A DISAPPEARANCE IN BAHRAIN
This is an Interview David Gee gave when SHAIKH-DOWN was first published in 1999 (it was then titled FLORENCE OF ARABIA):
How and why SHAIKH-DOWN came to be written
Why did you write this book?
The Arab World is always in the news and yet Westerners know very little about its life, its people. Having lived in the Gulf for six years – the happiest six years of my life, by the way – I think I was ideally placed to write a novel about relations between the expatriates and the ‘natives’.
But what you mostly give us is non-stop sexual relations! Is that how you see the Arabs – a race of sex-maniacs?
I did a lot of ‘research’ into this! Now you know why my six years were such happy ones!
But seriously, I decided the book would work best as a comedy, so I set out to produce a send-up of those Arab men who are obsessed with Western women. I also write about gay Arabs, bisexual Arabs, and even lesbian Arab women. These are delicate subjects, I know, but I hope I’ve written about them sympathetically and without causing offence.
I have painted an unkind picture of the ‘Old-Colonial’ type of English ex-pats who think Britannia still rules the world. And I suppose air-stewards and stewardesses might take issue with the way they’re portrayed, although this is also based on very thorough research!
What about the political side of the book: assassinations and revolutions?
That’s the thriller element, which has a basis in real events.
Let me tell you a true story. Quite early in my time in Bahrain the Security Police took away a teenage boy who worked with me, one of my landlord’s sons. He was never seen again. Nearly everybody was too frightened to talk about it, but I was told he would have been tortured to death because one of his brothers was a fugitive anti-Royal activist.
This is the kind of thing we tend to associate with Fascist regimes like Pinochet’s in Chile, although according to blogs and news reports in the West the torture and murder of dissidents still happens today under the so-called ‘benevolent’ Middle East regimes. Look at this business of the ‘rendition’ of prisoners to be tortured in countries like Morocco and Syria in the aftermath of 9/11.
Anyway, in SHAIKH-DOWN the death of his landlord’s son is the ‘catalyst’ that links Eddy Laurence, the central British character, to the group of Arab revolutionaries. In my book the dissidents avenge the disappearance of a boy from Eddy’s bank by plotting to assassinate the Amir in his bedroom. In the real world this might not be so easy to bring off!
So the island of BELAJ is meant to be the island of BAHRAIN?
No, Belaj is clearly imaginary. It’s situated off the coast of Ras al Khaimah, where no such island exists, and it’s shaped like a question mark, which no island of the Gulf is. Belaj City, all landscaped boulevards and cutting-edge architecture, could be any city in the Gulf.
What about the Amir of Belaj, Shaikh Khalid al-Khazi?
He’s tall, he’s thin, he’s totally ruthless and he has absolutely no sense of humour whereas the Amir of Bahrain, when I lived there, was short and round and jolly. I see Shaikh Khalid as a sort of Arabic version of Margaret Thatcher – not that she’s tall or especially thin, but she was certainly one tough lady and famously humourless. And somehow I doubt that she’s likely to appreciate the tribute!
What about the Amir’s niece, Nayla Bahzoomi? She’s the only female Arab character in your book and you’ve shown her as an adulteress and worse.
Yes, she’s not what any self-respecting Arab woman is expected to be, but don’t forget she’s married to a lecherous drunk who, in the West anyway, might drive his wife to be unfaithful.
You don’t consider this portrait as an insult to Muslim women?
No, she’s just a character in a book. Her second husband is a very pious Shaikh from Ras al Khaimah. Of course he turns her from an adulteress into a revolutionary, but that’s fiction for you! What happens to Nayla and to her brother Shaikh Ibrahim shows two of the possible consequences of the Arab ‘flirtation’ with Western ways, Western vices.
So, how much of the book is based on real people, real events?
