Craig Hawes, the author of The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim, a collection of short stories about life in Dubai. Ravindranath K / The National
Craig Hawes, the author of The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim, a collection of short stories about life in Dubai. Ravindranath K / The National

Snapshots of diversity



Broke, working dead-end jobs and having moved back with his parents in Wales, Craig Hawes hit rock bottom at 31.

His job sorting post for the United Kingdom’s Royal Mail was as far removed from his dream of becoming a published author as he could imagine and a world away from the luxury malls and five-star hotels he had just left behind in Dubai.

And despite his journalistic training, he was struggling to make ends meet as a freelance reporter. Stacking supermarket shelves, working as a hospital porter and sorting mail was the only way to scrimp a living.

But as any writer will tell you, hardship is grist for the mill. Significantly, those mind-numbing jobs gave him time to write, frantically tapping out his memories of Dubai until 4am, long after his parents had gone to bed.

Five years later, the result is The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim, a collection of short stories set in the city and told from the perspective of expats across the social spectrum. Published by Parthian Books in the UK, it went on sale this week in bookstores and on Amazon.

Those five years have seen Hawes, who is now back in the UAE, winning a clutch of awards for his storytelling and enjoying hard-won success as a BBC Radio 4 playwright.

“Moving back with my parents and doing a dull job was not a good point in my life,” says the 37-year-old features editor of the men’s magazine Alpha.

Yet he could not shake the notion there was a book to be written that laid bare the reality of life in Dubai, in all its flawed glory.

“When I first moved here in 2003, lots of people were talking about writing this Dubai novel,” he says. “I thought I might as well have a go at it myself. It is a unique place with all these nationalities in one place – a blank canvas, where we are all starting afresh and trying to figure out where we all fit into this strange mix.”

An eclectic collection of 13 tales told in a variety of voices, from a 10-year-old boy leaving the only place he has known as home to a Filipina maid Skype-ing her family on her daughter’s birthday and a Pakistani taxi driver with a picture of his yearned-for wife taped to his dashboard, this is not the Dubai of western preconceptions, nor an homage to the glitzy lifestyle of its glamorous expats, as depicted in the likes of Ameera Al Hakawati’s Desperate in Dubai, and is all the better for it.

There is a nod to that aspect of the city but only in passing and often as seen through the eyes of those unaccustomed to such extravagance.

More, it is a recognisable slice of life, giving snapshots and moments captured in time of the often bizarre contradictions faced by those living and working across the city.

Hawes delves into the lesser-known pockets of Dubai to provide the backdrop to his stories, inspired, he says, by “an amalgam of people I have worked with, newspaper stories I have read, gossip – some of which might be apocryphal – and my own experiences of living and working here”.

There is an unexpected love story set in Hor Al Anz; an Indian Banksy in labourer overalls; a hint of a sinister undercurrent in Satwa.

Poignant, often moving and sometimes humorous, threaded throughout is a deep affection for the city and its different social strata from someone who knows and understands it well.

“I wrote the stories from love,” says Hawes. “I did not want them to paint Dubai as a paradise. I wanted it to be balanced.

“It is a great place to live, but it is not perfect. As expats, we feel quite privileged but there are people living here who have a hard time and I wanted them to have a voice. I feel a responsibility to be as truthful as I can.”

In the book, Hawes, who was born in Briton Ferry in south Wales, is at his best when reflecting the Dubai he has experienced where different worlds collide, such as in Zeina, which won the Rhys Davies short story competition in the UK in 2009 and was broadcast on Radio 4, and in Pictures in the Dust, another prize-winner and a captivating tale of a gallery owner who discovers a construction worker with an artistic streak.

Perhaps because of his journalistic discipline, he is at his weakest when making too great a leap of imagination. Tackling the subject of cosmetic surgery in a female American voice in Suzie Kaminski Versus the Most Evil Man in the World feels too far a stretch.

But overall, The Witch Doctor leaves readers hungry for more. Will it resonate with western audiences though, who seem to have an appetite for stories of gold Bentleys and breathtaking decadence?

“I hope it will be an eye-opener for them,” says Hawes, a history graduate. “I think a lot of people will be surprised by how diverse Dubai is and the interaction between different cultures.”

He read voraciously as research, everything from the short stories of Emirati author Mohammad Al Murr to novels such as Patricia Holton’s Mother Without a Mask and Geraldine Bedell’s The Gulf Between Us.

