Interview with shortlisted author Reem Al-Kamali
Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction?
I was sitting in my office, when suddenly calls of congratulation started to come through. Most of them were from female readers in different book clubs in the country. Of course, I was happy to be honoured by such a wonderful Prize.
In Rose’s Diary, Rosa writes about writing and self-fulfilment through it: “The truth is that I write myself through others” (p.200). Can you comment on this?
In this paragraph, Rosa faces herself as a writer, like all other writers, even if she is an unknown writer who unhappily gets rid of her notebooks. She comes face to face with herself and wonders: do I write about myself through the characters I create? Or through those people around me? Or do I write about my silence which is ignored? Or do I discover myself through writing?
“I will write and not throw away anything because we possess a living cultural heritage which is still waiting for us to listen to it” (p.183). Is this heritage still alive?
The Emirati coast was an oral coast, and all that was told about it was not written down until after the Union. It is now written, and in the archive.
“What is spoken does not remain…even if it produced an impressive army of mariners and skilled divers, or a series of captains, sailors, pearl traders and poets, maps of the stars of its poetic sky, and even if it followed the paths of its winds in the history of its deep waters…and so on and so forth, whatever it did. So long as [oral tradition] did not produce a single actual book in all those past centuries…the Gulf individual dies, in the midst of the accounts of intruders and interlopers. He becomes a wild beast provoked in the ink used by his rivals” (p.137). Is writing things down a way of defending authentic culture and is the novel an attempt to do this?
Yes, authentic culture is written by those to whom it belongs, not by strangers. Through Rosa, the novels attempts to pose its own questions and ideas about this. Why did mariners, captains, traders and poets in the previous two centuries not write books? It was a supremely oral age.
Rose’s Diary contains stories about the city of Dubai and its inhabitants and formation. Tell us about the research you did to write the novel. Did you find these stories in history books?
I recorded the stories about Dubai in the sixties and before, after hearing them from old people. I heard some of the stories from my father, before he lost his memory. Also from some researchers, people writing about that time, and from women sent on study trips abroad to Arab universities in that period. I read some books from the national archive. I sat down with Ali al-Ferdan, expert on pearls, and the archeologist, Dr. Mohammed Al-Hashimi, and many others. But in the end, while writing, I use my imagination and particular style, with a coherent narrative language. I present what I have read, noted down and heard, in the form of an artistic narrative. I don’t necessarily write exactly according to what they have said. The novel has its own artistic trajectory and authentic idea, and I must invest it with my philosophy and vision.
Tell us about your passion for history and the memory of places.
I specialized in history at university. My Masters dissertation turned into a novel, after I discovered that I don’t like memorizing lines as they are and reciting them to those around me, as though I was conveying a piece of news. Rather, I enjoyed linking the past with the present, in order to anticipate the future, and to analyse what they wrote. I didn’t just accept the accounts of historians, I corrected the mistakes of some of them, especially the historians of the sultans, and some of the old researchers.
As for my passion for history, it was because of my father, who from my childhood onwards would teach me the history of my family and the role of my grandfathers, who were teachers, in combatting ignorance. He encouraged me to read history books and those about cultural heritage in his library. And with more varied reading, my own library began to grow, with historical encyclopedias, philosophy books, literature and poetry. Also, with volumes which were mainly historical sources and books from ancient Arabic cultural heritage, maps, manuscripts and dictionaries of ancient eastern languages.
The novel describes the struggle between the culture of Arabism on the one hand and deep-rooted traditions and myths, represented in the character of the grandmother. In your opinion, is this struggle still going on?
The 1960s was a particular period which saw a mixture of things: Arab nationalism and enthusiastic support for it, versus the adherence to traditions and customs; English colonialism and the personal interests of some Arabs connected with it, versus an Islamic power which had begun to grow in a political form. All this struggle in that period was at its height. Today I wonder which idea or direction remains most strongly? Of course, the English language has advanced, and Arab nationalism is less intense. Some traditions are still deep-rooted, while others have evaporated. Consumerism has advanced and crafts have disappeared.
All this can be seen in the characters of Rosa’s family. In her diaries, her letters, the sewing needle of her uncle’s wife, the business of her uncle, the customs of her grandmother, the worldview of the one she loves…
You mentioned that the names of great male writers are carved on rocks, whilst female ones are not. Have things changed since Rosa’s time?
The names of women are rarely written in family trees, but recently some people have begun to write down the names of grandmothers. Some, but not all.
Does writing have the last word in the novel? Is it an optimistic ending?
The ending is a victory for Rosa, for women and women writers. I made the novel a dream at the end, to rescue her, this girl bursting with energy and vitality, creatively talented with language and imagination. I made her travel on her study trip abroad. So, Rosa says with awareness in the last paragraph of the novel: “If I returned to the dream, I would write with courage, and I would not get rid of what I wrote”.