Emirati diplomat Omar Saif Ghobash has shared the working title of his debut novel, which imagines the final day of his father’s life.
The novel’s working title is drawn from the date of his father’s death, Omar revealed during a session at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
“The working title I have is 25.10, which is the 25th of October,” he said. “I was always fascinated by what my father had done in his life. He was 43 when he died and from my perspective, he was not particularly young, right? As a child, I used to think he was an old man. In fact, he was a young man. He had just started in life. He had plans and ambitions.”
The novel will be Omar's first release since his 2017 non-fiction epistolary work Letters to a Young Muslim. However, he revealed that he first started working on 25.10 years ago. “I actually started writing the first passages when I was 25,” he said.
“I didn’t know quite what it was, but in the last couple of years, I began to realise what I was trying to do. I was trying to understand what had happened to my father on his last day, having pieced together bits and pieces.”
Once he understood the emotive drive behind the writing, Omar said he decided to set himself in his father’s perspective, narrating the novel in the first person. “I imagine I was there. I speak from his perspective,” he said. “He doesn’t know what’s going to happen. He narrates from the moment he wakes up at 6am.”
Omar said he spoke to his mother, as well as his father’s colleagues, to try to piece together his father’s last day.
“I know a couple of things he said to my mother. She’d also tell this story, describing him standing at the top of the stairs. She was at the bottom of the stairs and she looked up at him, and she said he was glowing, kind of like a halo. That’s a very beautiful thing to say. It could have been imagined later, but it stuck with me. That’s her last image of him.”
Omar also embarked on a sleuth’s trail as he tried to retrace the route his father took from their home to the airport that would become the scene of his death. “For me, to be able to piece together a narrative of what he did provided me tremendous satisfaction,” he said. “I even drew a map of the route he took from home to the office, and then from the office to the hotel, and then because the meeting was delayed, he went somewhere else for an hour. All of these things allowed me to get, at the granular level, into his day.”
The places his father visited on that fateful day still exist, Omar said. “I can follow that route even today.”
Exploring his father’s life in fiction also gave Omar the opportunity to reflect on the time in which his father lived. And it helped him find a commonality of experience with his father as a civil servant. “In 1972, Ras Al Khaimah became part of the Emirates,” he said. “Prior to that, he was a citizen of Ras Al Khaimah.”
Born in 1932, Saif went to Bahrain to finish his secondary education, after which he studied engineering at University of Baghdad before working in Kuwait and Europe.
“He was pretty much penniless when he came back in 1969,” Omar said. His father then quickly moved up the civil service ladder and became one of the founders of the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where Omar works today.
“I know the kinds of issues he would have faced in the ministry itself,” he said. “There are also people in the ministry today who were there in 1977 and worked alongside my father. So there’s a lot of material I can work with there, but it also allows him [in the novel] to reflect on where the Emirates was and where it ended up in 1977.”
Omar did not specify when the novel will be released, but he did say he was working on its final draft. “There are different directions I can take the novel that I am still considering,” he said. “There are certain passages that came out almost resigned and other passages that came out with more black humour, sarcasm and cynicism. I need to find the right way to meld all these together. Because all that’s actually part of a person’s life.”