"You know when a plane crashes and everyone looks for the black box?" says Emirati writer, artist, editor and fashion label owner Sheikha Hend Al Qassemi. "Well, in the black box are all the secrets, the untold stories, the facts. So that's why I called my debut The Black Book of Arabia. There's no fanfare to these short stories, they're often just the result of hearing these incredible, sometimes secret, tales and wanting to tell them straight."
Which is just about the perfect way to describe her first collection. Originally written in shorter form for a True Stories column in Velvet Magazine (of which she is editor-in-chief), Sheikha Hend embellished stories that she'd either read about – like a bride who goes blind on her wedding day or a Yemeni who sells her kidney for love – uncovered in court papers (a Saudi woman with two husbands who files for divorce) or were told to her by neighbours. In fact, the column became so popular, Al Qassemi ended up getting unsolicited calls from people keen to tell their stories.
"What I started to hear was incredible," she says. "For example, I got a call from someone who told me how she was basically kidnapped by her mother and taken to Egypt. She said she'd broken so many bones in her body, she'd stopped counting. It was just ... horrible. So I changed some of the details, and that was From Riches To Rags."
Sheikha Hend is careful not to sensationalise such potentially dramatic material – she certainly makes good on her original intention to stick to the facts. But there is definitely a unifying theme: the strength and courage of Arab women. For all the interest the book will garner in the Middle East, there is the definite sense Sheikha Hend has something bigger in mind for this collection, a righting of the mistaken belief in the West that Arab women are somehow meek or subservient.
“Women have the same problems everywhere, actually,” she says. “They’re just spoken about in a different language – we all have difficulties with marriage or children. Usually you read stories of the heart-broken wife. Very rarely do you see what happens when you push her too far, and most of my stories feature women who are successful in the end. Does that make the collection feminist? I just think they’re stories I’d be interested in reading.”
Of course, the role of women in the Arab world differs depending on location, and there are plenty of nationalities present in Sheikha Hend’s tales. She loves being Emirati and all that it entails – “it’s a land of opportunity for both men and women,” she says – but understands that in Saudi Arabia, unshackling people from their traditions and customs is far trickier.
“They do fear too much,” she thinks. “I once had a Saudi partner and you’d be surprised how modern and forward-thinking the new generation are. But yes, many wouldn’t know what to do if they saw a woman driving. They’d go berserk. But only because they’re worried and scared for the woman, strangely. I don’t drive much, but only because parking is so annoying in our busy cities.”
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Sheikha Hend zooming from place to place in the Emirates with her driver either. Published author is just the latest in her long line of undertakings, which also includes fashion label House of Hend, photography and considerable charity work. There's talk that The Black Book Of Arabia might be made into a television series, and she's recently started work on a full-length novel.
“I just like the creative process, wherever that takes me,” she says. “And the secret is to create, delegate and supervise – that’s my formula! Seriously, though, I am very busy, and I’m thankful to be so. But this book was very fulfilling. Every story taught me a lesson.”
• The Black Book Of Arabia (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing) is out now