculine perspective, in the context of one of the most bizarre episodes in twentieth century history (if not world history), and should shed new light on the rise of fascism and how modern Italy has become the country it is.

The readers I have tagged, who will be blogging next week–I hope–some of them have been somewhat noncommittal about it, damn these writers’ eyes! (though in one case that was my fault)–are, or will be, or may be, the brilliant

David Joiner http://theworldtastesgood.blogspot.com/ and http://avietnamesenovel.blogspot.com/

Sybil Baker http://sybilbaker.blogspot.com/

Cara Brookins http://carabrookins.wordpress.com/

Andrew J. Keir http://www.andrewjkeir.net/a-writers-blog.html

Carol Johnson http://vadasmaker.wordpress.com/

A Mountain Village (II)

Here is the Jebel Al Akhdar again–the Green Mountain in Oman, which rises to about 10, 000 feet. This village is not far from the summit. It seems incredible that anyone could eke out a living in such a harsh environment, but there are fertile patches in the valleys, and goats can survive almost anywhere. Nowadays the villagers have electricity; that means they watch television, and no doubt have access to the internet too. I’ve been feeling a certain amount of envy for the natural way of life that people in places like this lead. I know there’s a danger of sentimentalizing simpler ways of life, and of course I’m aware that rural dwellers in all countries often lead hard lives and have poor access to health care. Still, they wake every morning to silence–what a blessing that is!–and breathe fresh air, and are intimately connected to nature. Most city dwellers nowadays spend most of their lives looking at screens–you look at one when you’re working, then go home and look at more (computer, TV, smartphone) for fun. We think we’re connected, but are we? How often do we have real conversations, deep, meaningful ones, with the people we live with? In places like this, people still eat together and talk, in a leisurely way, for hours and hours. If a friend of neighbour turns up at your house, you greet him or her and invite them in.

Of course you’ve heard all this before. It just struck me, at the beginning of the year, that we might draw inspiration from people who still use their feet to get about, for whom family and friends are still very important, and who eat food they have produced, or that has been produced locally. And by the way, these people don’t carry guns, concealed or otherwise, either. There’s no need.

When you live in America, as I do, it’s hard to imagine living without fear–and yet people here tend to believe they are free. How free can you be, I wonder, if you need a gun to feel safe? How free are you if all the property is private and you can’t go for a walk in the country unless you’re on your own land or in a state or national park? How free are you if you’re forced to spend most of your life looking at screens, if the world is literally mediated for you through the media, if you have to drive everywhere? Isn’t this a foolish way to live?

I’m not romanticizing Arab countries. Anyone who has read Stoning the Devil knows that I write about the dark side of human nature there too–probably to excess, in fact. I don’t avert my eyes from the oppression of women in Arab societies (and indeed in all patriarchal societies, including our own). All the same, I think that Arabs, like Latins, have developed a more civil, more humane, more natural way of life than the Anglo-Saxons, whose focus is so intensely on work, money, material goods–Mammon is our god, whether we acknowledge him or not.

I hope that this year will bring more of us to appreciate simplicity and spirituality, to abandon violence as a way of solving conflict, both domestically and internationally–there is no excuse for the continued US drone attacks on civilian populations in Yemen and Pakistan, for example–and to deal with all our fellow human beings with respect, and if possible, with love.

 

The “Pinto” or “Nina” – in Oman in the Twenty-First Century

Sur, on the Indian Ocean, is a one of the last strongholds of the traditional shipbuilding industry. There are dozens of ocean-going dhows being built there at any time, like this one, made entirely of wood, with lateen sails, so they can tack into the wind. These ships are almost identical to the Portuguese caravels that Columbus sailed to the West Indies in 1492. The Portuguese simply copied the Arab ships, because they were far faster and more maneuvrable than the cumbersome carracks, like the Santa Maria, his flagship–which didn’t make it home.

I know of nowhwere else in the world where you can still find a fleet of ocean-going sailing ships. It’s a very evocative sight. Further down the Swahili coast, in Kenya, I’ve helped sail dhows on the Muslim island of Lamu, north of Malindi, but these are much smaller, yacht-sized vessels–so small that they use sliding seats like racing dinghies, so you can have your weight entirely outside the craft–you just rest your feet on the gunwale, and you don’t wear any kind of harness either! I’ve always felt nostalgia for the age of sail. If you’re an Englishman, even an inland Englishman like me, you can hardly help feeling that you were born to be a seaman, that it’s in your blood. I should have liked to have been on one of the voyages of discovery, perhaps with one of the great Portuguese navigators, Dias or da Gama or Magalhaes (Magellan), or one of the lesser-known (in the west) Arab explorers like Ibn Batutta. In the west we tend to think of Arab rulers as despots, but in the past the nomadic desert tribes, as well as the sea-dwellers, had tremendous physical freedom: if they didn’t like their sheikh or sultan, they could just move somewhere else. Perhaps this is why Arabs seem such natural anarchists–and anarchy, which simply means “without ruler” is a form of political organization that appeals to me.

