Snapshots of diversity

An imaginative new collection of short stories by British expat Craig Hawes explores many aspects of life in Dubai, writes Tahira Yaqoob

Craig Hawes, the author of The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim, a collection of short stories about life in Dubai. Ravindranath K / The National
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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 priced Dh59. Kinokuniya is expected to stock copies later this year.

Tahira Yaqoob is a regular contributor to The National.