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In a Fertile Desert

In a Fertile Desert: Modern Writing from the United Arab Emirates

Selected and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 128
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  • Book Info
    In a Fertile Desert
    Book Description:

    Here, for the first time, is a volume of short stories from this commercially and culturally vital and vibrant center of the Arab world. Life before oil in this region was harsh, and many of the stories in this collection—by both men and women from all corners of the country—tell of those times and the almost unbelievable changes that have come about in the space of two generations. Some tell of the struggles faced in the early days, while others bring the immediate past and the present together, revealing that the past, with all its difficulties and dangers, nonetheless possesses a certain nostalgia. Contributors: Abdul Hamid Ahmed, Roda al-Baluchi, Hareb al-Dhaheri, Nasser Al-Dhaheri, Maryam Jumaa Faraj, Jumaa al-Fairuz, Nasser Jubran, Saleh Karama, Lamees Faris al-Marzuqi, Mohamed al-Mazroui, Ebtisam Abdullah Al-Mu’alla, Ibrahim Mubarak, Mohamed al-Murr, Sheikha al-Nakhy, Mariam Al Saedi, Omniyat Salem, Salma Matar Seif, Ali Abdul Aziz al-Sharhan, Muhsin Soleiman, ‘A’ishaa al-Za‘aby.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-168-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xii)

    In a short period of time the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged from obscurity to be recognized as a country to be reckoned with in various spheres. Literature, however, has not been one of them. When, therefore, I recently decided to compile a volume of short stories from the Emirates in English translation, I was of two minds about being able to find a sufficient number of stories worth translating. In the world outside the Middle East only one writer from the UAE, my friend Muhammad al-Murr, is known; he has specialized in the short story, of which he...

  5. A Decision
    (pp. 1-8)
    Ebtisam al-Mualla

    I was sitting on the edge of the bed watching my wife in the mirror as she put blue shadow to her eyes. I felt something approaching guilt invade my whole being. Poor Iona!

    If only she knew what had led me to invite her to go out with me, if only she knew of the idea that had been blown up by the stories of my mother and the neighbors and by my friends’ rebukes until it had culminated in this decision.

    A decision I had taken after long nights of thinking and reluctance.

    I grew conscious of Iona’s...

  6. A Different Species
    (pp. 9-10)
    Lamees Faris al-Marzuqi

    My eyes would follow her whenever she passed by our village in her little car, so unused were we to seeing a car pass through that was driven by someone other than a man. “Muna the Male” was what the village women called her. I would look at her as though she were some creature that didn’t belong to the actual life we knew and lived. She was a woman unlike any other, for she didn’t wear the veil as did all the married women of the village; she also didn’t wear an aba, making do with a light shawl...

  7. A Slap in the Face
    (pp. 11-19)
    Abdul Hamid Ahmed

    He took a taxi going to the city. He was thinking of nothing at all; in fact at one point he felt he didn’t have the ability to think about anything, that he didn’t have the concentration, that he wasn’t seeing things properly.

    He left Khor Fakkan behind him—its dryness, its dust, its rocks, its people, its sea, its sluggishness, its sun. He consoled himself during the long drive by smoking cigarettes and looking at the asphalt road and the mountains, then at the desert, with glassy, expressionless eyes. In his mouth he felt the taste of arid dryness;...

  8. Abu Abboud
    (pp. 20-25)
    Ali Abdul Aziz al-Sharhan

    In a corner of his humble room in one of the workers’ dwellings his family had obtained from the federal government, Abu Abboud sat sprawled out on the mat he had refused to leave behind in his old house made of palm fronds. He had not moved to this room of his own free will, despite his happiness and knowledge that the family enjoyed stability there. This had given him the kind of peace of mind about the future that he had long dreamed of and for which he had sacrificed all his youth. It had been his sole aim...

  9. Birds of a Feather
    (pp. 26-33)
    Jumaa al-Fairuz

    Abu Amani was thirty-five years of age, of medium height, burly, and had a sallow complexion. He worked at one of the local government offices and lived with his mother and brothers in an old house in one of the residential quarters. He hadn’t married and was frightened of the idea and lived a strange, unsettled life. As for women, he paid them no heed, though he pretended to his friends, who would come to his house every night, that he knew everything about them. He had never known a woman in his life, with one exception: the woman who...

