Emirati Writer Ameera Al Hakawai is far from being "Desperate in Dubai"
Scandalous writer and author of national best seller Desperate In Dubai, Ameera Al Hakawati, remains a mystery eventhough she is the most humble and down to earth young lady one can imagine. She leads her life according to the values of Islam and has a great sense of humor. INTERVIEW.
How many books have you sold now ?
This is the third print. The first was 10'000 copies. Now I am not sure, I don’t have the exact figure. But Hamdulillah it’s doing well, especially in this region.
Your book is really a page turner. How did you manage to catch the very souls of your characters ? You were born here ?
I was born in the UK. I moved here eight years ago.
It seems you’ve always lived here ?
I have always had close connections wih the UAE, coming and going. It is really a part of who I am. I know a lot of people here and that’s what inspired me to write the book. It is such an interesting place and it is so different from anywhere else. Like that the locals are a minority for example. I felt that nobody had explored that yet. I wanted to take the opportunity to do that.
And you chose characters from different backgrounds, reflecting this flavor of Dubai ?
Exactly. Obviously I realized it would be impossible to write about every single person and nationality. There is so many different people here. I knew I would have to pick one angle. The challenge of writing about a place that not many people have written about, people are going to think this is a book that represent Dubai. And I did not want to be completely representative.
You also wanted to come up with a catchy story ?
The location is secondary. The story, the women, their lives…
How did you imagine these lives ?
A lot of it is based on stuff that’s happened.
Are they friends of yours ?
There are friends of mine, friends of friends, acquaintances… Things that I have seen, that I have heard about.
Well you’ve heard much more than I have !
You should get out more !
Emirati women seem quite secretive and Lady Luxe the main character makes us breach into the hidden aspect of their lives ?
It is not so much secretive. It is just that there are so few Emiratis compared to every one else. It seems very very diffcult to know them unless you work with Emiratis. Lady Luxe is not based on one particular person. I have taken bits from loads of different people and got inspired by a half Emirati, half British fashion designer that I know. She also has this double identity - English and Emirati - although not as much as Lady Luxe, constantly trying to balance both and struggling against those two parts of her identity. Lady Luxe is primarily based on her. But the blond wig, that’s completely fictional.
These are ingredients for a good novel ?
Yes to give it some drama. It is a metaphore of the double life that people lead.
Have you met a lot of women who lead that sort of life ?
I would not say a lot, but I would not say it is completey uncommon. Especially young girls. Before they get married, they are struggling. They live in a country where their culture is pretty much one thing and then they are exposed to so many different cultures at the same time. Dubai is a very different place. Some expats might find it difficult and closed minded but parts of it is very very open.
Is it quite dangerous for the gilrs to take such risks ?
Yes but that happens everywhere in the world. In any Arab country it is the same thing. Culture, society teach one thing but then as a young woman or as a teenager it is a society that is open to globalization. You are watching MTV, Hollywood movies, reading books, learning about other cultures, seeing different ways of lives. There is always that constant struggle regardless of being Emirati, Syrian, Lebanese, Indian, Pakistani… Most traditional cultures face very similar issues.
Why did you wish to remain anonymous ?
When I started writing the blog, I found it liberating. I did not want to worry so much about what people think and about criticism from other Arabs, Muslims, talking about subjects that are not open. And as a writer you are always scared about putting your work out there as well. I could write without worrying if anyone hated it. I could just write and enjoy it and see what happened if it was a complete failure and avoid a public humiliation.
Family wise or society wise it could have been a risk for you ?
I would not say a risk but my family would have concerns. My family knows now, at least close family, my parents.
What do they say about it ?
My mom was happy to read my book and proud of me but at the same time worried about such controversial thing. « Can’t you just tell a normal story ? Why did you have to do this ?» Well this is the story that I have.
And this is what people like ?
That’s who I am. I did not want to be fake, write about something that was not about me. Writing a book is difficult. You have to be passionate about what you are writing. You have to be interested. I did not want to get bored half way.
Did you experience censorship ?
I did. I don’t know how it works to be honest. But my blog was blocked initially. I am not sure whether it was DU or Etisalat but one of them did for a couple of months, when I got lots of traffic. I don’t know why especially now that you see books like Fifty Shades of Grey.
Yes but they don’t talk about Emirati women ?
So that must have been the only reason why it was blocked. But no one contacted me, send me a message saying « we’ve blocked you ». I juts tried to access it from work and I could not but then when I got home I could. So maybe it’s a good thing no one knows who I am, because I don’t want to get in trouble.
And you continued ?
Yes because lots of things are blocked so I did not pay much attention. But when the book went out it was taken off the shelves temporarily. It was removed at the beginning. It came to the UAE, I was super excited. Finally it was out on the shelves and the next day it was gone. I announced it on my blog, on my Facebook page : « You can finally get it ». People were waiting because they never knew how the story ended. And a day or two later, people told me that they could not put it on the shelf and sell it. The book shop said that they had a call from the Ministry of Interior who told them not to dispaly it until further notice. But no one told me nor my publisher.
You stopped the blog before publishing of course ?
Yes as soon as I got the publishing deal. I explained on my blog what had happened.
Do you still get an income from it right now ?
It’s difficult for me to talk about such things. But it’s alright, nothing amazing. You know extra spending money.
And what do you do in your life ?
I work full time in corporate communications. Still writing but very boring stuff. It is very draining this is why I don’t have time to think about writing the next one. I have the idea in my head. I am married as well. Three months after the book was out. I got super busy with that.
Your husband is supportive ?
He has got some limits ?
