Writing and reading about Qatar

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, I profiled a young literature professor, writing instructor and novelist, Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, who works in Qatar and finds the emirate a great setting for fiction -- even though her own last book was banned. The article is behind our paywall but here is an excerpt:

A daughter of Indian academics who emigrated to the United States, Ms. Rajakumar, 36, arrived in Doha in 2005, to serve as assistant dean of student affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. A few years later, while working at Bloomsbury Qatar, a branch of the British publisher, she decided to try her hand at writing. "I thought: Wait a minute, I’m as good as some of these authors," she says.
While pursuing her literary goals, she also encouraged others to do the same. She started teaching writing and founded the Doha Writers’ Workshop, the first group of its kind in the country. Its meetings made her aware of the many stories Qataris were interested in telling.
With support from the U.S. State Department and from Qatar University, she established the Qatar Narrative Series, with an open call for essays by female residents of Qatar. At the time, says Ms. Rajakumar, "People said, ‘It’s such a private culture, they value anonymity, they don’t want to lose face. You’ll never get them to sign their name.’" But the series was a success. From 2008 to 2011, Ms. Rajakumar co-edited four anthologies of Qatari writing.
She uses the collections in the writing classes she teaches. It helps to show students "a book of published essays by people they can relate to," says Ms. Rajakumar, who has also taught at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Qatar campus.
Ms. Rajakumar herself has written half a dozen books, published on Amazon. In the spring of 2014, she released Love Comes Later, the novel about young Qataris trying to find the right partner.
"All of my books are built around a question," explains Ms. Rajakumar. A major one for the young Qatari would-be writers she’d spent time with was: "Who are we going to marry? Is there any chance for love?" With Love Comes Later she imagined an answer.
When her distributor’s agent let her know the book was banned in Qatar, Ms. Rajakumar was surprised. She had anticipated being asked to make some changes for the Qatari edition (a common requirement for local publication and distribution), and was prepared to do so. "As a writer," she says, "if you don’t have readers, you might as well not be writing."
Neither Virginia Commonwealth, where Ms. Rajakumar was working at the time, nor any of the other Western universities publicly questioned the ban. Responses from faculty colleagues varied, she says, with some giving her "high fives" and others asking, "How are you still here?"

I also wrote about my visit to Doha for the LRB blog.

When I told friends in Cairo I was going to Doha, they looked shocked or worried. Until very recently, the Egyptian media and government have accused Qatar of being a state sponsor of terrorism (it supported the Muslim Brotherhood). Now the two countries are supposed to be mending ties. To mollify the Saudis (who have bankrolled Egypt’s counter-revolution), Qatar agreed to expel a few senior Muslim Brothers. They now live in Turkey, but still come to Doha to see their families. Qatar also closed an Egyptian affiliate of the al-Jazeera satellite station that was virulently anti-coup.

Rajakumar has written about her own experience confounding expectations and racial stereotypes as a woman of South-East Asian descent with a US passport and a white-collar job in Qatar (where many folk who look like her do menial work) in a memoir called From Dunes to DiorHer novel The Dohmestics is about the lives of upper-class women and their household staff in a Gulf gated compound.

This got me thinking of other good books about Qatar I've read in recent years. 

Qatar, a Modern History is by a young American historian called Allen J. Fromherz, who taught for a year at Qatar University. Fromherz argues that the "anomie" outsiders experience in Qatar is unshared by Qataris themselves, who are ensconced in a "comfortable neo-traditionalism" (Western materialism overlaid on the still strong structures of tribe, family, and majlis) leaving the anxieties and travails of "post-modernism" to the uneasy foreign PR flacks, academics and experts, and to the rootless, rightless South-East Asian construction workers and maids. 

"Qataris will someday come out of hiding," writes Fromherz, "and be seen not merely in boardrooms and the play palaces of the world but in the deep, horrid and heroic avenues of the 'now.' It is at this point that Qataris will begin to consider their own history critically, to write not according to the agenda of nation and Emir but the agenda of self-realization."

The Girl Who Fell To Earth , a lovely memoir by Qatari-American writer (and artist and film-maker) Sophia Al-Maria evokes a national history barely emerging from the shadow of personal biography. Al-Maria’s father hails from the al-Dafira tribe, which she describes as “marginalized from the moment borders, cities and politics began to solidify in the Gulf.” 

Al-Maria traces the tribe’s difficult adjustment to urban life, the way its women “began a long, slow retreat into the concrete domesticity of modern sedentary life.” Men like her father, meanwhile, “lived in zones of temporary-turned-permanent government housing and spent their lives waiting for jobs or the call to prayer or their favorite TV show to come on.” 

Moving back and forth between her American mother and Qatari father, Al-Maria experiences strange shifts in time and perspective. In the United States, she and her sister rush to the television to mark Qatar with a piece of Silly Putty on maps broadcast during the first Gulf War. Back in Qatar, on her way to her Western-style high school,  sheds and regains layers of clothes in a daily identitarian strip-tease. I found the final chapters of the book, in which Al-Maria comes of age in Cairo, particularly affecting. 

There are many exposés of Qatari influence and high-living -- enough titles to almost constitute a niche genre. France seems to specialize in them and many are sensationalistic and unreliable. The book Qatar: Les Secrets du Coffre-Fort, for example, is a breathless portrait, full of improbable, anonymously sourced gossip (it claims that the former emir and his favorite wife, Sheikha Mozha, liked to ride his motorcycle, incognito, around the south of France) and stereotypical observations about “the Bedouin character.”

Those interested in contemporary Qatari literature could check out The Corsair,  published by Bloomsbury Qatar.  It's the story of a real historical figure, the pirate Erhama Bin Jaber, who has become a proto-nationalist folk hero in the Gulf. I started reading, but wasn't particularly taken. The time -- when the British Empire basically created the various emirates, designating their ruling families as its local allies, as a way to ensure stability for its maritime activities -- is a fascinating one, but the writing (in translation) was a bit stilted and I felt the author super-imposed contemporary political narratives on his historical setting. 

Also on my Qatar reading list would be a collection of essays entitled The People Want Reform in Qatar Too, which I have never managed to get my hands on. And the work of the Qatari poet Mohammed Ibn El Dheeb, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2013. It's not clear which part of El Dheeb's oeuvre was deemed criminal (the trial proceedings were closed) but one of his poems contains the lines:  "All of us are Tunisia/in the face of these oppressors./The Arab regimes and those who rule them/are all, without exception,/without a single exception,/shameful, thieves./This question that keeps you up at night—/its answer won’t be found/on any of the official channels…/Why, why do these regimes/import everything from the West—/everything but the rule of law, that is,/and everything but freedom?"

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.