This book has been a long time coming: a risqué love story and Bildungsroman, interwoven into the complicated political, social and religious fabric of an Arab Gulf kingdom.
It is a tale which reveals the fragility, innocence and tenderness of its chief protagonist, Hamid, a privileged young Gulf Arab in search of love and a sense of his life’s purpose.
For anyone who has ever lived and worked for any significant length of time in the Gulf, for those who developed friendships with its oft misunderstood and misrepresented people, who are distinct from the region’s governing regimes, this story has an unmistakable ring of credibility and uncomplicated honesty about it.
The truth is often very simple, and it is precisely that simplicity which makes this novel hard to believe, but also makes it a compelling read for anyone looking to learn more about this complex region and its people.
Hamid is a composite of many characters, I suspect. He is a young man, a member of the Qatari ruling family, privileged, loved by the Emir and his family, unsettled, eager to learn about his country’s past and discover its place in the world as well as his own.
‘Privilege and power are given [by the Almighty] for a purpose.’
With these words from Hamid’s internal dialogue in the novel, the reader is invited to engage with the developing, often radical ideas that increasingly seize Hamid’s imagination.
Following a tragic episode in his life, he begins to think deeply on matters, explore his country’s past, dare to plan its future, question and inquire, all in an environment that implicitly encourages unquestioning acceptance.
Hamid is representative of a whole generation of Qatari youth, and indeed, one could argue, of Gulf youth in general, all newly empowered, unlike their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, with a wider knowledge of the world and a lightning fast communication system that helps shorten geographical and ideological distances.
But still, Hamid’s generation, like all generations that preceded it, share one common aspect of youth, a desire to rebel with radical ideas, thoughts that are deemed almost taboo, to explore possibilities that the established orthodoxy, both political and religious, frowns upon and rejects as subversive.
Indeed, it is Hamid’s wealth and position that may even have served to embolden him to embrace ideas deemed so seditious in his country, as he courts the attentions of the ‘wicked infidels’ as this involvement serves to further educate Hamid about the often-misunderstood, one-dimensional Westerner.
Hamid’s awakening coincided with great changes in his country, great opportunities realised and hope for better and greater things to come for the country.
Qatar wins the bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022 with Hamid a front-row witness to that euphoric moment, being among the first to congratulate the Emir.
His awakening also coincided with the first embers of disaffection emerging in the wider Arab world that seemed to portend the devastating upheavals to come.
The doting Emir, sending him to meet with the Syrian Head of State, passing on messages and friendly warnings from the Emir, thrusts Hamid into the crucible of Arab politics. A big mission, no doubt, albeit the trip was intended to give the young man much needed experience in such matters.
For Hamid, it is also a time of emotional growth, as he pursues a romance with a beautiful, passionate, intelligent, courageous and outspoken young woman who captures his heart: Zahra, a Shiite Muslim from Saudi Arabia’s eastern region.
Zahra soon consumes his every waking moment as well as his dreams. It is in those dreams that his aspirations for his country, his image of himself as a pivotal character in his country’s progress, and his wish for marital bliss with Zahra merge and emerge in his mind.
We are transported from a moonlit night atop the Barzan Towers in Qatar to a weekend meal at the Presidential Palace in Syria, to the Trevi Fountain in Rome, and from the banks of the Nile to Istanbul’s magical Bosporus. The opulent surroundings that often reflect the privileged and detached life that is Hamid’s lot and that of so many of his class, belies the multiple crises and conflicts that are tearing apart the fabric of his world.
The novel’s final tragic twist, the courage and unflagging hope and vision of its central characters in the face of the storm, is cathartic. Although the Arab Spring was yet to take place in the period of time depicted in the novel, a spring of sorts, the novel seems to suggest, has already taken place in the hearts and minds of Hamid’s generation.
One can only hope that this personal awakening of a generation can serve to create a better world for the next.
In the present political upheavals in the Middle East, this gripping story of love and morality will give the reader a much wider, telescopic view of the real dangers that encounter the whole region.
Buy this book and make your own judgement. Whatever this may turn out to be, you will certainly be the wiser.