We speak to the engineer, journalist and bestselling Qatari novelist of ‘The Corsair’ about how to pen a great piece of historical fiction on this region.
So how did you get started writing novels?
I used to be the editor of an Arabic newspaper. I went into a book store in Amman, Jordan with a friend of mine. On the first shelf there was a new book written by a British officer who used to be [in this region] during the mid 19th century. I was surprised. I knew there were a few things happening in this region but I was more interested in the Roman history than the Gulf history. I was more interested in Alexander the Great… I was really surprised, for example, that we have piracy in this region so I took that book with me and then I started gathering as many books as I could that talk about the Gulf.
I decided to put all that in a novel that people could enjoy but when I started writing it until the end I never thought of publishing it. I thought just I will write it and see what will happen next. So after finishing it – it took me about 11 months – I sent it to two friends of mine to read… One got back to me after two days and he said it’s a beautiful book and that he couldn’t really throw it from his hand. He said ‘Just send it to a publisher, go ahead, and don’t hesitate.’ So I sent it to Bloomsbury [Publishing Qatar Foundation].
Why is it important to write these kinds of books about the history in this area?
There are so many people like me before. They never read their history. They thought it’s just a dead region before the explosion of oil. It’s not. It’s really not. I mean I’m still researching deeper in history. This region was very, very, very important for so many forces. That’s why the Portuguese came 500 years before that, and then the British came in the early 18th century. The Dutch were here too. This was a very active region because it is the trade route.
You’ve also done workshops about how to write novels. What is the biggest question people ask about how to write a book?
Writing a historical novel is something in you, especially in this region. People don’t know how to start or even how to research. I think it’s easier to train someone to be a dentist rather than to be a writer. To be a writer it takes a lot of background, a lot of preparing. At least my intention is to give them the guidelines: how to talk about people; how to describe places; where you should shift from describing people to dialogue; how you attract attention; how you add information in every chapter so people will still be attracted to what you read; how to make it really true… you have to be realistic. I’m hoping those people who are attending truly need to write a book but need some guidance.
What do you mean ‘need’ to write a book?
I was reading an article, I think it was in the New York Times, and they found out that 80 percent of the American people are thinking about writing a book. Which is not true but many people have that intention in their mind. They’ll write about their grandmother or whatever else comes to their mind. But while many people have that intention of writing something only a few will cross that border.
If we can push one or two across that border that will be enough.
Why do you think so many people want to write a book?
It’s a good question. I don’t know really. I guess it’s more of putting their thoughts down. Normally people who write books are those who are thinking about so many different things and they need to document it somehow.
What kind of response have you had from this?
I never expected all these responses. People loved it. They thought it talked about their own history which they never knew about. It talks about their own shores, the names of their cities, events they’ve never heard of. We don’t talk about our history enough… If you ask people what happened just 50 to 60 years ago they know nothing about it.
What role can fiction play?
It’s fiction but it’s mixed with a lot of non-fiction. Most of the main characters are true characters and most of the main events are true events. I’ll be happy to see people going to history and reading more. The feedback was: I think we need to read more about history. And I love that, I love for people to research.
The Corsair is available in English and Arabic at Tribe Bookstore, Education City and online at www.amazon.com.