If Maha Gargash could step into a time machine, she would turn the dials to November 4, 1922.
“Imagine the thrill of discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb without the curse,” says the Emirati novelist, “or the source of the Nile without malaria?”
It was this spirit of adventure and a natural curiosity that led the former TV documentary-maker and author of The Sand Fish to explore, discover and record new places.
"I love travelling to new and different places to discover something few people know about. It could be a little-known plant or animal, or a culture hidden away somewhere remote. I tried to zero in on such places on my many trips when I worked in television," she says. These days, the Emirati's adventures are in the written word, with the launch last month of That Other Me, published by Harper Perennial. Set in mid-1990s in Dubai and Cairo, the novel explores aspects of the Khaleeji culture through a prominent Emirati family, and shows how secrets and betrayals consume three of its members: an authoritarian father, a rebellious abandoned daughter and a vulnerable niece.
“Family conflict intrigues me because familial bonds usually make it harder to walk away. There are always so many emotions and decisions to sift through,” says Gargash.
"That Other Me is about finding the person that you are. It's about adopting multiple personas to be successful in life.
“There are three main characters: the domineering Majed, who stole his older brother’s company; his niece Mariam, who, as a result, ended up left with no fortune; and Dalal, kept largely on the sidelines of his life because she is the daughter of his secret second wife. I set up this premise to be able to proceed with a tale that would turn out to be multilayered and full of surprises.”
Light in tone, her reflections on culture and social norms will strike a familiar chord with Arab readers and will intrigue, even surprise, western readers.
That Other Me is her second novel after The Sand Fish, set in Dubai in the 1950s and now being made into a film.
“My focus tends to be on all things related to society: collective conventions and traditions, habits and the individual’s particular place in the social structure. Shake these up, and you end up with a taboo topic.
“My themes are not alien. They are to do with notions and emotions most people can relate to. They include forbidden love and the importance of finding your best self,” she says.
"Dalal and Mariam in That Other Me find out that things don't come easy. They do not realise it at first, but they are on a quest to give meaning to their existence. 'Who am I really? What defines me?'
“These are questions we all ask ourselves to a certain degree.”
This weekend, Gargash will discuss her novel and the role of families in fiction, at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, in Dubai.
She describes her creative process as: “Something pings in my head, and I jot it down quickly before stuffing it into my pocket. By the end of the day, I could have no less than 50 pieces of paper stuck to each other, looking like a chunky, messy origami, begging to be unfurled and sorted out.”
Gargash says: “I love to put my protagonists in difficult situations or push them to the edge of desperation. But we all know how characters can get. They take a life of their own and surprise you with all sorts of possibilities.”
Noora, the heroine of The Sand Fish, is an independent Emirati woman who struggles with the conventions and traditions of the UAE in the 1950s. Why did she choose to set her first novel in the recent past?
“I had a lot of information about the people and societies of those days, collected through interviews with various elders of my family and people living in far-flung towns and villages that I’d filmed when making my documentaries.
“With the rapid changes that we have witnessed in the UAE, it was important to me to bring to life that period in story form for generations to read and enjoy,” says Gargash.
• Maha Gargash is speaking at two sessions during the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on March 11 and March 12 in Dubai. For more information, visit www.emirateslitfest.com
Rym Ghazal is a features writer and columnist at The National.