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Story-Strolling through Dubai

By Roula-Maria Dib.

Omar Sabbagh, Minutes From the Miracle City (Fairlight Books, 2019)

British author, poet and wordsmith Omar Sabbagh’s new novella takes place in his current city of residence, Dubai. Poetic penmanship, creative storytelling, deep reflection, and colorful characterization amid “sepia-toned thoughts” all come into play in his latest release, Minutes From the Miracle City. A number of thematic riffs, such as family, marriage, success, education, and humanity are heard throughout the work.

Saeed, a young Emirati man in his late thirties, is back to his hometown, Dubai, after long years of education and work in London. His city draws him back, like an old friend, and in it he finds himself seeking the next step in life: to get married and settle, dropping any ideals that might stand as hurdles in the way of his main objective. A little less idealistic and a lot more practical, Saeed is nevertheless the same friendly, humble, open-minded intellectual he was in London — only this time seeking adventure in his newly-discovered old life.

Throughout his journey, which is set during the few days preceding the Eid Al Fitr holiday, Saeed crosses paths with a few characterful, colourful people in the Miracle City: Rachel, a British expat living with her family in Dubai and an old London friend of Saeed, Hakim the Pakistani taxi driver, Ricardo the supermarket bagger and his wife Shirley the salon beautician, Edouard and his “reflective conservative” brother Patrick the waiter/aspiring writer, and most importantly Farida, the Moroccan divorcee who is also determined to find adventure during her second half of life…

Minutes From the Miracle City is infused with poetic style, where you often see a character “walking with his head held hyperbolically high, donning the dignity of his wishes”, another with “wide, thick lips, salmon-coloured, clown-shaped”; and at one point a reader may find “[a]lternating depth-grammar held and pitted the two formulations against each other, like two sparring pugilists. One was a rock, perhaps, the other a hard place”. For those who enjoy reading Sabbagh’s poetry, the language here is just as rich with elegant diction, metaphor, and imagery.

Minutes From the Miracle City is a kaleidoscopic view on the “inside” of Dubai life for both expats and locals, shedding light on some cultural aspects of the city, such as the ambience during the Eid holiday, when “[a]ll of Dubai, moneyed or mendicant, was stocking up for the festivity”. Moreover, the narrator’s third person omniscient voice allows readers to delve into the thoughts and impressions of expats on the city. For example, Rachel finds that:

The country and the princedom had kept their Islamic identity intact. The expats knew where they stood as guests. And this overt advert to alterity was healthy. As Saeed had said in his article, ‘the other’, respected precisely as a wholly distinct ‘other’, meant that the mutual respect and the mutual tolerance was workable, rather than being some kind of melding façade…

Some scenes feature cultural settings too, like the Emirati home, the historic Dubai Creek area, and the traditional “majlis” setup, which is described with camera lens accuracy:

The space of the majlis was also used, even off-season, for family outings and meals, and one was just as likely to see youths twiddling on their smartphones here, as much as people like Hakim himself, still wedded to tradition. The walls were lined with wooden strips that looked much like bamboo, but Hakim knew that they were actually palm-wood. Hakim knew in his pride, as well, that this was not only because of the local supply, but also because this type of wood served to keep out the heat – a more handcrafted version of modernised AC.

The characters also reflect some common socio-economic statuses typical of certain expat groups, and they are often juxtaposed — the worker-class for whom “[c]igarettes were an added expense, especially since the recently imposed VAT. For all the absence of income tax there in Dubai, some of that money was quite bounteously recouped with other, smaller taxes by the wayside!”, and those “soaked in the syrup of renewed success.” An alignment of contrasts continues from that of rich and poor to that of the educated and uneducated, only to show how both sides are actually on par with one another on the human(e) level:

I guarantee you that your average unschooled man or woman – in some rustic Indian village, say – he or she knows in their bones what it is to be a human being, and a humane being at that, as much as the schooled. If he or she loves, hates, feels envy and doubt, recollects, regrets, has desires and needs; if he or she has children, to whom they are unconditionally devoted – well, that person just knows the whole story of being, and of being human.

Building on this alignment, there is much reflection in the novel, especially through the characters of Saeed and his sister, Hala, which contributes to one of the novella’s themes, education, specifically in the liberal arts, which “do not necessarily make one more humane, more liberal. While it is perfectly possible for humane study to make a man, or a woman, more humane, that enlightening process is only a potentiality, a possibility”. While the highly educated, intellectual Saeed, for example, reflects on “The idea of Metempsychosis [which] had never seemed plausible as a metaphysical proposition to him”, Hakim, the basically-educated taxi driver, “had spent the last twenty minutes dilating on a small anecdote which he thought held eons and eras of wisdom within itself”.

Although the characters are different in many cultural aspects (including their educational, ethnic, or socio-economic background), Sabbagh skillfully shows how the culturally diverse inhabitants of Dubai (both locals and expats from very different backgrounds), weave into each other’s worlds and shift between them, portraying the cosmopolitanism of the city. Saeed, for example, doesn’t wear a traditional “pristine white kandura” all the time, but he “also wore ‘western’ clothing; he wasn’t as changed from the London days as all that”, and Shirley the Filipina “saw Eid as a day of sacral celebration just as much as the local Emirati”.

Another important theme is the idea of marriage, and the conflicts that arise from the clashes between the traditional and modern views on it. We find the protagonist “thinking of someone in particular, who’d begun to put down roots in his heart with as much force, it seemed, as his beloved homeland”. However, this can be problematic although Saeed, for example, …didn’t give a damn that Farida was a divorcée, but he knew his mother would. But then, he didn’t really care much about that, either. Not now, at least, at this stage in his life. He loved his mother deeply and felt increasingly tender about her as they both grew older. But a man who wanted to call himself one had to ultimately face a moment of decision, if he wasn’t to let life, in all its vast richness, pass him by.”

Moreover, “Saeed had been warned by his mother and his aunts to search for a younger woman as his bride. But then, he wasn’t thinking of Farida that way — only as someone he might love.” The internal conflict arising within Saeed adds an interesting, page-turning tension to the novella. The theme of marriage coincides with that of love and the contemplation on a more practical, convenient love he finds suitable for his age — he believes that at his age (late thirties), “one doesn’t get crushes. The weight on the heart is of a different timbre.” He began to see the difference between brides and lovers, finding that “A bride was a formula; a lover was a reality, the reality”, although he wonders whether it was “a bit late in the day to harbour such puppy-like love? But was it even love? How could it be?”

Minutes From the Miracle City is another imaginative, creatively-crafted, cleverly structured work by Sabbagh. Focused on the experiences of Dubai dwellers, the novella is a good read for anyone who is seeking lightness and pure storytelling, but is also for thinkers, philosophers, and globetrotters. The ending, however, does not satisfy —  it is an appetizer that leaves readers’ tickled palates asking for more. We wonder what awaits the characters in their next chapters of life, having only just begun to get attached to them. A sequel, perhaps, would be a good solution and a great way to know what will happen to Patrick, Saeed, Hala, and Farida…

Roula-Maria Dib (PhD, Leeds) is an Assistant Professor of English at the American University in Dubai, and editor-in-chief of Indelible, the university’s literary journal. She is a creative writer and a researcher in the fields of literature and Jungian psychology; her forthcoming book, Jungian Metaphor in Modernist Literature will be released later this year.

This is the Republic of Consciousness Book of the Month. The Republic of Consciousness is an organisation that rewards and supports small presses, primarily through its yearly literary prize.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 8th, 2019.