‘Sleaze, self-obsession and sentimentality’
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by award-winning writer, creative writing teacher and keen musician Garry Craig Powell
Soundtrack by Julie Zorrilla, Evanescence, David Bowie, Phil Collins, Celine Dion, Chopin, the Beatles
Those who know Dubai well see, beneath the surface glitter, that the city is sleazy, sordid, and corrupt. So I thought as I sat in Trader Vic’s, an ersatz ‘Polynesian’ bar — think dugout canoes, matting, masks, and Filipina waitresses — listening to a Cuban band beside a young woman from Kazakhstan whose motives for chatting with me were puzzling. In my story Kamila’s Price, Trader Vic’s becomes Lord Jim’s and the girl becomes a Polish actress turned waitress who has lost her job and is trying to muster the courage to sell herself for the first time, to an Englishman named Colin (not my alter ego, obviously!)
As for the music:
…invisible hands flapped bongo skins, strummed guitars. A song rose in a soft swell, maracas hissing and scratching, punctuating the susurration of the singers’ Spanish.’
Alternating between carefree rumbas and sentimental songs like Bésame Mucho by Julie Zorrilla, it is a kitschy and poignant contrast to what is actually going on.
A novel in stories
Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012) is a novel-in-stories or story cycle, comprised of twelve closely-linked narratives set in the Emirates, six of them directly inspired by music. Their mostly female protagonists struggle to fulfil themselves in a society dominated by men — not only Arabs, but European men too, who at times take gleefully to the patriarchal mores of the Gulf.
A Woman’s Weapon opens thus:
Over and over, the woman on MTV Asia sang in her woeful voice that she was broken, broken. White as a ghoul, the singer reminded Fayruz of herself—not physically, but on some level too deep to fathom.’
Fayruz, Colin’s Palestinian refugee wife, is listening to the Seether song, Broken, featuring Amy Lee of Evanescence. (Whom I see, on revisiting the video, I misremembered somewhat!) This cringe-worthy song struck me from the first as an anthem for the self-obsessed, the self-pitying and immature, and I at once associated it with Fayruz, who, though older than typical Emo fans, is still struggling with the traumas of her youth during the civil war in Beirut, and with an unfaithful husband. She sees herself as a victim, as the singers of the song do.
Moving Crucifixion is a comedy whose protagonist, Marwan, is Fayruz’s brother. Married to another Palestinian refugee, Randa, and yet seeking extra-marital excitement on the dating site Lebaneselovers.com, he begins a flirtatious game with an anonymous woman, teasing one another with lyrics from David Bowie’s Hang On to Yourself. On his way home from the bank where he works, however, Marwan listens to a Phil Collins song. The one I imagined (but did not mention) was the pretentious, overblown In the Air Tonight. For me it captured Marwan’s mood and character. Once again the music provides ironic atmosphere: it turns out that Marwan is flirting with someone he knows very well indeed.
Some of the stories feature young Emirati students as protagonists, and in the first one, Titanic 2, the reader is plunged into the highly romantic, wild fantasies of Alia and her cousin, Badria, for their university lecturer, who turns out to be Colin; these fantasies are fuelled by the melodramatic movie and of course by the Celine Dion song. Here is Alia in the shower:
Now, as the water licked her eyelids and trickled between her lips, she hummed the Titanic theme song. (…) Alia imagined Jack kissing her, Jack sketching her naked, and her hand pressed against the steamed-up window of the car in the hold while they made love. First Leonardo di Caprio’s hands were on Alia’s breasts; then it was the other one, Rose’s nasty dark fiancé, who was her lover.’
Contrary to western stereotypes, these women have active erotic imaginations.
Chopin and chopsticks
In the meantime, Kamila has indeed become a prostitute, and in The King of Kandy she is brutally attacked by three young Emirati males — led by Sultan, Badria’s brother — in a Dubai hotel room. As she pleads with the Sri Lankan front desk manager to call the police, she hears a compatriot of hers playing Chopin on a piano in the lobby. This evokes half-conscious nostalgia for her home country of Poland — which she will be unable to return to if the police arrest her as well as her assailants. She then hears the pianist somewhat heavy-handedly playing Penny Lane, ‘a cheerful song with wistful overtones’. The music suggests the world Kamila must give up if she gets her revenge. The story ends with one of my favourite lines:
How could a Pole butcher Chopin like that?’
The subtext is what Kamila must be asking herself: How could I have ruined my life so utterly?
Alia returns in The Jinni Crouching Behind Her. Now pregnant — having failed to seduce Colin, she has blackmailed a Bangladeshi security guard into having sex with her — and taken by Badria into the desert to try out an abortion potion of camel spit and ants (these actually exist and are said to be effective) she contemplates a further dilemma: she has been betrothed, against her will, to Badria’s brother, the rapist Sultan, and remembers the engagement party, which featured an Egyptian female pop star performing. I used to play in a band in the Emirates, and we once opened for a real Egyptian diva, who inspired this description:
Onstage, beside Alia, an Egyptian singer in a skintight leopard-print cat suit had swung her hips and wailed, flung her hair and gyrated like a belly dancer. The song had been frenzied, galloping hoofs on the sand, bass a sick thumping heart, keyboard skirling, violin shrieking.’
I used her as sort of pathetic fallacy—to underline Alia’s passionate and reckless nature.
Summarised, Stoning the Devil no doubt sounds melodramatic. Perhaps it is — but if so I hope I have created a melodrama of Wagnerian proportions. And, like Isolde or Brünnhilde, my protagonists, for all the oppression and brutality they suffer, turn out to be formidable opponents.
Garry Craig Powell was born in England and educated at the universities of Cambridge and Durham. His novel-in-stories Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press, 2012) was on the longlist for the Frank O’ Connor Short Story Award and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. He teaches creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas, and has just completed a novel about the Italian playboy, poet, war hero and proto-fascist statesman, Gabriele D’Annunzio. He also plays and sings in a band, Slings and Arrows. His website is here and his Facebook author page is here.