It’s pure fiction. I know that there are Arab women who are intellectual and ‘free-thinking’, but the women I met socially or at my place of work weren’t comfortable talking politics with a Westerner they hardly knew. There was just one – I won’t say where – who gave me a kind of base to work from, but the character of Nayla is almost totally made up to give the story an ‘edge’. I’d love to think that there is a woman like Nayla waiting to liberate her sisters from the male tyranny that dominates the Arab regimes.
As far as her brother Shaikh Ibrahim is concerned – I met a few Shaikhs during my time in the Gulf, but nobody quite like Ibrahim. I did take a well-endowed lady-friend to the Police Fort in Manama to help me pass my driving test in much the same way Eddy does in what I hope is the funniest scene the book, and I developed the character of Ibrahim out of that situation.
What about the other Arab male characters – Hassan the assassin and Ahmad the ‘super-stud’?
I met a lot of Arabs who wanted to be super-studs. Some of them even got there! I never met any wannabe assassins, so I had to invent Hassan.
And the gay Arab character – Rashid?
Rashid is based on two gay Arabs that I knew, one in Bahrain and one in another country. Neither of them was in any way ‘political’, but I saw how difficult it was for them being gay in a part of the world that has zero tolerance of homosexuality. I’ve tried to bring that out in the novel.
The two main British characters, Eddy Lawrence and Cass McBride, are also both based on more than one person. Most of the ex-pats are parodies of the kind of Brits I met out there. Felix, the most outrageous of the gay air-stewards, is a send-up of a couple of queens I worked with in London. I met a lot of stewardesses, and Sammy-Jo, the American stewardess who gets involved in the assassination, is based on one of them, although the real ‘Sammy-Jo’ wasn’t in the least bit political, she wasn’t the one who flashed her boobs to help me pass my driving test, and she wasn’t even American.
Some authors start with characters and build a story round them.SHAIKH-DOWN started with a couple of ideas – Arab men paying British women to bonk them and a teenager being tortured to death by the Secret Police – and I made up characters to fit the requirements of the story as it developed.
Your book ends with a thermonuclear apocalypse. Where did that come from?
That’s the ‘sting’ in the tail of my story. What would happen if all of the Arab thrones tumbled and the new regimes decided to take on Israel in a ‘mother of all Middle East wars’?
Even here I couldn’t resist slipping in a joke or two. In the world after the Apocalypse I’ve imagined that Princess Anne is Queen of England and Ann Widdecombe is Prime Minister. I doubt that these dear ladies are really destined for such High Office – what fun it would be if they were!
But who knows the future? Maybe Princess Anne will become Queen, and maybe all the Arab thrones will tumble like dominoes. And maybe Israel could be panicked into unleashing her nukes, and Jerusalem and Mecca and Damascus will dissolve into rubble.
Do you expect there to be more revolutions in the Muslim world? And would the consequences be as dire as you predict?
There must be people out there who yearn to see revolution in these countries, and a few of them may be working to make it happen – but probably not in the style of the coup in my novel.
I guess it’s more likely that the revolutions in the Arab World – if and when they come – will be inspired by Islamic Fundamentalism like the one in Iran. And who knows what the consequences will be? A wonderful new era of peace between Arabs and Israelis? Or – Armageddon?
You tell me.
In the real world, my comic ‘blueprint’ for a coup by dissidents and Women’s Lib isn’t very likely – and it may be a bit too blue for some tastes!
Didn’t you think that SHAIKH-DOWN might end up being banned?
The regime on my imaginary island – a regime that tolerates drinking, fornication and torture – is kicked out in favour of one that respects women and the true principles of Islam. I think SHAIKH-DOWN is a very ‘moral’ story – like one of Aesop’s Fables, you could say!
Really, what I’ve written is a harmless little comedy-thriller with a sly dig at those Arab men who find Western totty hard to resist. I hope people will read it and giggle.
Any plans for an Arabic edition?
There’s an interesting thought. We would need to find a translator with a broad mind and a good command of English and American slang!
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