Writing in the Middle East

WordPress is overwhelmingly Western orientated and from some comments I’ve seen, people can assume that everyone lives in America or Britain. You know, ‘our tax system is hopeless’ kind of note, with the author not explaining what tax system they’re talking about.
It’s not a serious flaw but amongst our numbers there are people who live in places vastly different from ‘The West’. Their experiences in writing then publishing a book is very different from what people in the West might imagine.

I’d like to take you on a short tour of my writing experiences in the Middle East to shine a faint glimmer of light on what it’s like. Not just the mechanics but also how it affects the way you think and by extension the way you write.

A bit of background. I describe myself as Scottish by birth, European by nature and Middle East resident by choice. I travel around the region from Kurdistan to Oman and places in between. I’ve lived for extended periods of time in Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Although I’ve been in the region for 12 years this time round I hardly speak a word of Arabic (Jim hangs his head in shame).

The Amazing Diver Sculptures in Dubai Mall

The Amazing Diver Sculptures in Dubai Mall

On writing. I currently live in Dubai and you can sit here in a hotel lobby and you could write a thousand novels based on an evening’s observations. The mix of people, cultures, dress, habits never cease to amaze. At present the number of people from the Former Soviet Union is expanding – lots of hotel staff are now from that area. The other noticable change is the number of Chinese and Koreans. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a vast bazaar, a massive souk where people come to live, do business, holiday and stop-over on their way somewhere else. Most International Oil Companies have regional hub offices in Dubai, mainly to service their operations in Iraq. But for British people its a home from home. You can actually get deep fried Mars bars here (a Scottish delicacy if longevity is not your aim in life).

So the UAE is a comfortable place for someone like me to live. BUT. And that’s a big big BUT. I never forget that I’m a guest in someone else’s country. The law here is not based on English law (like so many other countries), the law here is Sharia and woe betide anyone who thinks differently. Its all to easy for people to imagine somehow that ‘probably things are much the same here as back home’.

And how is this of significance to writers? Well, you can’t just find a publisher here and knock a few thousand copies out then get them into the shops. You have to obtain a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the government (I’ll not go into the process – it’s lengthy but not complicated). If the book contains anything deemed to be blasphemous or would offend local family values then its unlikely to get a NOC.
I’m going through the process right now and my book does contain harsh criticism of the Catholic Church – it may be a factor that stops me publishing here because the Ministry of Culture protects all religions not just Islam. There may be other factors but I couldn’t even guess what they might be. Like everything else in the Middle East your best companions are Patience, Good Humour and an engrossing book to read.

Tigris and the Baghdad Green Zone

Tigris and the Baghdad Green Zone

Going back to the process of writing. I wrote the outline for my book iNation when I lived in Baghdad in 2003. I was in the Sheraton Hotel, situated on the roundabout where Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down. I had a great view from my room overlooking the Tigris. I could see everything in the Green Zone (Saddam Hussein’s palace and other government buildings). I ate often at the palace and wandered through the grounds. I even swam in his pool. Despite what was said in the media at the time the palace. pool, etc were no bigger nor more opulent than a million other houses in this region. The scurrilous hype about Saddam living in grand luxury while his people lived in hovels conveniently forgot to mention how the President of the United States lives in the White House v people in shotgun shacks in some States. Ps, this is not an anti-American rant – I love America and I count many Americans amongst my friends. The media across Europe did hatchet jobs on Saddam every bit at vitriolic as Fox News.

Anyway it was these experiences that planted the seed in my mind. America runs the world now but what if there was a much bigger yet hidden country just around the corner. A country that holds no territory, a country that lives in the world wide web? What would it do, how would it work, could it change the world? Would the change be for good or would it produce a world dictatorship?
When the phenomenon of Facebook burst upon us the book practically wrote itself. I also took the opportunity to give some other global organisations that should be making the world a better place, but are not, a right good Glasgow kicking. A Glasgow kicking is considered by thugs around the world to be the very pinnacle of ‘a kicking’.

Returning once again to writing (I know, I ramble), the act of observing ones country and others from a distance and from within a different culture adds (IMHO) depth and gives a twist to how things are written. You’re less influenced by the propaganda pushed out in those countries, you more likely to see a bigger picture than a local election or the rise in the price of petrol. As many writers have observed, people who live on the margins of society, people who are ‘different’ and people who are from different cultures are often the sharpest observers. Gore Vidal and Jerzy Kozinsky spring to mind. The Middle Eastern culture is so pervasive and different it would be a miracle if your approach to writing didn’t change.

