Selma Dabbagh: A writer finds her voice



Denise Marray

Published — Wednesday 21 November 2012

Last update 21 November 2012 1:20 am

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Scotland, England, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Bahrain, mother, lawyer, writer — WRITER. You have to keep your brain alert when meeting Selma Dabbagh for the first time because just as you think you’ve got her neatly placed into a setting or role, the scene shifts and you have to tear up the script and start afresh. But her job description is absolutely clear: She is a writer whose first novel ‘Out of It’ published last December by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP), has attracted enthusiastic reviews across the political spectrum.
She is delighted with the positive reaction and is currently working on her second novel, while enjoying her role as Writer-in-Residence for the Nour Festival of Arts, in partnership with BQFP and the Arab British Centre, London.
But let’s go back to examine the mosaic of places and experiences that have shaped her life to date. Born in Scotland to an English mother and Palestinian father (born in Jaffa), her childhood was spent wherever her father’s career took him. The family was constantly on the move between the UK, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. An avid reader, she said she knew at the age of eight that she wanted to be a writer and wrote a letter to the publisher Penguin setting out her plan. She recalled, “They wrote me a very nice letter back!”
Her interest in writing waned a bit in her early teens until a stroke of bad luck made her re-focus her energies on literature again. “I got very ill when I was 15; I went to the Soviet Union from Kuwait on a ballet trip and I got hepatitis so I had to go to bed for a long period and I started reading again.” However, writing didn’t become her main occupation until her thirties.
First she did a law degree and worked for human rights organizations in the West Bank and Cairo. She went on to do a Masters in Law, Human Rights and Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and qualified as a lawyer with a legal aid practice doing discrimination work. Then she moved with her husband to Bahrain where unable to specialize in the area of law that interested her, she found herself with the “the opportunity and space to start to write.”
Speaking of the decision to commit to a career in writing, she said: “One always thinks it’s a career reserved for other people, particularly if you’re a woman. There’s a lot of building up to have the confidence to try and do it, and I started feeling that it’s better to try and do it even if it doesn’t work out.”
She started with short stories which proved successful. She was the 2005 English PEN nominee for the David TK Wong Short Story Award and her stories have appeared in anthologies published by Granta and the British Council.
She spent eleven years in Bahrain; her marriage broke up and she returned to London where she now lives with her two young children. She seems keen to put down roots; “I think London is my base and my future. I’ve done enough moves, so I’m not keen on moving ever again,” she said.
In person she is open, friendly and articulate but weighs her words carefully. She describes herself as ‘quite self-critical’ and that element acts as brake on how she presents herself. Her novel ‘Out of It’ is set in Gaza and she is braced for criticism because she recognizes that having never lived there she is regarded as an outsider, though she is suffused with the history and politics of the place through her Palestinian family ties. She finds it tragic that so much talent, energy and good will is stifled in the hostile environment caused by the conflict.
“Even among educated, enthusiastic and energetic young people it’s just impossible for these things to grow with the blockade and the types of restrictions and oppressions that people are facing within Gaza. There has to be a real sea change in terms of political will to start seeing Palestinians as equal, because they are not going anywhere, and only then can you look toward a hopeful solution,” she observed.
She said of the recent visit to Gaza of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani: “There is a fear in Gaza that people are being forgotten, and they want to be remembered.”
Dabbagh is currently working on her second novel which looks at the idea of expatriates and people who move a lot “never having a proper sense of where they are because they are always thinking of the last place they lived and the next place they are going to, and therefore not really being connected”, she explained.
This novel has been largely on hold for the past year as she worked on the dialogue and script for a full-length feature film, directed by Azza el Hassan, now going into production. “That took up a lot of my creative energy last year,” she said.
She has also been busy promoting her novel and giving talks and workshops for creative writing students. She likes to write in the mornings, blocking off time when the children are at school and trying to shut out interruptions.
She is full of admiration for the Nour Festival of Arts, coordinated by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in partnership with the Arab British Centre, the British Egyptian Society, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, the London MENA Film Festival, Leighton House Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Science Museum, the Ismaili Centre, the Mosaic Rooms and the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre. “It brings together voices and expressions from the Middle East which are sometimes quite marginalized, talking about issues which are more sensitive or controversial or challenging to society. It’s very contemporary, quite youthful and beautifully done and presented. I’m very proud to be associated with it,” she concluded.

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