A Village in the Mountains of Oman

This is a village in Jebel Al Akhdar (Green Mountain) in Oman, not very far from Nizwa. The range goes up to about 10,000 feet, and in January, when this was taken, there can be snow up there. You can see the villagers’ terraced gardens on the slopes to the right of the picture. These particular buildings are modern, though there were some traditional stone ones too, as in the third picture. When I visited this area with my family ten years ago and walked around the village, we found that the local inhabitants didn’t treat us with the usual Omani friendliness and charm, but eyed us suspiciously and sullenly, not returning our greetings. I suppose they were unused to visitors, especially westerners. But I’ve often found that mountain people can be somewhat reserved, and uneasy about outsiders, in Europe and the Himalayas too. AAnd this is a sort of Arab McMansion in the same area–bad taste knows no borders, unfortunately. Pretension is remarkably similar across cultures. And finally, here is a much older part of the same village. We didn’t dare to take pictures of anyone here. I wasn’t afraid of them, but sensed that they would not have liked it. I have always wanted to live in the mountains myself, but although I have on occasion lived near them–in Spain, especially–I’ve never managed to fulfill that ambition. When I retire, perhaps.

Two human beings

I met these two Omani men as I was walking around their village in the Musandam Peninsula. I was with my then-wife, and they stopped us, seeing that I had a camera, and asked me to take a picture of them. Sometimes, in the developing world, people with no access to modern technology will as you to take their photograph out of a fascination for the modern, I think, and sometimes, though rarely, they will ask you to send them the photograph. But in this case I’m sure that wasn’t what was happening. Although these men were probably not wealthy, they were, I’m sure, well enough off to own a camera, and so I think that they were not asking to be immortalized, but asking me and my wife to stop and look at them as human beings. Look at the expressions on their faces: their dignity, their self-possession. The man on the right is carrying prayer beads, so it’s fair to assume that he’s a devout Muslim, but it wouldn’t be fair to assume that he hates westerners and supports terrorism. These men spoke to us kindly and respectfully. It was a moment I was grateful for.

I decided to post this picture because I’ve been distressed by the posting on Facebook, by an ex-student of mine, of an ad that purports to be by the US Marines, whose caption reads something like “Our dating service brings you 72 virgins.” This struck me as hateful and I said so. The implication is that the US Marines are the enemies of all Muslims, and however you justify it, as the ex-student did–saying that it was only hateful to Muslim soldiers who believed they were fighting a jihad, and asking if in fact a lot of Muslims weren’t hateful too–viz. the protests across the Muslim world about the scurrilous YouTube video portraying the Prophet Mohammed–it strikes me that these are disingenuous arguments, not to mention spurious ones–and that those who post them are well aware that in fact they are stirring up hatred and intolerance. And the way they do it is by lumping all Muslims together. I’ll say it again: there are some bad Muslims. I abhor the murder of Ambassador Stephens and other innocents too. But these disturbances have been carried out by a very few thousand people, not the hundreds of thousands who were involved in the Arab Spring. This is not “Muslim rage”; it’s the rage of a few fanatics. And next time the haters want to bomb and send in the Marines, I hope they’ll look at a picture of quiet, dignified men like these, men with families they love, and consider what that means in human terms. I know I’m repeating myself over and over in these blogs. But if we all tried to promote love, understanding and compassion, wouldn’t the world be better? And that starts with thinking of people of other religions and ethnicities not as the Other, not as “them”, but as what they are–individuals, human beings, like you and me.

Can We Afford a ‘Clash of Civilizations’?

It’s been a particularly distressing week for anyone who cares about the Middle East and the Muslim World. The attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi was heinous, and along with other attacks on American and other western diplomatic missions, has fuelled the ire of our own fanatics, those lovely people who are always urging that we “bomb them back into the Stone Age.” Most of the people who have died in the violent protests this week have been Muslim and Arab, but that fact–indeed any fact–only goes to ‘prove’ that they are ‘all savages.’ Many Muslims have come forward to apologize, and to declare that this is not their Islam, but to our trigger-happy fanatics, they are only the exception that proves the rule. It’s a very complicated situation, and I may oversimplify, but I’m going to try to give my own analysis here of what’s going on.

First, by all accounts the movie, which I haven’t seen, is dreadful, and was made as propaganda–i.e. with the express intention of provoking hatred and anger (unlike Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which I regard as a genuine work of art whose intention was nothing like that.) It’s natural that devout Muslims would find it offensive–but not natural, of course, that they would decide to kill people because of it–and particularly not that they would kill innocent people, like Ambassador Stevens, who would have despised the film. I suspect that most of the young men taking part in the ‘protests’ belong to Salafist groups and used the film as a pretext for inciting violence, for challenging moderation and tolerance and democracy. They are wrong to think that violence is an acceptable means to achieve the end they wish for–a more religious society. The ends don’t justify the means. If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that.