Apart from that, writing here is the same as anywhere else. Sitting at a computer in solitude bashing the keys and hoping something worthwhile will fall out and start reaching for the light.

Even as I write this, the call to prayer from the mosque next door reminds me that I’m a legal alien in Dubai. Humdalala!

Musings On A Monument At Berjisiya

On an Iraq business trip, driving from Qurna to Basra, our Personal Security Detail made a small diversion to show us a monument in the desert. We got out and had a walk around and took some photos.

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Thats me in the middle looking like a sack of potatoes

It only took about 40 minutes in total but I was intrigued by the monument. Specifically, what was a large monument to British soldiers doing in the middle of nowhere? Was it on the scene of a famous battle? Did a garrison once stand there?

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Inside the arches are panels detailing the regiments and the names of the fallen. The Poona Regiment from India is the most prominent.

I wasn’t surprised that there was a monument, the British have fought incessantly on every continent in the world except Antartica. It was just, well, why the hell was it in a remote location? Most of the names were Indian and the references were to Indian regiments.

I had noticed that many of the stones in the monument had numbers on them, a sign that it had been rebuilt at some point.

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Grateful thanks to Craig Muir for sending me the photographs he took

I spent some time researching the monument and, although it’s reasonably well known, it was difficult to find specific details. Most searches came up with the British Graveyard in Basra which was rediscovered as part of the Coalition Forces occupation of the area. But there were a few people who could be contacted who knew bits and pieces to allow me to knit together what happened.

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My companion (on right) taking a look at the panels

The monument is to the British soldiers killed in The Mesopotamian Campaign during the Great War of 1914-1918. The campaign started on the 29th September, only 60 days after the British declared war on Germany (4th August 1914). Two Royal Navy ships sailed up the Persian Gulf then entered the Shatt Al-Arab (no doubt the name gave much amusement to the ratings on board) and headed up to Muhammerah.

Muhammerah is now known as Khurramshahr and is on the Iranian side of the Iraq/Iran border.  The Shatt Al-Arab was created in 960 AD by digging a channel to flow the Karun river into the delta created by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates – the two rivers that gave Mesopotamia it’s name (The Land Between Two Rivers).

A short 17 days later, after the ships arrived, an advance party from the Indian Expeditionary Force arrived in Bahrain then invaded South Mesopotamia on the 6th November.  On 12th November the rest of the IEF turned up and a major thrust by the British to capture the oilfields and pipelines around Basra was underway.

The area, indeed the whole of Mesopotamia at that time, was occupied by the Turks as an adjunct to the Ottoman Empire. They had been there for a couple of hundred years.  Since Turkey was an ally of Germany and the Germans actually ran the Turkish Army, they were seen as a legitimate target by the British Government.

But what happened next had a significant impact on the outcome of the Great War.

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The sign says 1914 – 1921

The original brief of the IEF was to capture the oilfields and secure the supply of fuel for the Royal Navy. The IEF fought up through the desert, which at that time was a quagmire due to torrential rain, took Basra City (an island in the middle of a flooded plain) that had been abandoned by the Turkish Army then up to Qurna (pronounced Gurna) where the Turks had regrouped.

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Map of the area. South Iraq (Kuwait is on the bottom left. Iran is top right). Berjisiya is about 30 km SW of Basra. The Iraq -Iran border follows the path of the Shatt-al-Arab

On 6th December Qurna fell to the British Army and the oilfields were considered to be secured. But this victory, small in relation to what was to come in the killing fields of France and Belgium, had a great significance to the British Government. The relative ease with which the Turkish forces were defeated (2000 Turks dead v 650 British) led the British to open another front against the Germans that would drive up through Mesopotamia. Considering that the Qurna fell only 124 days after the declaration of war it was a key victory right at the start of the war.

The British erected the War Memorial to the fallen of the Mesopotamian Campaign in the area that became the docks in Basra. In 1991, on the orders of Saddam Hussein, the monument was relocated to Berjasiya.

When things settle down and I can go there as a tourist I’ll have another look round and hopefully photograph all of the nameplates.