By Sabin Iqbal
An apt description of the novel Shamal Days by Sabin Iqbal could be ‘the lament of a middle-aged expatriate in the Middle East.’
Set against the backdrop of the Arabian Gulf of the 1990s, Shamal — the word refers to the hot, dry wind that blows in summer, causing sandstorms — Days is the story of a very unhappy Indian Muslim journalist settled in an unspecified Gulf state, who regrets just about everything about his life.
The story begins with our protagonist, Abbas, working as the news editor of an English-language newspaper. Unfortunately, there is no prestige or glamour surrounding either him or his rank — a position usually coveted by all newspersons. Instead, we meet a lonely, conflicted, misanthropist bachelor who sees his life as worthless and wasted.
As to why Abbas has reached this state of mental anguish is revealed gradually, when bits and pieces of his life are shared by the author at odd intervals and oftentimes in a disconnected narrative.
An expatriate Indian Muslim journalist suffers through his life in the Middle East in this novel with only the author’s random diatribes offering some relief
Sabin Iqbal, the author of Shamal Days, is himself an established journalist based in Bengaluru, India. His previous book, The Cliffhangers, published in early 2020, was critically acclaimed for its descriptive insights into current affairs in the state and many towns of Kerala, which were probably gathered from his own journalistic experiences.
Shamal Days, too, remains very much a descriptive tale of the events shaping Middle Eastern politics, starting from the independence of the United Arab Emirates from Great Britain in December 1971, to its oil-rich era, and ending at Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s death in 2006, just a few years before the ignition of the Arab Spring in 2010.
The omission of naming an actual city or town is the author’s obvious allusion to the idea that this is the story of all immigrants who relocated in hordes to the Gulf beginning from the ’70s, searching for the pot of gold they were convinced would be theirs in the new, oil-rich terrain. However, what commonly followed these economic migrants were days of servitude under strict Arab laws and even stricter masters.
Abbas’s tale, though, is not nearly as sordid as those of the average ‘Dubai chalo’ [Let’s go to Dubai] kind of expatriate. His rise in the newsroom from a proofreader to eventually editor could have been a more cheerful tale of overcoming the odds in a near-dystopic backdrop of Middle Eastern sheikhdoms and dictatorships. Instead, the writer pens the story in the most melancholic tones where each description — be it of a café, an ethnic identity, or a romance — has an overarching aspect of gloom, with the reader constantly fearing a dark drop towards abject misery.
As Abbas’s personal saga unfolds in between long digressions with side stories and random, fleeting characters, it gradually surfaces that Abbas indeed has much to regret. At the same time, it can also be said that he seems to be the architect of his own adversities and events could have been turned around with more hope, instead of being twisted into wretched misfortunes.
Many lesser-educated and lower-income expatriate labourers have lived in actual substandard, inhumane conditions in these Gulf states, just to keep their families afloat back home.
Our hero Abbas, however, continues to brood over bad or unsuccessful romantic involvements and naïve business decisions, even though he gets out of the tricky predicaments quite propitiously.
While the hero’s despondency quite mars the readability of the book, what is impressive in the author’s narrative style is the crisp and pertinent descriptions he gives in each of his random diatribes. Be it about the eclectic mix of the newsroom crowd, the suicide bombings of the Taliban and terror on the streets of Palestine, or the lusting tendencies of men for all women — whether covered in a long black abaya [cloak] or clad in jeans — Iqbal’s well-written eloquence is much in the style of writing established by his compatriot Arundathi Roy.
My favourite description was on proofreaders, emphasised more so since Abbas’s tale begins in the newsroom of the Gulf Mirror in the 1990s as a proofreader. At the time, proofreaders of hardcopy still existed as a distinct first line of defence after the story was filed by the reporter and before the editor finally put the paper to bed:
“Abbas had many reasons to hate a proofreader’s job.
“A. Proofreaders were lonely, brooding men.
“Like retired bureaucrats fishing during geriatric afternoons, they went about their business patiently and without imagination, sulking and clicking with no room for creative thinking...
“B. Proofreaders were like line referees.
“They couldn’t enjoy the game but couldn’t afford to miss a single hit either. They could only watch the line in front of them without batting an eyelid, hunching awkwardly for hours…
“C. Proofreaders were not destined to show any brilliance or express their excitement.
“They lived on the sidelines of news — not making any or breaking any…”
Many of Iqbal’s descriptions have this sharp and evocative pattern, compelling the reader to turn the pages even if the plotline is dismal and almost makes one ache at having to read on.
Beginning in December 2003, when Saddam Hussein’s imminent capture is the lead story Abbas is dealing with as a news editor, the narrative takes a reverse arc, pulling us along without any particular sequence through the Gulf War of 1990, the two intifadas [civil uprisings] in Gaza in 1987 and 2000, the events of 9/11 and many other bits and pieces regarding the Gulf sheikhs and their pompous shenanigans. It then comes back to end at Operation Red Dawn — the American military mission to capture Hussein — where the protagonist also seems to have come full circle after aimless wandering.
What happens — or does not happen — in the end, is for the reader to discover if a pithy chronicling of the underbelly of immigrant life in the Gulf States is where your reading preference takes you.
The reviewer is a former member of staff and a writer/columnist covering social and geopolitical issues in Karachi and Toronto. She can be reached at email@example.com
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 27th, 2022