Nevertheless, I wish to suggest that what we are witnessing is not proof of Bernard Lewis’ and others’ claim that we are in the midst of a perennial clash of civilizations. In fact, Reza Aslan’s counter-claim, that what’s going on is really an internecine struggle in the Muslim world, between moderate and extremist factions, is much closer to the truth. In the west we need to understand that a minority of Muslims are religious fanatics–in my view, about the same proportion who are Christian fanatics in the United States–and most of those who are would not resort to violence anyway. So the west needs to be supporting that majority of Muslims who want to live peacefully, not lumping them all together as crazies who need to be punished.

And in a larger sense, we need to realize that we cannot afford tribalism any longer. If the human race is to survive with the 12 billion people projected by mid-century, with greatly increased competition for resources, it’s critical that we put aside our primitive hatreds of one another based on colour, creed, language, and so on. Anyone who has lived in the Middle East, as I have, knows that people there are essentially the same as they are in the west. I don’t mean, obviously, that we share all our customs, beliefs and values; but our fundamental aspirations are the same. Most reasonable people want peace rather than war. They want a safe, healthy, prosperous environment for their children. They want their children to be able to thrive. They love their children and care about their neighbours. The “clash of civilizations” myth is perpetrated by people on both sides who are full of hatred and wish to foment hatred and use it for their own political ends. Let’s not listen to them. We have to be brothers and sisters now. Remember that Mohammed did not hate Christians or Jews–he called them People of the Book. All of the Middle Eastern religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, worship the same god, the god of Abraham. I am not a believer in any of these religions, so I can give a non-partisan view. The differences are far, far smaller than the similiarities. There is no need for fights between brothers.

Here is a minaret, in Nizwa, Oman. Anyone who has heard the almost heartbreaking call of the muezzin knows that it is the voice of a genuine spiritual aspiration – and the genuinely spiritual call for peace and love, not bloodshed.

The Best Country in the World?

This is Sur, in Oman, on the Indian Ocean. It’s one of my favourite places in the Gulf, partly because it’s so beautiful, partly because the people are so friendly, and partly because it reminds me of Sinbad (though he came from Sohar, further up the coast, near the Emirates) and the Arabian Nights. But what I’m thinking of right now, as patriotism reaches hysterical heights here in America with the political party conventions, is the oft-repeated phrase: “This is the best country in the world.” How many times have I heard that here, and for that matter, in England too? I hate hearing it, because the sub-text is: “and your country isn’t nearly as good.”

Of course there are many wonderful things about the United States, and Britain as well, and perhaps you could make an argument that they really are the best countries in the world–though for my money, I’ll take Italy or France, or Spain or Portugal. But that’s not the point. Just thinking of the lovely people of Sur, Oman, who are mostly black, because this is on the Swahili coast, and the Arabs used to sail their dhows down the coast of Africa and pick up slaves to bring back to the Arabian peninsula here–thinking of these people, who speak Arabic and Swahili, and are mostly devout Muslims, I’m sure most of them think that Oman is the best country in the world, and you could hardly blame them. It’s beautiful, dramatic, people are very civilized, very friendly and courteous, and it’s far, far safer than the United States or England. There’s free health care for everyone, free university education, and the standard of living is good. There are far fewer people living in poverty than in America. And there’s much less stress. There are disadvantages too: an autocratic regime, run by a hereditary monarch, the Sultan, a single man about whom scurrilous gossip is whispered. But regardless of whether you think it’s better to live in Oman or America, better to have been born American or Omani, from a logical point of view–I wish that people would consider, especially when talking to foreigners, that though it’s fine to love your country, the moment you start regarding it as the best, you are looking down on others, regarding theirs as inferior. And we would all do well to avoid that.

Here’s another picture of Sur, of boys playing football on the sabka, or salt-flat. This picture might have been taken in Al Ain, in the Emirates, where I used to live. My district, Al Khabisi, looked just like this: low houses and mosques, all whitewashed, and salt-flats. And the Emiratis thought they lived in the best country in the world too.

Andrew J Keir’s “Bloody Flies”

Andrew J Keir’s “episodic novel”, as he calls it, Bloody Flies, was recently published by Matador, just a month or two ahead of my own book, which is also set in the United Arab Emirates. Although we were both living in Abu Dhabi at the same time at one point, I never met him, but we recently became Facebook friends, and I read and enjoyed his work. He graciously agreed to be interviewed by me, and gave some fascinating answers to my questions.

 Garry Craig Powell: As someone who’s lived in the Emirates myself, in fact in Abu Dhabi, like you, I thought as I read Bloody Flies that you’d done a great job of capturing the flavour of life there, particularly from the expat standpoint. The themes of the book include issues of social justice, the adulterous affairs that seem to plague expat society, and the arbitrary nature of authority in the country and region. I wonder if you consciously set out to paint a panorama of life in the Gulf, or was your impetus for writing the book quite different?

Andrew J Keir: When work on the book began, my only intention was to write a few stories from the expat perspective. I felt that all the stories coming out of the Gulf were about Arabs or about super wealth. For me, these did not paint a complete enough picture of the area (Particularly the UAE, where the vast majority of the population are not Arabs). After I’d written a few stories I realised I could create a complete story arc for my dominant western protagonist, Leo Hunter, whilst still dipping into other expat cultures. From that point on I certainly had a “panorama of life in the Gulf” in mind.