If he has an empathy for the aspirations and frustrations of the hardworking underclass, it could be because success has not come without a struggle.

Hawes moved to Dubai in 2003, but left four years later after a succession of jobs in newspapers and magazines to tackle his desire to write fiction.

“I needed a break,” he says. “I was itching to write fiction, but never wrote any while I was here.

“Sometimes I think you need a bit of distance and time to evolve and reflect before you start writing. It was about six months before I actually put pen to paper.”

He was thrilled when a short story he sent to the BBC on a whim, Last Dance at Johnny’s, was chosen to be read on air.

Zeina followed and in 2009, Pictures in the Dust was shortlisted for the prestigious Bristol short story prize in the UK. Both were published in anthologies. When Aim High came third in another writing contest, he decided to compile a collection of stories and submitted them to Parthian, who told him they liked his writing but took nearly two years to sign a book deal.

In the same period, he was invited by the BBC to attend a week-long scriptwriting course with other promising talent. He eventually produced a 45-minute radio play called Jailbird Lover, which was broadcast on Radio 4 in March last year.

But in the meantime, his funds were running out and he finally decided to move back to Dubai in June 2010.

“I was poor and all these things were in limbo,” says Hawes. “I missed the sun and the lifestyle and was really struggling for money.”

While being picked up by an established publishing house will not make him rich, it has given his fiction writing the recognition he longed for.

Last month, he shared a stage with authors Will Self and Tessa Hadley at a writing conference in Swansea, Wales.

He has written the script for a short film produced by TwoFour54 called The Long Way Down and is working on his next radio play. Hawes married picture editor Annmarie Rowlands earlier this year and with a baby boy due next year, his life in Dubai has undergone its own evolution.

“Dubai has been a big part of my life for the past decade. This book would never have existed without curiosity, the need to explore another country and find out about its people,” he says.

“I have found out a lot about myself and how I fit into a society so disparate to the one I grew up in.”

• The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim is available on Amazon.com priced Dh59. Kinokuniya is expected to stock copies later this year.

Tahira Yaqoob is a regular contributor to The National.

Company Profile

Company name: Cargoz
Date started: January 2022
Founders: Premlal Pullisserry and Lijo Antony
Based: Dubai
Number of staff: 30
Investment stage: Seed

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Revibe
Started: 2022
Founders: Hamza Iraqui and Abdessamad Ben Zakour
Based: UAE
Industry: Refurbished electronics
Funds raised so far: $10m
Investors: Flat6Labs, Resonance and various others

Director: Nag Ashwin

Starring: Prabhas, Saswata Chatterjee, Deepika Padukone, Amitabh Bachchan, Shobhana

Rating: ★★★★

SPECS

Nissan 370z Nismo

Engine: 3.7-litre V6

Transmission: seven-speed automatic

Power: 363hp

Torque: 560Nm

Price: Dh184,500

Mercer, the investment consulting arm of US services company Marsh & McLennan, expects its wealth division to at least double its assets under management (AUM) in the Middle East as wealth in the region continues to grow despite economic headwinds, a company official said.

Mercer Wealth, which globally has $160 billion in AUM, plans to boost its AUM in the region to $2-$3bn in the next 2-3 years from the present $1bn, said Yasir AbuShaban, a Dubai-based principal with Mercer Wealth.

Within the next two to three years, we are looking at reaching $2 to $3 billion as a conservative estimate and we do see an opportunity to do so,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Mercer does not directly make investments, but allocates clients’ money they have discretion to, to professional asset managers. They also provide advice to clients.

“We have buying power. We can negotiate on their (client’s) behalf with asset managers to provide them lower fees than they otherwise would have to get on their own,” he added.

Mercer Wealth’s clients include sovereign wealth funds, family offices, and insurance companies among others.

From its office in Dubai, Mercer also looks after Africa, India and Turkey, where they also see opportunity for growth.

Wealth creation in Middle East and Africa (MEA) grew 8.5 per cent to $8.1 trillion last year from $7.5tn in 2015, higher than last year’s global average of 6 per cent and the second-highest growth in a region after Asia-Pacific which grew 9.9 per cent, according to consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG). In the region, where wealth grew just 1.9 per cent in 2015 compared with 2014, a pickup in oil prices has helped in wealth generation.

BCG is forecasting MEA wealth will rise to $12tn by 2021, growing at an annual average of 8 per cent.