  10. Death
    (pp. 34-37)
    Omniyat Salem

    On that day my father came with traces of tears in his eyes. It was the first time I had ever seen him cry. My father crying, crying behind me. I heard him telling my mother that he had buried her, that she had died and was at peace. It was his mother. All I see is blackness. “What does the death of his parents mean?” “Where has she gone?” “They say she’s with her Lord.”

    “Her lord is that mosque over there.”

    “No, her Lord is God who created us and made us whole, and after all this hardship...

  11. Enemies in a Single House
    (pp. 38-41)
    Maryam Jumaa Faraj

    We hadn’t left the house for days and I was unable to count the things it had in it. There was water, lots of it. My grandmother put her hand into the can of dates, filling it and pounding them.

    “Watch the date palm,” she said to me.


    “When the date palm dies we’ll know everything.”

    “How’s that?”

    “All the ripe dates will fall down from it; when the date palms waste away, the war will start. That’s what they say.”



    “If the date palm dies, what will we do?”

    “We’ll stay in the house or we’ll...

  12. Fear Without Walls
    (pp. 42-48)
    ‘A’ishaa al-Za‘aby

    All the paths into that poor district led to that abandoned house perched on a small elevated plot of land. No one remembers exactly when the building was put up, a building whose doors and windows had become playthings for the winds, and most of the old people agreed that it had been there before they were born or even before their mothers were born. But the story of that house and the multitude of tales that surrounded it had given it a certain importance, even though it had become little more than a subject of gossip for old women...

  13. Fishhooks
    (pp. 49-51)
    Nasser Jubran

    As usual they went out that day in the afternoon carrying their fishing gear and some provisions of food and water. They were going out to sea in their large boat whose prow rose up like a legendary bird, while behind them gleamed a storm of foam, sprayed in all directions, making of the disturbed waves the delta of an exhausted river.

    They set off, with the sea a vast expanse, leaving behind them the empty concrete cities and a ribbon of widely spaced date palms standing erect above the shoreline like women anxiously awaiting the return of their breadwinners....

  14. Grief of the Night Bird
    (pp. 52-58)
    Ibrahim Mubarak

    A path extending to very great distances, a time whose twists and turns cannot be counted. Pictures that never conform. Hamdan is united with his old life, is in harmony with it, while Said is a child now facing a new passage. He is learning from Hamdan how to call to hawks.

    “It’s very simple,” he told Said. “A little practice and you’ll be able to make the hawk’s decoy.”

    The detached wings of a bird or a pigeon are tied together to make the shape of a live bird, then it is waved about in the air. When the...

  15. The Old Woman
    (pp. 59-63)
    Maryam Al Saedi

    Her children and everyone else call her “the old woman.” She’s an old lady from times back. Her clothes have the smell of her sheep and that rusty smell of the ancient trunk in which she keeps her things. She could never understand why she had to be ‘appropriately dressed,’ for she never thought that she wasn’t. In fact, she’d never once paid attention to what she looked like. She was one of those women who had had a lot of children without allowing their husbands to see their faces, the face being—as she believed—a shameful part of...

  16. Ripe Dates and Date Palms
    (pp. 64-67)
    Hareb al-Dhaheri

    The child’s body was frail, and his tight, ragged clothes were badly torn and full of holes, the ends dirty and giving out a stench of sweat, the product of weary steps running through places he had traversed, while others still awaited his beaming face.

    Stinging words, as searing as the flame of the sun’s rays, were thrust at him by his mother. “Go at once like lightning and bring the basket of ripe dates from among the date palms. Off with you and don’t waste time standing around in the streets like the stuffed skin of a young camel.”...

  17. The Little Tree
    (pp. 68-70)
    Nasser al-Dhaheri

    Someone older than me informed me that a man once came holding the seedling of a lotus tree that he had planted alongside the mud house near the date palms and that he had then gone away.

    People said, “What’s this dry seedling?” Others made a diminutive of the word and said, “What’s this tiny seedling?”

