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!

iNation Promotional Video

Before opening this short video (67 seconds of mayhem)…

Remove all inflammable clothing

Remove glass eyes, false teeth, etc

Hold on to something solid.

Best with earbuds in and the volume cranked up

Thanks for watching!