The Girl Who Wrote
In a two-part series, we speak to two Qatari writers of repute to better understand what’s holding Qatar back, in the literary sense. First up, Sophia Al Maria.
Writing has the power to transform, build bridges and to capture crucial moments that encapsulate who we are as a nation. Over the past two decades, Qatar has gone through transcendental changes in every possible aspect; it has managed to go from ‘mud huts to skyscrapers’ in an enviable amount of time. Yet, it seems that Qatari writers and the level of writing in Qatar in general has had a hard time catching up to the industrial and developmental advancements in the country.
Is the ‘comfortable’ and ‘privileged’ Qatari culture the culprit, or are there other hidden factors at play here? Some have argued that Qatar is simply too young a nation.
Though, it is hard to imagine that this is a legitimate issue at all since there is a wealth of successful writers in the rest of the ‘young’ Gulf States. Why is Qatar the only one suffering from this lack of fortune?
Sophia Al Maria is an artist, writer and filmmaker. Her work has been widely featured, and quite recently one of her short films was ripped-off by Pop sensation MIA. Sophia’s memoir The Girl Who Fell to Earth is slowly starting to develop a cult following here in Qatar, which is fascinating considering that her book has not yet been sold to an Arab audience. Sophia’s memoir is a personal recollection of her life. Nevertheless it is a work of literature that is at once both relatable and unique. Most significantly, it’s honest.
Qatari writers have not received the same global acclaim or recognition for their literary work as writers from Saudi or other neighboring states.
I think there is not that culture of support for writers in the Gulf region as a whole as we see in other literary hubs around the Middle East… like there are in Baghdad or Egypt.
But, there are several books and articles written about the State, it’s rulers and the culture in Qatar.
There’s this weird nostalgia for something that never existed… People are not thinking clearly or critically about our history. I think as a nation we need to break out of the clichés. Even when it comes to opinion columns, it is important to work on promoting a Qatari voice that is refined and world-class.
In recent years, the Art and Film industry received a high level of financial and social support in Qatar. How do you think this has affected the appeal of writing as a profession?
I think that there are initiatives and institutions in Qatar that are promoting writers in Qatar, as Bloomsbury Publishing are doing at the moment. I think the major problem is that the publishing industry is in trouble all over the world, it’s really grim, even in the UK, New York, etc. It’s impossible to make it as a writer, whereas 20 years ago you could very easily, even with a mediocre mystery novel.
The Girl Who Fell to Earth is a memoir based on the extraordinary, but quite ordinary, life of a Qatarican (Qatari-American). From a historical point of view, it’s a Qatari treasure. It isn’t the usual controversy-driven shocking tale of a Muslim girl gone wild, nor is it about the always beautiful but overused pearl diving-based but now oil-rich Qatar. This is the real Doha. The Doha we remember as kids.
Sophia Al Maria spent her earlier years between Seattle, Qatar and later in Egypt as a College student. At some point, you forget this is a memoir and start reading about Sophia the lost superhero surrounded by spoiled little brats, doomed lovers, polygamous relationships, sandstorms… Always the outsider, it seemed like she simply did not fit in anywhere. She did not fit in Seattle with her American family, neither did it seem like she fit in with her conservative Bedouin Qatari family. Best of all, she wasn’t trying to fit in. On the contrary, this girl is an individual in every sense of the word: witty, bold and sometimes gratifyingly impulsive.
As a writer, Sophia Al Maria has a lightness to her words and style. This memoir refers to everything from the Gulf War to 9/11, an important time not only in Qatar, but also in the greater Middle East region. If you’re looking for a story with some grand sense of resolution in the end, quite refreshingly, you will not find it here. This is a story of a girl that is.
Some have argued that the ‘comfortable’ Qatari culture has restricted and adversely affected the level and appreciation of writing.
I do think that there is a sense of complacency. But I also think that it depends on each generation in Qatar. I think there is a frustrating attitude that younger generations have when it comes to wanting to go out, learn and explore. Younger generations have all these tremendous opportunities that older generations did not have, it’s like cherry picking out here. There’s a thousand things you could do so easily and career-wise you could be functioning on an international level so much faster as a Qatari than you could in any other country in the world. Young People in Qatar don’t necessarily understand what an incredible privilege they have, sadly very few use it.
There’s this weird nostalgia for something that never existed… People are not thinking clearly or critically about our history.
To be a ‘successful’ writer, it takes…
Lots of writing! Actually just getting down to the writing is the hardest part. Looking at a blank page, as much as it is a cliché to say that, it really is terrifying. Just getting over that hump and writing regularly helps. And I think when approaching writing, honesty and clarity in writing and language are very important. People don’t have much patience for confusing writing.
The future for Qatari writers will look like…
I think the future looks very bright. I just hope that we get to see more of new ideas and new thinking, not the same old historical memories and nostalgia. There is so much happening right now that is interesting that should be written about and recorded.
Photo courtesy: Thomas Jerome Newton