Being a typical Arab man, he has some limits. He is happy that this book is under a suden name. What people would say otherwise. « You wrote about some dodgy things here. » He loves the fact that I am successfull.
Did he wonder how you knew about them ?
No. But he was more like « People are gonna wonder how you know about that. » He knows me, who I am. They don’t realize that people can have imagination and can do research.
Do you realize you made a breakthrough here ?
I don’t see things like that. I see it as, I have a story, I told it. I was not trying to break through or anything. I wanted to write. I love writing. I am glad if this paves the way for other arab writers and people to express themselves.
Are you thinking about a movie ?
A few people came. But nothing really interesting. I went to a « From page to screen » session but you have to cut so much out and as a writer you are so close to your story… I don’t feel I would be able to do that.
How old are you ?
As your characters are really based on true ones, isn’t there a little hypocrisy going on ?
Definitely, without a doubt, there is so much hypocrisy going on and at so many different levels. I would not say that it’s unique to this culture but it definitely goes on. Some people put on a religious gown and their heart is something totally different. Which is something I am totally against. I believe what you see is what you should get really. I can understand that some people have no choice but to portray that image of themselves. Too scared not too. Culturally it is a very strong thing, the family, the society. It is really really strong. And a lot of people, especially the youth, are not ready to break through. And the UAE is so young, it will take a long time before it comes to a stage where people have a different idea of freedom and modernity : what you should do and what you should not do.
Would you see yourself as an advocate for women’s progress in a way ?
Not really. Every woman advocates woman’s progress as a woman. As a woman you don’t want your gender to be held back. I think every human being, man or woman shoulg have a right to do what they believe in. If they don’t belive in God, they should be able to practice that and if they want ot study they should and if they don’t they shouldn’t.
The way you say things out loud, it’s one breach and then there will be another one and this is how society evolves in a way ?
It is a very difficult question. In this culture, women have rights but not the same as men. They have their own rights. Some of it is great. When we get married, our money is completely our own. Our husbands have absolutely no rights over it. But it’s his duty to pay the rent. This is great ! Women’s rights activists might say it’s wrong. You’re a woman, you should be equal to man and contribute. But then I feel that I want to keep that right and I would find that degrading. So my definition of modernity might be different because of who I am. Because of my culture and my religion.
What do think western, so called liberated women, have lost in their battle for equal rights ?
It is very interesting. I feel that about myself. We live in the same universe but parrallel. We have different ideas of what is freedom and liberation. Different things might make us happy. Like I have only recently started watching Sex and the City. And I feel sad for Carry. They are so desperate to get married and settle down. Here it is so normal. We marry so easily. I found someone I liked, he liked me too, we marry, end of the story. It was so simple. So I look at them and I think « Why did you complicate things so much ? » I feel so much pity for them. We have that kind of freedom. The freedom in knowing where your life’s leading. They are confused about where to get, what to do next. This whole worry we don’t have is liberating.
It is a question of perspective…
Yes that’s what it is. You foind it liberating to not cover and I find it liberating to cover. I love the fact that I don’t have to worry about my hair. Is it nice, shiny, etc ? I like wearing my abaya. I wake up and it takes me 20 minutes to get ready for work. Here are all my abayas hanging, I pick one. I don’t have to iron them. And I don’t have to worry about what’s under : sportswear, legging, jeans and T-shirt, whatever. I feel liberated. I think it’s great.
What if the world was governed by women ?
Honestly, it woudl be scary.
Too emotional maybe…
Maybe this is Arab women, I don’t know. I travelled recently to Saoudi for Umrah, a smaller haj (pilgrimage). When you are in Madina, the city where the Prophet immigrated to, it is slightly more segregated. So there I spent some time away from my husband. And then when we met again, we told each other what happened. So I told him my stroy about women pushing, shoving, screamimg, super emotional. And he was like, « Oh, the men weren’t like that. It was calm. » We need a balance : men need women, women need men. I don’t think one gender is superior to the other. I think we are both equal. We sometimes have different responsibilities. I like it personally. I like the fact that I work because I want to work but I am not career obsessed because I have a man to take care of me. And he likes to take care of me and me too. It’s a win win situation. I don’t want to be the man on the relationship. I don’t want to have that pressure on my head. I have to provide.
But you are also quite liberal. This is not the case for a lot of women ?
Of course. If I grew up in a family where I was not aloud to work, I would think completey differently and feel a rage for my rights. But at the same time, this is the problem. Women can work. The Prophet’s first wife was a really successfull business woman and He was an example. He showed that this is fine. He married a women 25 years older than him to show it is fine. Whereas culturally here it’s unheard of to marry a guy younger. He married a widower, a divorcee… He showed all these taboos should be broken : You think I am the best of all people and this is what I am doing. In terms of culture and religion there is a disparity. In the name of progress, you let go the good parts of your religion too.
How would you describe yourself ? Surely you are not Lady Luxe.
No. You can tell talking to me I am so not into all that. I am like a bit of all my characters. I do have Lady Luxe rebellious traits. In my teenagers I did rebel, not to her extent of course. But in my little ways. I was not aloud to go to concerts and I sneaked out to go. I was not aloud to travel with my friends so I would pretend that I had some university things. I wanted to experience the world, hang out with my friends. I do have Leila’s materialistic streak in me. Sometimes you do get caught up in the last designers sales. I do have a bit of Sugar, the Indian character. I am always struggling with my faith. I always want to become a better person. Nadia, I don’t really relate as much but I do have some of her spiritual aspects as well. And the minute you write a part of you comes out in the characters, the place, the words. You’re there.
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