Set within fictional towns and tribes, The Sand Fish explores life in the UAE right before the oil boom. Brought up in an isolated desert household (in a mountainous region that sounds like Ras Al Khaimah), Noora has been raised by her father to feel nearly an equal to her brothers. Yet, following her mother’s death, her father succumbs to mental illness and one day wanders off never to come back. Despite her feistiness, Noora finds herself sold off by her brother to become the third wife of a much older man in a far away city.
The Sand Fish tells yet again of the unfairness of women’s condition in the Arab world. Not only is Noora abandoned by her father and hawked by her brother, she is also betrayed by the two men she falls in love with, both of whom are quick to turn their backs on her at the first hint of social pressure. But it’s the other women who are the toughest: two matchmakers “inspect” her before she is to be married off, her love interest’s mother loses her mind when her son declares his intention to marry someone of his own choice instead of the cousin intended for him, and her husband’s two other wives are nothing but jealousy and manipulation.
Yet, what I liked most were the insights about life in the UAE when oil excavation had just started and no one suspected the boom that would soon come to transform the Arabian Peninsula forever. The author, Maha Gargash was a TV producer in the UAE and the novel is based on the research she has done about her country’s history. I read comments online from UAE nationals who’ve read the book and questioned some of the insights and I cannot claim to know enough about the culture to agree or disagree with them, but Gargash’s writing did transport me into another time and space, whilst keeping to the story and not trying too hard to position itself as a historical resource. It gave me - an absolute lover of the UAE - that much more knowledge about a country and a people that I find fascinating.
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