The number one internationally best selling author of The Sand Fish, Maha Gargash is set to take literay world by storm with her new book That Other Me.
To celebrate it’s recent release, Maha Gargash is in Dubai at the Emirates Airline Festival Of Literature to promote the book and her work.
Set in mid-1990s Dubai and Cairo, That Other Me focuses on how secrets and betrayals consume three members – an authoritarian father, an abandoned daughter and a vulnerable niece – of a prominent Emirati family.
Here we share an exclusive extract from the book:
Azza drops us off at the entrance of the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek. Since the summer holiday has ended, I was convinced that the Khaleejis would have packed and flown home by now. But here they are, visitors from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the Emirates, filling the hotel’s café, an oblong arrangement with a broad walkway that runs from one end of the Marriott garden’s patio to the other.
Waiters in green aprons flit between the round tables, carrying water pipes or balancing trays crowded with cups of tea, coffee, and long glasses filled to the rim with ruby-red hibiscus punch or saffron-colored qamar el-din, a thick juice made of apricot paste. The light is atmospheric, casting pockets of shadows over the sections of the café bordered by hedges, making them look like little rooms of four to six tables. That’s where I want to be, but I follow Dalal. There’s a natural sultry swing to her gait that comes with being shaped like that: the perfect symmetry of the crescents of her waist, the dip just above the tailbone that slides out just so, giving the impression of some invisible string holding up her plum-shaped buttocks. What man would not look at her? She struts down the amply-lit walkway and I tag along behind her, awkward and too aware of all the eyes following us: a lazy gaze here, a sharp stare a little farther down, furtive glances to pick up what is there and what is not there.
I’d felt a false sense of security, but it evaporates as panic builds up in me. What if someone sees me and word gets back to Ammi Majed? He would not approve of my being out at night, and certainly not with Dalal. I keep my thoughts to myself because there’s no point nagging.
I am suspicious of every gaze that lingers too long on us. A middle-aged man, hawk-eyed, ambles up and down the walkway. He seems to be a regular because the waiters keep greeting him by name. He holds a string of emerald-colored worry beads and does exactly what I am doing: scrutinizing faces in the Marriott garden.
I turn my head as we pass two young, smooth-haired Khaleejis sitting on the right. They wear jeans and tight T-shirts, so it’s hard to tell which Gulf country they come from. Farther down, three middle-aged men look up at us (at Dalal, really). There is a silent and special recognition—deep, intense, welcoming: that I-know-you’re-a-Khaleeji look. I toss a sharp glance back at them. No fear of word getting back to my uncle from this lot. Although they all wear the same white kandoras—loose white ankle-length robes—their headdresses are bound with ropes too thick to belong to Emiratis. I decide they must be Saudis.
Dalal makes a popping sound with her lips, smooth as rose petals, as she looks around. She has deer eyes, beautiful and empty of complicated thought. Just like her mother, her skin has the evenness of porcelain with an attractive luminosity that makes it look as though it shines even in dim light. “So,” she says, fixing her palms to her hips. “Where should we sit?”
I don’t give her a chance to choose. She yips as I grip her waist and maneuver her into one of the more shadowy hedged-in areas, and settle to the left of one of the many large marble statues on plinths.
“What’s this place?” Dalal objects as soon as I sink into the bamboo chair, hunched low with my back to the statue. “No one will see us here.”
“Yes,” I say, looking at the menu so that we can order something and get out as soon as possible. “It’s better that way. You can afford to be risky, but not me. You don’t have anything to lose, but I do. So, just…”
“All right, all right,” she says. “Stop getting all paranoid.”
“Did you know that this is a historical royal palace?” I say, pushing back, trying to blend into the hedge to my right. “It was built by Khedive Ismail for the Suez Canal inauguration celebrations in 1869.” I pretend I don’t notice the disgruntled expression on her face and indicate a nearby statue. “And apparently, these are all antiques.” I slide the menu toward her so that she can read the information printed in the menu.
Dalal snaps her fingers in front of my nose. “We’re here to have fun and all you can do is give me a history lesson. Look at you, stuck to that bush like that. People will think you’re mad. What are you pretending to be, some sort of spy, a caterpillar?”
I straighten up and giggle. I do look ridiculous. With a vow to loosen up (after all, we are here together to celebrate her breaking into the world of music, her passion), I take a deep breath, filled with the scent of the honey- and apple-tobacco wafting out of the sheeshas. My gaze drifts over the lavish garden with its high palms and stout trees, the leafage neatly-trimmed and shaped into pyramids and squares, some with strips of tiny lights. I spot a hibiscus (also known as the ‘Rose of China,’ from where it originates) and a cassia tree (fast-growing, from tropical America yet thriving in Egypt’s rich soil). How is it that I can still remember such details? My father gave a plant encyclopedia to me a long time ago and I treasured it, making sure it stayed next to my bed (where is it now?). What started as a little girl’s attempt to please her father changed and turned to genuine interest, a passion even, for some reason abandoned with his death.
“So, here we are,” says Dalal, in a dreamy voice, “having a good time, you know, joking…” She flings her head back and rakes her fingers through her curls, a satiny chocolate-brown mass, before turning to survey the walkway. “Flirting…” Someone has caught her eye, and I frown to discourage her just as she drags her gaze back to me and says, “All right, say something, quick.”