Drivers of wealth generation in the region will be split evenly between new wealth creation and growth of performance of existing assets, according to BCG.

Another general trend in the region is clients’ looking for a comprehensive approach to investing, according to Mr AbuShaban.

“Institutional investors or some of the families are seeing a slowdown in the available capital they have to invest and in that sense they are looking at optimizing the way they manage their portfolios and making sure they are not investing haphazardly and different parts of their investment are working together,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Some clients also have a higher appetite for risk, given the low interest-rate environment that does not provide enough yield for some institutional investors. These clients are keen to invest in illiquid assets, such as private equity and infrastructure.

“What we have seen is a desire for higher returns in what has been a low-return environment specifically in various fixed income or bonds,” he said.

“In this environment, we have seen a de facto increase in the risk that clients are taking in things like illiquid investments, private equity investments, infrastructure and private debt, those kind of investments were higher illiquidity results in incrementally higher returns.”

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, said in its 2016 report that has gradually increased its exposure in direct private equity and private credit transactions, mainly in Asian markets and especially in China and India. The authority’s private equity department focused on structured equities owing to “their defensive characteristics.”

Company Profile

Name: HyveGeo
Started: 2023
Founders: Abdulaziz bin Redha, Dr Samsurin Welch, Eva Morales and Dr Harjit Singh
Based: Cambridge and Dubai
Number of employees: 8
Industry: Sustainability & Environment
Funding: $200,000 plus undisclosed grant
Investors: Venture capital and government

History's medical milestones

1799 - First small pox vaccine administered

1846 - First public demonstration of anaesthesia in surgery

1861 - Louis Pasteur published his germ theory which proved that bacteria caused diseases

1895 - Discovery of x-rays

1923 - Heart valve surgery performed successfully for first time

1928 - Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin

1953 - Structure of DNA discovered

1952 - First organ transplant - a kidney - takes place 

1954 - Clinical trials of birth control pill

1979 - MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, scanned used to diagnose illness and injury.

1998 - The first adult live-donor liver transplant is carried out

MATCH INFO

Uefa Champions League semi-finals, first leg
Liverpool v Roma

When: April 24, 10.45pm kick-off (UAE)
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Live: BeIN Sports HD
Second leg: May 2, Stadio Olimpico, Rome

The specs

Powertrain: Single electric motor
Power: 201hp
Torque: 310Nm
Transmission: Single-speed auto
Battery: 53kWh lithium-ion battery pack (GS base model); 70kWh battery pack (GF)
Touring range: 350km (GS); 480km (GF)
Price: From Dh129,900 (GS); Dh149,000 (GF)
On sale: Now

Scores

Oman 109-3 in 18.4 overs (Aqib Ilyas 45 not out, Aamir Kaleem 27) beat UAE 108-9 in 20 overs (Usman 27, Mustafa 24, Fayyaz 3-16, Bilal 3-23)

UAE athletes heading to Paris 2024

Equestrian
Abdullah Humaid Al Muhairi, Abdullah Al Marri, Omar Al Marzooqi, Salem Al Suwaidi, and Ali Al Karbi (four to be selected).


Judo
Men: Narmandakh Bayanmunkh (66kg), Nugzari Tatalashvili (81kg), Aram Grigorian (90kg), Dzhafar Kostoev (100kg), Magomedomar Magomedomarov (+100kg); women's Khorloodoi Bishrelt (52kg).


Cycling
Safia Al Sayegh (women's road race).

Swimming
Men: Yousef Rashid Al Matroushi (100m freestyle); women: Maha Abdullah Al Shehi (200m freestyle).

Athletics
Maryam Mohammed Al Farsi (women's 100 metres).

ANDROID VERSION NAMES, IN ORDER

Android Alpha

Android Beta

Android Cupcake

Android Donut

Android Eclair

Android Froyo

Android Gingerbread

Android Honeycomb

Android Ice Cream Sandwich

Android Jelly Bean

Android KitKat

Android Lollipop

Android Marshmallow

Android Nougat

Android Oreo

Android Pie

Android 10 (Quince Tart*)

Android 11 (Red Velvet Cake*)

Android 12 (Snow Cone*)

Android 13 (Tiramisu*)

Android 14 (Upside Down Cake*)

Android 15 (Vanilla Ice Cream*)

* internal codenames


The Arts Edit

A guide to arts and culture, from a Middle Eastern perspective

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