REVIEW by Matthew Tett

NWR Issue 101

The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim

by Craig Hawes

Dubai: known the world over as a place of business and tourism. In this Emirati state, one can be shopping the malls one minute and watching camel racing the next, surrounded by desert. Craig Hawes’ debut collection of short stories, The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim, captures the different facets of this emirate, from the rich expats – likely to be patrons at the Burj al-Arab, the world’s only 7-star hotel – to the immigrant taxi drivers and labourers struggling to make a living for family back home. Both the old and new faces of Dubai are depicted in Hawes’ lively prose, whose realism makes it is no surprise to discover that Hawes has made Dubai his home.

The title story, ‘The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim’, the longest in the collection, is in some ways a modern fairy tale. The evocative atmosphere juxtaposes high-rise Dubai with the city’s traditional souks, while the characters of Jaydeep and Melody struggle to start a family. Although the writing is skilful, Hawes’ style at times jars – his ‘hunchbacked psoriasis sufferer’ analogy, for example, being overdone.

While it’s clear that this author prefers the male narrative voice, this doesn’t deter him from branching out. One of the standout stories is ‘Aim High, Olongapo’, told from the perspective of a Filipino maid dealing with the trauma of separation from her family. Unfortunately, a contrasting female voice (‘Suzie Kaminski’) isn’t so successful. One can assume that the protagonist is American but the voice is irritating and unconvincing – ‘playing volleyball… in a bikini, boobs bouncing… like a Baywatch babe’ is a forced alliteration. Would Suzie really be reading the ‘latest Barbara Kingsolver paperback’? I don’t think so. More likely Fifty Shades….

Many of these stories deal with the power of men in a patriarchal society. In ‘The Sound Between’, the narrator recalls the hedonism of Dubai’s lifestyle with its ‘feel-good anthems’ and ‘gilt-edged lives’. The thought-provoking ‘Pictures in the Dust’ is inventive, with a Middle Eastern Banksy-like character (Badlu) surreptitiously doing something he is very good at, whilst hiding his artistic talents from his vile boss. The division between rich and poor is shown in the life-affirming ‘Whorelands’. Aaron and Dieter, a gay couple, are the focus of ‘The Orange Tie’. Hawes reiterates how there are still some places where people can’t live their lives as they please. Homophobia, racism, sexism, are all present in these stories and this city.

The enigmatic nature of ‘Zeina’, in the story of the same name, is intriguing. ‘Abbas Ali Khan’ goes against the grain of what is expected regarding fidelity, while the narrator of ‘The Adidas Amulet’ shows the potential dangers of adhering to society’s expectations of male and female roles.

The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim often alludes to the contrast between a character’s origins and present location. The expat community in ‘The Abu Dhabi Brass Rubbing Society’ makes one wonder about Hawes’ own life trajectory from Briton Ferry to Dubai. Loneliness, melancholia and acceptance of one’s lot are key themes in the last two stories. As the narrator in ‘Wind Chimes’ says, ‘I wish Danielle would come to the window right now and look out, but maybe she wouldn’t see me through the thick fog. Does she ever see me anymore?’

Dubai’s apparent exoticism may appeal enough for you to get on a plane. But if you prefer to be an armchair traveller, this is the perfect slim and memorable collection to transport you.

Matthew Tett is an NWR online contributor

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previous review: Clever Girl
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