Garry Craig Powell: Were you influenced by Hilary Mantel’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, or perhaps Geraldine Bedell’s The Gulf Between Us? I think these are the only possible antecedents for your book and mine. And what about fiction on the area by Arab writers? Do you know Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt or perhaps Women of Sand and Myrhh by Hanan Al-Shaykh? If so, I’m curious to know what you think your book adds to the literature.

Andrew J Keir: The Mantel book had been recommended to me, but I didn’t read it at that time. In the beginning I was very conscious of writing universal stories that were set in the Arab world, rather than writing Arab stories. This meant that I consciously steered clear of  Arab themed books for a while.

Later, when I realised I was writing an episodic novel, I was too involved in reading past examples of these, e.g. Cannery Row and Ghostwritten, to shift into Arab mode.

When I think about it, one of my reasons for this is that I wanted Bloody Flies to be an honest reflection of what I saw around me, rather than what others saw around them.

Since I finished Bloody Flies I’ve read the Mantel and a few novels written by Arabic writers and I’ve come to realise that Bloody Flies is a very different animal. In my opinion this is great as it means Bloody Flies looks at the Middle East with fresh eyes and widens our perspective of the Gulf.

Garry Craig Powell: Bloody Flies has been banned in the UAE—not technically, but to all intents and purposes, since the government has not ‘processed’ the book, which means you can’t give readings or promote it. Does that surprise you?

Also, do you think the authorities are more upset by the portrayal of sexual themes in the book, or by some of the characters’ (especially Diana’s) criticism of the conditions of slavery or near-slavery under which some Third World workers and children live there, or perhaps by the portrayal of the authorities themselves, as in the story where Leo has a car accident? Do you think they’ve actually read the book?

Andrew J Keir: The unofficial verdict was given to me verbally through a third party on behalf of someone (At the National Media Council) who had read the book. Who that person was, I don’t actually know; I’m sure he had read the book because the message passed on clearly indicated that the Camel Jockey episodes, and the scene where Leo chats up a Filipino lady, caused them the most difficulty. No mention was made of the car crash episode or the work camp labourers. I should note that even though I was being told I could not sell the book in the UAE or make personal appearances, it was emphasized to me, even at that stage, that the UAE don’t ban books.

Garry Craig Powell: Do you think the banning will affect sales in any way—adversely or positively?

Andrew J Keir: It has greatly reduced my sales in the UAE (My main market) and slightly increased my sales elsewhere.

Garry Craig Powell: I was impressed by the way you humanized your protagonist, Leo, who is not a wholly sympathetic character, by showing us his sympathy for his dying father and his grief and guilt over the death of another family member (I won’t say who, for fear of spoiling the reader’s pleasure). I was particularly struck because the protagonist of Stoning the Devil, Colin, has similar failings to Leo’s, but also genuinely loves his children. Do you think there’s anything about expat life, or life in the Gulf, that impels intelligent, educated people to behave like selfish and querulous teenagers at times?

Andrew J Keir: Money, greed, family, the need to maintain a certain standard of living, being human – all the usual things. I suppose the thing that makes the Gulf different is that rules and laws are applied differently to different ethnic groups, and that westerners and Emiratis enjoy a particularly relaxed version of these rules. They seem to be free to behave badly and to treat the less fortunate with disdain.

Garry Craig Powell: Bloody Flies also shows a character (again I won’t say who, to avoid the spoiler) pursuing a much younger Asian woman—a stereotype of the middle-aged white man in the tropics. Would you agree with me that this part of the novel has elements of comedy as well as pathos?

Andrew J Keir: Yes, but I think that is also true of the whole book. Much has been said about how dark the book is, but I think the darkness is lightened by a sprinkling of black comedy.

I should note, however, that this particular stereotype is alive and well in Abu Dhabi.

Garry Craig Powell: I also admired the way that you made Diana, Leo’s wife, who is also by no means unflawed, genuinely outraged by the treatment of manual workers from the Third World in the camps that Leo manages. She finds him guilty of being complicit with an unfeeling and unjust system. To what extent do you think that western governments and expat workers are responsible for propping up despotic regimes in the region, and unjust social conditions there?

Andrew J Keir: I think individuals tell themselves that the injustices are outside their control. It helps them get through the night … But the unfair distribution of wealth tells another story. Everyone is complicit – it is too easy just to blame the locals.

Garry Craig Powell: Let’s discuss the structure of the book. It’s called a novel, but (again, like my own book) is perhaps more accurately a linked sequence of stories, or novel-in-stories, with characters recurring throughout the sequence. First of all, would you agree with that? And second, what advantages do you see to this form?

Andrew J Keir: I call it an episodic novel, but the other names hold.

I think that the form allows you to see lots of perspectives in multiple single turn narratives, but the advantage over a collection of short stories is a combined synergy which rewards the reader for seeing out the work to the end. The form also allows the writer to layer the work in an unusual way, which brings greater meaning to the overall piece.

