Book Review: Qatar Narratives
Edited by Carol Henderson and Mohanalakshmi Rajukumar
"The grains of my country may scar my hands but I will never let them go."
Noora Al Mannai quoting her father Essa Abdullrahman Al-Mannai.
A Palestinian man who has brought the spade from his own country, childhood confessions of secretly breaking the Ramadan Fast, a letter to a dead mother, stories of the past and the present - in Qatar Narratives, we find a huge range of essays and topics.
These are women who are, for the most part, not writing in their first language, and the results, with a couple of exceptions, are not the polished prose of experienced professionals. (One that stands out - though it is by a native speaker - is Notes From Conversations I Failed to Have.) Editors have to strike a delicate balance in situations like this, eradicating glaring mistakes while not allowing their editing to get in the way of the writer's voice.
With most of the essays the authenticity of the the writers voice stands out despite an occasional awkwardness of voice - and at times there are flashes of real talent. One line that struck me was in Arabian Superwoman - when Rooda Al Neama describes her Grandmother after an illness:
"Her once pleasantly plump figure was now deflated like a ballon losing its air, its essence."
Other are intriguing - stories of lives and times past, no longer part of everyday reality in Qatar but still very real to the people who lived through them. One piece that was both fascinating and very well written was by Noor Al Athira, who talked about how her grandmother, at the age of nine, was plucked from the middle of a game and taken home crying.
"The next thing Grandma knew was that she was seated on a lounge, placed in the hall in the middle of their house, surrounded by flowers and women facing her. Two women were sitting on the right side of the rounded open hall, one playing Tabla (Arabic Drum) and the other on Daf (another drum like instrument) and they were singing wedding songs... A few minutes after Grandmother was seated, her mother announced the arrival of the groom."
Like other essays in the book, the author focuses on the change from the past to the present, and the opportunities that have opened to her - all in the lifetime of her Grandmother.
"Living in Qatar allowed my family and I to refocus my core ambition as an Arabic woman, from marriage at a very early age to education and career development."
Not every writer feels the same sense of liberation. One describes her reluctance, despite pressure from family, to wear the veil - another writer tries the veil for a day and feels unable to breathe. Other writers mix praise for their country with just a touch of bitterness: one, after noting the refusal of many families to allow women to drive, writes:
"They think that Arab women in general are useless and can't contribute to their society."
Nor, as one writer relates, has every change been positive:
"TRAFFIC JAM. TRAFFIC JAM. TRAFFIC JAM... I lay there fighting the killing tick tock of time. It felt like the usual dark empty tunnel. Yet the dark end came much sooner than I expected. It was not the traffic clearing, but a flashback, an old memory that came to me right then... the image of the silky soft Corniche, with no sharp-edged fancy glass buildings, and of course no traffic jams."
Some cultural differences are as vivid by their absence as by their inclusion - it was instructive that while several of the writers felt honored to have been educated in a new and modern scientific school, none dwelt on the fact that they had been told rather than asked to leave their old school and attend the new institution.
Not every essay in this book engaged me. A few felt bland - reporting facts and figures without real emotion or voice. However, the majority offered something which most outsiders will not get elsewhere - a real insight into the thoughts and feelings of women in Qatar.