The book is beautifully packaged: a striking stylized witch doctor in silhouette on a patterned Arabic-come-Regency background, and the hardback binding is just lovely; Parthian should be commended on the care they give to their fiction.
The title story, ‘The Witch Doctor of Umm Seqiem’ is a strange choice of opener: overlong and predictable, it offers little other than the sometimes beautiful descriptions of Dubai as a fascinating setting for the volume.
Its successor in the volume, ‘The Sound Between’, couldn’t be further from its predecessor.It’s a delightful vignette reflecting on an unearthly moment when a power-cut interrupts a flagrant, excessive party, leaving the half-sung, half-spoken call to prayer from a nearby mosque hanging in the air, causing the narrator to picture the expensive contradictions of Dubai.And it’s here, where Hawes recounts the conflict between the wealth and its consequent westernisation and the traditional remnants of a much stricter society, where the book really begins.
These moments of conflict are the genuinely interesting contexts of many of the stories.‘Zeina’, the next in the volume, is resplendent with the forbidden desire for an Emirati woman the narrator, a journalist like Hawes, will never be able to know intimately.‘Aim High Olungapo’ really illustrates Craig Hawes’ strength as a master of voices, the Filipino maid narrator longing for her daughter she left behind in the Philippines is a masterly treatment of high hopes dashed by cultural contrasts reinventing for a very sad modern context the age old narrative of the master and his servant:
What kind of mother am I, I ask myself, who must demonstrate her love through wires and plastic from the other side of the world?
At its best, The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim explores the hidden pockets of the city, views the world through the surprising lenses of the disenfranchised and the rich alike, highlights the contrasts of a complex, fascinating and changing society.Islam and Western consumerism, rich and poor, male and female, unthinking expats and characters who want something deeper from the expat experience of Dubai; Craig Hawes delves into these contexts with a refreshing understanding of the complexities he’s writing about.And its when these ideas are most central to the story that his writing really sings.
And of course its a hymn to the city, too, the all-encompassing expanses and minute details all wrapped up in a cacophony of disparate voices, each beautiful in their uniqueness, each beautiful in their transcendence of the context. Craig Hawes knows Dubai thoroughly, and Dubai is the ever-present force working behind each of these stories.
At its heart, The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim portrays a city in transit, always transforming, always reinventing itself, a city where bigotry and modernism live next door, unknowingly influencing each other.These stories are an apt tribute to the process and well worth a place on your bookshelf.