Garry Craig Powell: I agree. We hear that publishers want central plots with clear protagonists and antagonists. Did you have any difficulty find a publisher for the novel?

Andrew J Keir: Yes. Bloody Flies is an unusually structured literary first novel – most publishers won’t touch such a beast with the proverbial barge pole. It had to be Indie all the way. Though I must say, Canongate wrote me a very encouraging letter saying that in different economic times they might have taken it.

Garry Craig Powell: That’s impressive. Canongate publish some good writers.

Like me, you studied Creative Writing in graduate school. How valuable did you find that experience in your development as a writer? Do you think Bloody Flies would be very different if you hadn’t studied writing?  

Andrew J Keir: I studied Creative Writing at Lancaster University and Bloody Flies was my MA course project. If I hadn’t completed the course there would be no Bloody Flies. At best there might be a sub-standard spy novel nearing completion.

The support of other creative writers, both students and faculty, is a wonderful thing, and their feedback can only help you improve as a writer. On the negative side however, I feel the course did not help me at all with the difficulties of finding agents and publishers.

Garry Craig Powell: Lastly, do you plan to continue writing about the Gulf, or are you going to explore fresh territory in your next book? Are you already working on something?

Andrew J Keir: My main focus at the moment is a historical novel about Cinaed mac Alpin, the first king of Scotland, and a connected PhD with Edinburgh Napier University. I’m also working on a picture book for the under sixes, called Colin Colour Fingers, with the illustrator Laura Dempsey.

I’ve had enough of the Gulf for now. Writing a banned book is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Garry Craig Powell: Good luck with those projects, Andrew, and thanks for talking to me.

 

Bloody Flies is available from Amazon.com and elsewhere:

http://www.amazon.com/Bloody-Flies-Andrew-J-Keir/dp/1780881495/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346382595&sr=1-1&keywords=bloody+flies

Stoning the Devil – a book about adults losing their innocence

Here’s the link and complete text of Cara Brookins’ interview with me:

http://carabrookins.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/interview-with-garry-craig-powell/

Cara Brookins: Thanks for talking to me about your first published book, Stoning the Devil, Garry. When did it come out?

Garry Craig Powell: Last Monday, August 20.

Cara Brookins: It’s published by an English house, isn’t it?

Garry Craig Powell: Yes, the incredible Skylight Press.

Cara Brookins: Why did you decide to publish with an English press?

Garry Craig Powell: A lot of American publishing houses came close to taking it; they said the writing was brilliant, but they didn’t think it was commercial enough. They thought the characters weren’t sympathetic, or it was too bleak. So I tried the English publishers, and Skylight picked it up at once. English publishers are bolder than American ones, and Skylight is a particularly bold, imaginative press, bringing out tremendously exciting work. They aren’t publishing formula fiction. They’ve got a stable of innovative, wild poets, novelists and esoteric writers, soon-to-be big names like Kirk Marshall, Chris Hill, Dee Sunshine, and Peregrin Wildoak. Some already famous names too, like Rikki Ducornet and Iain Sinclair.

Cara Brookins: Can you tell us about the genesis of the book? When did you get the idea for it?

Garry Craig Powell: From 1993 to 1998 I taught on the Women’s Campus of the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain, and I heard so many astonishing stories, often from the mouths of my students, who were surprisingly open, that I knew I would have to write about them one day.

Cara Brookins: But you didn’t right away?

Garry Craig Powell: No. My first marriage was in ruins for that whole period, and it was all I could do to survive. That’s not quite true. In 1997 I wrote an early draft of “Kamila’s Price,” which ended up in the book, but that first draft was very different from the final version.

Cara Brookins: How so?

Garry Craig Powell: I made the beginner’s mistake of overdoing the melodrama. I had Colin, the Englishman, caught in flagrante with Kamila, the Polish girl, by her pimp—but Colin was penniless, and the pimp, who was Jewish, decides to circumcise Colin with no anesthetic as a punishment. It makes me laugh to think of it now. It ended up considerably more subtle.

Cara Brookins: So you started writing the book about fifteen years ago?

Garry Craig Powell: Not really. When I was in graduate school at the University of Arizona, I did write “Unveiled”, which is also in the book, in close to its present form, but for several years after that I labored on an autobiographical coming-of-age novel set in Spain, which wasn’t very good.

Cara Brookins: When and why did you start writing Stoning the Devil, then?

Garry Craig Powell: It was about 2004. I’d had no success with the Spanish novel, and I’d been meaning for years to write some stories set in the UAE, and suddenly I had the idea of writing a linked sequence. I wanted to have characters recurring in different stories. I already had two, and I found it easy to come up with more.

Cara Brookins: But why the UAE? What attracted you to writing about the Middle East?

