In her new novel, Sands of Zulaika, Arab-American writer Kathryn Abdul-Baki introduces readers to contemporary life in a small Persian Gulf state. While her previous short stories and novels dealt almost exclusively with the lives and cultures of Arab men and women, she chose her main characters this time to be Americans working and living in the Gulf area. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, Abdul-Baki wanted to look at the Middle East from an outsider's point of view.
Sands of Zulaika is the 3rd novel by Kathryn Abdul-Baki. The story is inspired by the writer's experience, living in Bahrain 20 years ago.
"What I loved about Bahrain is the fact that it was very calm, very peaceful," she says. "There was a standstill of time about Bahrain that fascinated me. So I wanted to write about the area, the Persian Gulf, and I wanted to write about it from the perception of an expatriate looking in."
However Abdul-Baki sets her story, not in Bahrain, but in a small fictitious island nation in the Gulf, called Abu-Samra.
"I had to invent a place totally different, totally imagined," she says. "It's a compilation of many different places I lived in, some of Bahrain, some of Kuwait, some of Qatar. I just invented something where my characters would have the freedom to move around."
Her main characters are an American couple, Derek and Gina.
"The man [Derek] is going for a particular job, he has a particular mindset, a mission to accomplish," she explains. "So he really doesn't have much time to look around. Gina, of course, has the luxury, not [having] a full-time job, of taking a deeper look. She feels all these subtleties that Derek never even sees. She sees the colors. She feels the heat. She sees the beauty of the desert. Derek, her husband, sees the aggravation of not having things working on a clock the way they do in New York City, so practically everything in Abu-Samra annoys Derek."
Then Gina meets an Arab archeologist, a man from Abu-Samra who was educated at Oxford. Unlike a common misconception about Middle Eastern men, Abdul-Baki portrays this man as broadminded and respectful to women. He invites her to visit the dig where he is searching for the remains of the fabled city of Zulaika, mentioned in numerous Sumarian cuneiform texts.
"I wanted Gina to change her perspective on life," she says. "And by meeting this Arab archeologist, through him, she changes and becomes more open to life in general, more open-minded."
Gina's husband, Derek, does not share her growing fascination with the Eastern culture, not only because he is busy, but because of his attitude. That attitude, Abdul-Baki says, was not unusual among foreigners she met in Bahrain.
"It is something that struck me when I was living in Bahrain," she says. "A lot of expatriates, when they go overseas, begin to behave in a sort of very fearful manner. A lot of them close up when they go overseas and they feel, okay, they have two years here. They stick to their kind. The British sticks with the British, and the Americans have their own little clubs. Other foreigners are the same."
Abdul-Baki, the daughter of a Palestinian father and American mother, was born in Washington D.C., and grew up in the Middle East. Having a foot in both cultures, she says, has given her a better understanding of cultural differences. She says it has also enabled her to examine and dispel many of the East-West cultural misunderstandings.
"While something may have happened gradually, suddenly with 9/11, boom! you're face to face with these misperceptions," she says. "And what you see is anger coming out on both sides, from the West and the Middle East. I think the understanding has to eventually happen. I see people coming back from the Middle East, I've talked with soldiers, with people who have been in Iraq and come back, and they do bring back more of an understanding."
Abdul-Baki says she hopes her novel will not only entertain her readers, but also give them, like Gina, a new perspective on Middle-Eastern culture and life, something different from what they usually get, watching the evening news.