Garry responds to “Garry” – not his alter ego

I just got my first bad review, on Goodreads, from someone who calls himself “Garry” and says that Stoning the Devil is disgusting and racist. He says that I hate Emiratis. In principle it’s not a good idea to reply to reviews of this kind, especially when they are as illiterate and incoherent as this one, but I have decided to do so, not to defend the quality of the writing–which in any case he doesn’t attack–but to defend the book from a moral standpoint and to explain to those who think that everything is black and white that in good fiction the author doesn’t always take a position.

First of all, I’m not racist. I know this picture proves nothing, but in fact Musabbah, the man on the right whose family owned this camel farm, invited me and my family to their house, which I’m sure they would not have done if he hadn’t felt that I respected Emiratis. I was, and remain, very fond of Musabbah, even though he was not the most diligent student and I had to give him a rather low grade. It’s true that many of the stories or chapters in Stoning the Devil don’t present a particularly positive of Gulf society, and especially of the men. That doesn’t mean that I despise the society. I think it’s sexist, I think that women are oppressed badly there, and inevitably much of that appears in the book, but that doesn’t mean that I dislike the society or all the men. Anyone who’s been reading these blog posts should know that my overall view of Arab society is positive, and that I’m in favour of understanding other cultures on a level of equality, not judging them. But an artist has the responsibility to show things as they are, not as he or she would like them to be. My book has a chapter about a public execution, as “Garry” describes. He claims that the only such execution in the UAE in recent history was when a man raped a four year old boy. That’s not true. The execution I describe in “Sentence” is based on truth. It happened in Al Ain, where I lived, in the nineties; three men were executed for murdering a man when they carried out a robbery. Nowhere in the story do I as the author express my opinion about this. It’s all seen through the eyes of Colin, the professor and part-time journalist, who does find it barbaric–but who finds himself being caught up in the excitement of the crowd, and realizes that he is complicit. In fact, if “Garry” read the whole book carefully–which I suspect he has not done–he would understand that again and again Colin, the westerner, realizes that the injustices perpetrated in the region all take place with western connivance and complicity. So the book is by no means a condemnation of Arab barbarity; on the contrary it shows, as does Fadia Faqir’s Pillars of Salt, that western men are just as bad as Arab men, equally ready to exploit and subjugate.

I also wish to point out Milan Kundera’s defence of Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses. That is, both the ayotallahs and most western critics alike argued from the same premise, that the presentation of “Mahmoud” (who was assumed to be a representation of the Prophet Mohammed) as a sinner and a fool was the view of the author. The ayatollahs thought this was sacrilege; the western critics thought Rushdie had every right to his opinion. Both were wrong. In fact Rushdie was creating imaginary characters, and we can never assume that the views of the characters are the views of the author, even if there is an omniscient narrator–he or she may well be a fictional construction too. So even if you find the portrayal of Emirati society in Stoning the Devil offensive, it’s unreasonable to assume that the views of the characters are mine. I made these people up. I told some dramatic stories about them–inevitably, stories which show some of them in a very bad light. I don’t pretend that this is the totality of life in the UAE and the Gulf. The book simply represents some of the things that I saw, some things that I imagined, some things that I know to be true. If you read all the book and understand it, I think you’ll agree that the abiding impression is of the humanity of the characters, especially the women. Perhaps I should have done a better job with the men. Most of them aren’t very nice, it’s true. But even there, at least one is a very good man (Tyrone, the masseur), and most of the others have redeeming features.

Does this matter? Who really cares about Stoning the Devil anyway? At this point I suppose only a few hundred people have read it. But I think there’s an important principle at stake here, and that’s that we should try to understand the complexity of a situation before we make pronouncements on it, and we shouldn’t condemn someone for giving an opinion simply because it doesn’t agree with ours. You can criticise someone, or even a nation, and not hate them. I feel I have the right to criticise America and Britain, for example, though in many ways I have great admiration for the people of each. This is a critical time in history. Once again, as I write, the Palestinians are being crushed by the Israelis. On one of my Facebook friends’ feeds–he was saying that what the Israelis are doing is not genocide–someone had told him not to waste time trying to explain things to anti-Semites. But surely, to criticise Israel–by which I mean the fascist government of Israel, not its people–doesn’t make you an anti-Semite. We can abhor the actions of a government, as I abhor the actions of the thug Netanyahu, without despising all Israelis. I know there are countless Israelis who work for peace and feel deep shame that the IDF is murdering Palestinian children. Similary, there are many Palestinians who feel deep shame that Hamas is willing to kill Israeli children. This is a complicated situation. It isn’t a matter of Israel bad, Palestine good, or the converse. There are good and bad people on both sides. The Palestinian leadership is terrible, weak and corrupt in Fatah, fanatical in Hamas. Nevertheless, to call this a war is like referring to an incident in which a child pinches an adult, and the adult punches him back, as a fight. It’s not a war because only one side has an army and serious weapons. And it’s a disgrace that the international community hasn’t condemned Israel for its merciless attacks on civilians.

I may appear to have wandered in this blog post, but I hope that there has been a unifying point. I defend the right for every free person, and particularly every writer, to criticize any country or society. It doesn’t mean that he or she is a racist or a traitor. On the contrary: loving someone gives us the right to point out their faults, not in the spirit of meanness, but to help them overcome them. I’m not saying I always succeed in this–I can be petty, like anyone else, and sometimes was in the weeks preceding the election–but I try. I’m working for understanding between people of different ethnicities, different religions, different genders. I’d like to think that my photo on this post shows some of that spirit. I support Palestinian aspirations, but not blindly. I respect and admire Arab culture, but not every aspect of it. And if “Garry” were to read all of Stoning the Devil, I think he would understand this.