Garry Craig Powell: First of all, it was exotic, intrinsically fascinating, a place of incredible contrasts, desert and camel markets and mud forts and oases on the one hand, night clubs, skyscrapers and sports cars on the other. Second, apart from a couple of good Arab writers—Hanan Al-Shaykh and Abdulrahman Munif—almost no one had written fiction about the Gulf. The only westerner I had come across was Hilary Mantel, who wrote a pretty good novel in the eighties called “Eight Months on Ghazzah Street”. But by 2004 I’d lived in the UAE for eight years, much longer than Mantel, and I thought I understood the people and their customs better. So in a sense there was a sort of ethnographic intent. But the book is much more than a fictionalization of a picturesque way of life.

Cara Brookins: What do you mean? Apart from the romantic setting, what else attracted you to the Middle East?

Garry Craig Powell: Let’s not underestimate the romantic setting. Lawrence of Arabia was the first film I was deeply moved by, at the age of seven—that’s true of Colin, too, in the book. Images of Lawrence nobly fighting for Arab freedom remained with me for decades. But apart from that, I was shocked when I got there by the vulgarity of the way of the life—the materialism, the hedonism. You find that in all capitalist societies, but it’s particularly evident in the Gulf. And it seemed to me that because of all the wealth, because of the newness of the cities and the ease of access to all sorts of pleasures that Gulf Arabs and western expats have, many, many of them behaved very badly. I noticed how much drunkenness and debauchery there was, how many marriages collapsed—often very nastily too, like mine. I wasn’t judging people. I behaved terribly too, and that was the worst shock of all. I’d always thought of myself as a good person, and here I was, acting in ways I was ashamed of. And I realized that most of the awful people probably thought of themselves as good, decent people, or at least had done so once. So I wanted to explore how they changed. I started writing stories about adults losing their innocence.

Cara Brookins: There’s a lot of sex in the book, isn’t there? Pretty much every story! Why is that?

Garry Craig Powell: It’s because sex is such an important part of human behavior; it’s a reliable barometer of the power dynamics in a relationship. In a region where, on the whole, women are oppressed and repressed, it’s inevitable that men take advantage of them. And I tried to show that that isn’t only true of the Arabs. A lot of the westerners behave in more traditional, macho ways too. It’s as if the conservative culture gives them an excuse.

Cara Brookins: Is that why so much of the sex is kind of nasty? A lot of it is violent, or abusive, or obsessive, isn’t it?

Garry Craig Powell: Yes.

Cara Brookins: Are you saying that sex is always unhealthy in the Middle East?

Garry Craig Powell: Of course not. Remember, I’m not writing a sociological study, this is a work of fiction. I’m just writing about a small group of characters. Fiction writers tend to take more extreme cases, because the average and the unremarkable are not all that interesting. Obviously there are happily married couples in the Middle East, Muslims and westerners and others. But my group of characters are all people who are looking for love in the wrong places, as the cliché goes. Most of them are actually looking for love, too, rather desperately—but end up settling for lust. And through the tangled skein of their relationships, the reader learns a lot about the dynamics of the culture between the different ethnic groups, especially the local Gulf Arabs, the more westernized northern Arabs of Lebanon and Palestine, and the westerners.

Cara Brookins: There isn’t really a single main character or a single plot, is there?

Garry Craig Powell: No, you’re exactly right. There are several plots of almost equal weight. If anything, the Colin-Fayruz plot is the most central. But the other storylines with which it’s interwoven are probably as important. It ended up being more than a linked sequence of stories. I think of it as a novel-in-stories, like Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It has that kind of scope, that kind of ambition, and I hope, that kind of coherence.

Cara Brookins: Oh, I agree. I think it’s up there with them in quality too.

Garry Craig Powell: Thank you!

Cara Brookins: Stoning the Devil has already attracted high praise from some well-known writers, like Naomi Shihab Nye and George Singleton. You must be very pleased.

Garry Craig Powell: I’m delighted and flattered. Naomi is not only a brilliant writer but one of the noblest, kindest human beings I’ve ever met, and George is certainly the funniest raconteur I’ve come across. I was very honored to get the advance praise from them.

Cara Brookins: Naomi Shihab Nye says that the book is a “mesmerizing read” and adds “Garry Craig Powell has an astonishing ability to create characters with swift and haunting power.” Can you tell us something about those characters?

Garry Craig Powell: At the center there’s Colin, an English professor who used to be an aid worker. He is an Arabist, imagines himself to be progressive, but has some latent racism that he’s unaware of, at least in the beginning. He’s unhappily married to Fayruz, who is a traumatized survivor of the massacres by Christians and Israelis of the Palestinian refugee camps outside Beirut in the early eighties. Fayruz’ brother, Marwan, is a banker, and like Colin, a womanizer. He’s married to Randa, another Palestinian refugee. These are sophisticated, western-educated Arabs. They all traumatized by war, but there’s some dark humor in their relationships, particularly in the Marwan-Randa strand. Then there are other characters connected to Colin: a young Polish girl called Kamila who is down on her luck, and two of his Emirati students at the university, Badria and Alia, who are cousins and best friends, but have a very bizarre relationship. There’s a Sri Lankan masseur called Tyrone—

Cara Brookins: Tyrone! Like the actor Tyrone Power?

