Three members of an established Emirati family clash as modern desires collide with traditional expectations in the mid-1990s.
In her second novel, Gargash (The Sand Fish, 2009) explores the nuances and struggles of a Dubai family confronting a changing world. Majed Naseemy is the aging patriarch of a sprawling family and an eminent member of Emirati society. He’s an angry and deeply misogynistic man, and he finds it difficult to embrace both his mild-mannered niece, Mariam, and headstrong illegitimate daughter, Dalal. When the girls begin challenging the roles he expects them to conform to, he struggles to channel his rage and control them. Changing point of view between these three characters, the story opens a window into the complicated world of Emirati culture. The book shines brightest when focused on Mariam and Dalal as they come of age in two different worlds. Although both live in Cairo, Mariam is a student at a local university while Dalal lives with her mother in a run-down neighborhood, from which she pursues a career in music. For Mariam, education is the key to escaping her stifling family, while Dalal is driven by a thirst for fame. Both of them confront their sexuality and their roles as women in Emirati society. At times Majed and Dalal both ring hollow as characters and can be infuriating in their narrow-mindedness. Both are defined by a selfishness that makes them impossible to love. But Mariam is compelling and sympathetic, and her aunt Aisha is a woefully unexplored character until the very end. The examination of changing norms in Middle Eastern culture, and the differences between Dubai and Cairo, is at times extremely engaging, but the author doesn’t connect the Naseemy family’s story to a larger cultural shift.
Although the book has fascinating elements, it is ultimately a lackluster family drama with too narrow a focus.