Bride & Prejudice

 

Bride & Prejudice

Dubai - Dubai-based writer Fadi Zaghmout talks to us about his controversial novel The Bride of Amman which forces readers to reexamine their views on marriage and equal rights.

By Maan Jalal
 maan@khaleejtimes.com

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Published: Wed 9 Aug 2017, 4:27 PM

Last updated: Sat 12 Aug 2017, 12:51 PM

We first met Fadi Zaghmout at the Literaturhaus at Nadi event in Alserkal Avenue where he was giving a talk about his novel The Bride of Amman. The novel (originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp) has, since 2012, been praised and criticised in equal measure. The novel had been widely read and discussed, sparking heated debates in book clubs and online by readers who found it engaging, compelling and highly controversial.

The reason for The Bride of Amman's success and wide readership is due to the narrative of the novel that challenges a very basic idea that many in the Middle East view as normal.  At first this idea seems to be specific to Amman, where the story is set. But you don't have to look too hard, to see that the overarching theme is one that is adaptable to the region and, to a degree, a system of thought that is, in fact, universal.

The Bride of Amman tackles the idea of marriage. It examines and questions the intense pressure that four young, modern, educated, Arab woman feel that they must, to be whole and complete, be married to the right man by the age of 30.

And if she finds herself in a position of being unmarried, despite her other achievements, she is cast aside, with no mercy or sympathy, as a failure.

Each chapter in the novel is written in the first person narrative from the point of view of one of the characters.
Leila, Hayat, Salma and Rana, whose lives are interconnected, give us glimpses into their lives and experiences as young Arab women attempting to come into their own.

They are trying to make sense of their society and traditions which are in conflict with what they want, while trying to find what makes them, or what they believe will make them happy. From sexual harassment in the work place, feminism, masculinity, family and tribal pride, extra martial affairs, promiscuity, and a range of similar themes, The Bride of Amman unapologetically faces these issues head on. The reader is not spared any detail from the point of view of the characters who work as vessels to remind us that many of these topics influence how we think and act.

But by far, the strongest concept in the novel is the conflict, the constant struggle of the characters attempting to bridge the gap between the traditional and cultural ideas that they have grown up to view as sacred within the framework of a modern way of life.

Originally from Jordan, but based now in Dubai, Fadi Zaghmout wrote his debut novel after creating a successful blog, which dealt with the many issues the novel investigates. He then decided to write the novel.

"When I wrote a short story I found it better to communicate my ideas than when I wrote an article for example," Fadi told City Times.

With a calm and positive demeanour, Fadi spoke to us about his controversial novel, his journey to be a writer and how he writes from the female perspective.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I never wanted to be a writer. I was more into physics and maths in school. But then after a few years of working I started a blog. There were so many issues that were happening around me and at that time blogs were really popular. I started the blog in English and it became  popular in Amman. I was talking about issues that you don't see in traditional media and newspapers. And I had so much support from other bloggers which was great because generally we had a lot of heated discussions about these issues.

So the blog lead to the novel?
After a few years I decided I wanted to switch gears and write in Arabic.  I wanted to reach more people. And I found that it was much better for me (to write) in Arabic. Then again, I wanted to reach an even wider audience than just people who read my blog. I found that. when I wrote a short story it was better to communicate my ideas than when I wrote an article. It was better to convey the message that I wanted.

Why do you  think writing stories is better?
When you write a story, if you can show emotions, you show specific situations, and you show specific characters in certain situations and what choices they make. It's different than saying this is right and this is wrong. So, you can zoom into specific situations. I wanted to reach  a wider audience and I thought maybe I can approach the "traditional" publishing route and write a novel. Also, a lot of Jordanian writers use heavy language, the topics they usually talk about aren't related to these issues. So, I thought maybe I can do something different.

Why did you decide to write in the first person narrative?
I felt that when I wrote in the first person narrative I could convey the emotions of the character better. I've tried to write in third person before but I didn't feel I wrote that well. I write better in first person. Ironically, I don't know why, all of my main characters are usually female.

How do you get yourself into the skin of your female characters?
I don't know. I don't think there are major differences in the psyche of a human being whether you're a female or a male. I think the social pressure or the culture is what shapes us. And so I put myself in that same situation - if I had this pressure what would I do? How would I feel?

What kind of feedback did you expect initially when the book first came out?
In the beginning I didn't know what to expect. I was expecting harsh, negative feedback because I was discussing topics that were controversial and daring, especially for our society. Then for two months I had so much support. People loved it, thanking me, calling me, praising the book. But then after two months, I went to a book club and I think the people who manage the place were a bit conservative. The discussion there was really bad, they were very aggressive towards me. We had around 60 people and half of them came there because they loved the book and the other half hated it. So the discussion was conducted in a very negative way.

Do you learn from such interactions?
You know it shocked me, because I actually felt hate. People were really aggressive, I didn't expect that. Also they tried to ignore the topics in the book. They focused on the language, the plot and the technical stuff, but they didn't want to address the issues. I think in a way, it made me want to improve my writing.

What was the most difficult part in writing The Bride of Amman?
To be honest, it wasn't very tough because I had written the stories earlier as short stories and short film scripts. It wasn't really tough because I had the story in my head but I wanted to imagine the details. I think the most difficult part was getting disciplined, to sit and write everyday for two hours, and get into the discipline to write the book.

Any books or authors you like that have influenced you?
When I was younger I used to read Nawal Saadawi and then there was a period when I loved Paulo Coelho. I love Dan Brown, I love Ken Follett, amazing writers. My second book Heaven on Earth is heavily influenced by the novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Reading that book helped me to imagine the world I wanted to create in Heaven on Earth.

How would you describe the literature scene in Dubai?
It's exciting to note that there are activities happening here. I found a book club for Arabic novels. We also  have two major book fairs. Encouraging people to read - that's picking up. I feel like there is a scene and there is interest here.

What advice would you give young writers?
I would advice them to just write, write, write. Finish it without being scared about what to write or thinking about how people perceive his or her work, or being worried about not finding a publisher because many people just do that. They think. 'I want to write' but they never do it. They just need to sit down and write. Also they need to start doing something else to build their name. Start a blog, submit articles to newspapers and magazines, they need to build themselves up as well.

So you'd say social media is important? Did it help you?
Yes it is important. It helped me big time, during the years when I was blogging, it helped me grow my following.

Do you think you'll always be writing a novel?
Yes, I think so. I like the process, I like the final product also. Because The Bride of Amman was published in 2012 and people are still reading it and I've been getting messages from time to time - review and  feedback.

Do you think there will ever be a time when there will be no pressure on women to get married by a certain age?
I don't know. maybe. Because we go forward and then we go backwards. This is the nature of our societies. But I think at this point in time we've reached rock bottom. People have started to see how bad we are at this moment and how bad our cultural heritage is, especially in controlling each other. I've seen a feminist movement start in the region and maybe that will help societies become more mature. It is changing. In the book, I talk about the age of 30 being the limit for women before they get married but now I can see many women surpassing this age and they aren't married and it's OK.



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