Garry Craig Powell: Yes, quite a few Sri Lankans have English names. A famous cricket captain from the country was called Tyrone, in fact. And there are some Emirati men, too: Sultan, Badria’s brother, who gets involved in different ways with Kamila and Alia, and Khalifa, who has a connection to Randa.

Cara Brookins: You said some of the American publishers thought the characters too unsympathetic. Do you think that novels need characters that readers can identify with? Do we have to like them? And which are your favorite characters?

Garry Craig Powell: I don’t think that readers have to like the characters. Look at Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Or Meursault in The Stranger. You wouldn’t want to go out for a beer with either of those guys. But they’re fascinating. Why? Because they’re wrestling with real ethical problems. They might not be as nice as we’d like, but we understand what they want, and when they clash with society, we want them to learn from their mistakes. Flawed characters are more fascinating than anodyne, nice ones. At any rate I will follow a character on a difficult journey as long as I can understand him or her, as long as they are complex, compelling people.

Cara Brookins: You haven’t answered part of my question. Do you like your characters?

Garry Craig Powell: Actually, I do, though not one of them is wholly admirable. I feel I understand them, and as the French say, tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.

Cara Brookins: You can forgive Sultan and his father?

Garry Craig Powell: Maybe not them! Though obviously they have been brutalized—Sultan by his father, and his father, probably, by his own father.

Cara Brookins: Do have favorites?

Garry Craig Powell: I do. I’m especially fond of Randa, who starts out so weak and submissive, but who struggles to find herself and become assertive. I like Badria too. Although she’s manipulative and even cruel, she’s incredibly strong. She’s learned how to survive and even thrive in a hostile environment for women. She reinvents herself, and she’s instrumental in helping Randa reinvent herself too. I must say too that I have great sympathy for Kamila. She may appear weak, and she suffers horribly, but by God, she puts up a fight at the end. And it’s her courage that redeems her, I think. I’m also very fond of Tyrone, the wise, kind, Buddhist man who gives massages to spoilt, rich expats and Arabs.

Cara Brookins: Was he based on a real person? Were all the characters?

Garry Craig Powell: Not all of them, no. Some were based on people I knew quite well—rarely a single person, usually composites of several people—some were based on people I’d heard of or read little snippets about in newspapers, and some were entirely made up. But Tyrone was based on a wonderful man I knew.

Cara Brookins: Did he impart Buddhist wisdom to you on the massage table?

Garry Craig Powell: You may laugh, but he did indeed.

Cara Brookins: Are you Colin? I read a review that said he might be your alter ego.

Garry Craig Powell: That’s the question I dread! Naturally the reader notices some resemblances—English, professor, Cambridge-educated, lived in the UAE—but there are some big differences. I was never an aid worker, I never had an Arab wife (though I’ve heard there’s a rumor at the university that I once had a mail-order Arab wife!), I’ve never taught literature, never slept with a prostitute, or done a lot of the things that Colin does in the book. Nevertheless, of course there’s a lot of me in him, as there is in all my characters. You project parts of your personality into your characters, sometimes the worst, most frightening thoughts and impulses.

Cara Brookins: Sounds scary.

Garry Craig Powell: As Naomi Shihab Nye said, it’s a “journey to the dark side of human behavior.” It has to be. If you just write about happy people having fun, there’s no story.

Cara Brookins: Naomi Shihab Nye also said, “You will not be able to put this book down.”

Garry Craig Powell: I hope she’s right! Burn the midnight oil!

Cara Brookins: And George Singleton, who also said the book is “mesmerizing”—curious that they both use that word—compared your sensibility to “the best Conrad, Kipling, Orwell and Achebe.” Does that comparison frighten you?

Garry Craig Powell: It humbles me. Of course I aspire to be in those ranks—every writer worth his or her salt aspires to be among the best, as John Gardner said. And there’s no question that my themes echo theirs: I’m writing about the problems caused by colonialism, the evils that arise when one group of people tries to dominate or exploit another. But posterity will have to decide whether I belong in such exalted company.

Cara Brookins: There’s no question that Stoning the Devil deserves to be very popular.

Garry Craig Powell: Thank you very much, Cara.

Cara Brookins: And thank you very much for talking to me, Garry. Just one last question: where can readers buy the book? And are you giving readings in this area?

Garry Craig Powell: You can get it from Amazon; $15.99 for the paperback, $7.99 for the e-book. A lot of people have been downloading it! You can also buy it directly from the publisher, Skylight Press, or order it from a bookstore. I’ll be doing a book-signing at Hastings in Conway on September 15, and a meet-the-author event at Faulkner County Library in Conway on September 30. I’m giving a reading at Faulkner County Library on November 1. There will be other events too. Anyone is interested should check out my website, http://garrycraigpowell.com, which has a page for Appearances, or my Facebook fan page, Garry Craig Powell, Writer. Just “like” it, and you’ll get the update.

Cara Brookins: Thanks again, Garry.

Garry Craig Powell: Shukran, Cara.