    Young girls got married and their husbands continued to work in the Trucial Oman Scouts. They became pregnant and gave birth to boys and girls who began mouthing words, walking and playing beneath the shade of the little tree.

    The women, when they went...

  18. The Peddler
    (pp. 71-73)
    Muhsin Soleiman

    I still remember him well as he carried a great bundle on his back. He would make the rounds of the lanes and alleys, calling out in his loud voice, “Things for sale … things ….” The servants would hear him and hurry off to my mother. “Mama, Masood him at the door,” and my mother would leave what she was doing and rush off to him. Generally my mother at this time would be pounding the pestle, washing the rice, or cutting up the onions. I would assume that on this day she was chopping onions and would wash...

  19. The Sound of Singing
    (pp. 74-81)
    Salma Matar Seif

    I’ll cut your throat, you animal,” said my grandfather, “if I see you again with that awful woman.”

    He was pressing down on my neck with his hulking foot. The harsher his threats against me the more his foot embedded itself in my flesh. Then he moved away, leaving my body like some great throbbing heart. I felt that I was being expanded and contracted, like some desert plant ablaze under the scorching sun.

    I approached my heavily breathing mother and looked into her eyes and face. “Does he stop me from seeing her because she’s black?”

    “Your grandfather, my...

  20. Threads of Delusion
    (pp. 82-85)
    Sheikha al-Nakhi

    I was weaving in my imagination sweet longings and a beautiful image of my future life, an image that became bigger with the passing of the days and my intellectual and bodily growth. I was a small child when I would hear my mother telling me, whenever she had the opportunity and with the whole family present, that I was Ali’s fiancée. Yes, his fiancée. “Would he find anyone better than her?” she would pronounce, “And she’s as beautiful as the full moon.” Then I grew up and my dreams and expectations grew bigger, as did my love for my...

  21. Too Late
    (pp. 86-89)
    Saleh Karama

    His face showed signs of aging. He ran his hands over his feeble body, then felt the wrinkles on his face as he stood before the polished mirror, his face reflected in it like gold dust on the surface of water. Memories swirled in his mind. Our friend, ‘Jumaa the garbage man,’ moved away from the mirror and rubbed the rumpled hair on his head. He cursed the hour he had begun to work as a garbage man in the working class district, saying deep within himself, “I am Jumaa, even the children of the district stammer out my name...

  22. Two Neighbors
    (pp. 90-99)
    Muhammad al-Murr

    Having placed him in his bed and covered him up, the nurse went to her chair at the end of the large room. Turning to his right, he found that the bed was unoccupied, then he turned to his left and found that he had a neighbor.

    “Good evening,” he said to his neighbor.

    “Good evening to you. Why didn’t you scream when the nurse brought you?”

    “Why should I scream? I’m not suffering from anything.”

    “But most of those who are brought here arrive with prolonged screams.”

    “Perhaps the reason for such screaming was either pain or surprise. My...

  23. Zaain and Fatima
    (pp. 100-103)
    Mohamed al-Mazrouei

    Had he known that the operation for varicose veins he had done on his legs would be a sign that things were going to improve for him, and that with it he’d be marrying, he’d have had it done ages ago.

    Those were his thoughts when, at the age of sixty, he had held the pen to sign his marriage contract. The whole thing had been a matter of more than thirty-one years, much of which he had spent standing in front of her house, recollecting all the tales of the lovers of old that the inhabitants of the Powerhouse...

  24. The Story of Ibrahim
    (pp. 104-108)
    Roda al-Baluchi

    His two small eyes glistened under the tears, and the trembling of his great body was like that of a dilapidated building on the verge of collapse. It was with difficulty that he was able to stand, the trunk of the date palm acting as a convenient prop for his hand. Then he shuffled along on feet weighed down with chains shackled round them, and didn’t turn to me. Before he got too far away I called out to him from behind, “Ibrahim, don’t be annoyed. I was just joking. Come along so that we finish our game.”

    He didn’t...

  25. About the Authors
    (pp. 109-112)
  26. Back Matter
    (pp. 113-114)