Sex in the Middle East

This is Nizwa, one of my favourite towns in the Middle East, an Arabian Nights city that is still reputed to be full of wizards and witchcraft. (This picture is on the back cover of Stoning the Devil, which is at the printer’s and will be published on Monday.) Thinking about this place reminded me of an incident that befell me and my then-wife there, some ten years ago. We had been up in the mountains of Jebel Al Akhdar, and our brakes had failed. I’d managed to pull the car off the road safely, but we were miles from the nearest town. We flagged down a car, and the driver brought us into Nizwa, where I arranged for a tow-truck to fetch the car. I went back up the mountain with the driver to locate the truck while the young man who had given us the lift took my wife to a “hotel” to wait for me. Looking back, it was perhaps a foolish thing to do. As she waited in the lobby she noticed young women coming in and out after very short stays in the bedrooms, and it became apparent that the place was a brothel. Luckily, nobody bothered her while I was away, although she was very young, very attractive, and a foreigner to boot. What’s more, we stayed in another “hotel” in Oman which clearly also had at least the ancillary function of brothel. In fact many of the hotels in the Middle East–and elsewhere, I realize–provide other “services” for men. In the cheaper hotels, the skin trade tends to be more openly engaged in; in the luxury hotels of Dubai, you’re likely to find more discreet call-girls. My purpose here is not so much to reflect on the hypocrisy of a society that claims to be virtuous, but isn’t, in which the social condemnation of sex outside marriage leads inevitably to prostitution–we all know about that, because the West was like that until fifty years ago too. Instead I’d like to consider sex in the Middle East in general, as far as I understand it.

I’ve just had an interesting experience. I had to re-read Stoning the Devil to correct the proofs as they were on the way to the printer’s, and I realized, somewhat tardily, that almost every chapter is about sex. Even in the ones in which sex is not an overt theme, there’s an undercurrent of sex. What’s more, I realized, not exactly to my horror but to my surprise, almost all the sex is rather nasty: it’s abusive, obsessive, forbidden or unhealthy in some way. (If it surprises you that I was so unaware of the character of the book I had written, bear in mind that when an author finishes a book, it’s nearly impossible for him or her to judge it objectively. You’ve been so close to the material, for so long, that all you see are the details. At any rate, it was only re-reading it, so long after completing the writing, that I understood that sex, and particularly sex as an expression of power, dominance, and objectification of women, was really the dominant theme of the book.) I must admit too that I felt slightly defensive on realizing this: what if my readers thought that I was like my characters, particularly the male ones? What if they thought I was some moral degenerate who relished this horrible sex? But of course I hadn’t been writing with pornographic aims. Though the sex in the book is sometimes graphic, it’s never pornographic; its purpose is never to arouse. I often tell my students that there should be more sex in their stories, that sex is a vital part of human behaviour, and one of the best ways of expressing character, and power relationships. And I hope that this is what I did in my book. I’d like to think that the sex helps the reader understand each character, and that the nature of the sex is nothing more than an expression of the unhealthy relationships that prevail in the Middle East, not only between Arab men and women, but also expat men and women, and indeed same-sex couples too. The more I think about it, the more I understand that my subconscious purpose in writing the book was to show how patriarchal values, along with rigid religious public morals and a hyper-materialistic way of life, are bound to pervert human beings’ natural drives to love and healthy sex lives.

This isn’t to affirm that all sex in the Middle East is unhealthy, obviously, or to suggest that it’s far worse than in the West. Indeed, Islam has a healthier view of sex than Christianity. It’s not regarded as sinful, a priori, as it is in Christianity, and women are not seen as the vessels of sin and temptation, as they are in Christianity, or Judaism for that matter. In fact, considering when Mohammed had his revelations, in the early seventh century, the views expressed about women were remarkably enlightened, certainly more so than those expressed in the Bible (both testaments.) The repression women have undergone in the Middle East has been caused more by the patriarchal nature of Arab society, though men have manipulated, distorted and perverted the teachings of Mohammed for their own benefit. (Again, it’s not hard to see parallels with Christianity and Judaism.) The upshot of this is that unlike Victorian wives, say, sex is not unmentionable to a modern Muslim woman, and married women feel that they have the right to be sexually satisfied by their husbands. I spoke to married women–mostly students–who were remarkably frank about this. Still, I think, as does my friend Naomi Shihab Nye, that women suffer doubly in the Middle East, because they are oppressed not only by their governments, but also by their fathers and husbands, on the whole.

Of course things are changing. As women have access to the internet, with smart phones, Facebook and the like, and drive their own cars (which in most Arab countries, they can do), they are able to find lovers if their husbands treat them badly. Their veils are not so much the terrible imposition that western women think, but enable them to travel incognito and lead their lives as they wish. Women are taking power for themselves, by any means possible: open rebellion, manipulation, slyness and deception–all is fair in love and war, as the proverb says. And again, this is a major theme in Stoning the Devil.

Sex and sexual strife are the engines of the plot; but what emerges is a panorama of women struggling to be free.