‘The world would be such a better place if we all nurtured our empathy, instead of killing it,’ Noura Al Noman says. Her sincerity is palpable through the phone.
Which is exactly why Noura, who claims the title of the UAE’s first published science-fiction author, bestowed her titular 19-year-old heroine Ajwan with the superpower of empathy.
Why would the telekinetic princess of an evolved underwater race called the Haviki (based on TV series Man of Atlantis), who trains to become a killing machine need empathy?
Like all good dystopian science fiction – think The Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games and 1984 – Noura’s imagined world examines the beauty of being human.
Noura makes no bones about dealing in the cold hard facts and technology but her ability to put herself into the shoes of her millennial readership (15-19 years) is what won the 51-year-old author’s debut Arabic-language novel, Ajwan (2012), the 2013 Etisalat Children Literature Award for Best Young Adult Novel.
That award-winning outing was followed by sequels Mandan in 2014 and Saydonia in 2016 (all pictured right), which received favourable reviews from both critics, and readers who tweet their adulation for the book and shower it with three- and four-star ratings on Goodreads.
‘I personally think it deserves three stars,’ says the self-effacing author.
Set in a futuristic, technologically advanced intergalactic world, the bildungsromans follow Ajwan as she deals with the destruction of her planet, elimination of her race, and her new-found identity as a refugee and pregnant widow.
Books two and three chart her eventual transformation into a trained assassin as she hunts for her abducted baby and battles the antagonist Al Tariq, an intergalactic terrorist who preys upon the minds of the disenfranchised and marginalised youth, promising them rewards in return for stealing, killing, destroying and blowing themselves up.
It was the author’s conscious decision to craft a no-holds-barred plot imitating the devastation and brutality of the Middle East’s turbulent socio-politics. ‘Issues of war, refugee conflict [and] marginalisation keep Arab youngsters’ parents up late watching the news but mean absolutely nothing to youth in countries [such as the UAE] that are safe. These are complicated issues that need to be explained to them.
‘Plus, science is a democratising element that requires you to make decisions based on fact… in this region [the Middle East] what causes all this conflict is we don’t rely on facts, we rely only on emotions.’
If Ajwan’s quest across planets sounds exhausting, her creator Noura’s was no less daunting. As if juggling a demanding 8-5 job as the director of Shaikha Jawaher Bint Mohammad Al Qasimi’s Executive Office in Sharjah and being a mum to six children wasn’t difficult enough, Noura decided to complicate the delicate dance of her daily routine by adding ‘write a book’ to her to-do list.
‘I would be lying if I said I managed it all. If you want to write, you have to consider it like a job and allocate a time, a place and a number of words to achieve in a day; a couple of hours mean nothing; it has to be something measurable. That’s the only way to finish a manuscript.’
She enlisted friends and family to be her checks by creating the 800-word club, a message group where her friends would enquire of her progress daily.
Her husband took motivation a few feet higher and stuck an A4 paper reading, ‘I will write 800 words’ on the ceiling above her bed, so she’d see the affirmation the minute she opened her eyes in the morning.
‘We all think that writing is about being in the mood, but it isn’t. Writer’s block doesn’t exist, it’s just being lazy and procrastinating,’ she says emphatically.
Although writing and reading have always been a way of life for the author who often saw her parents reading and grew up in her maternal grandfather Ebrahim Al Midfa’s library – ‘it was one of the largest in Sharjah and he was a poet, started the country’s first newspaper in 1927 and he was secretary to four rulers of Sharjah’ – Noura put off writing until the age of 45 because she thought she was no good. ‘I used to write editorials and reviews of movies for Arab magazines but I never thought of writing fiction. Writing is always scary and there’s a lot of self-doubt but you’ve got to silence that negative voice in your head’
With writer’s block wrestled into submission, Noura’s writing process had to wage the additional battle of writing in Arabic for the first time. Training in English literature and translation meant she hadn’t read Arabic fiction for three decades and her only written work in Arabic had been two children’s picture books – Kotton the Kitten and Kiwi the Hedgehog.
‘Arabic is my mother tongue but I felt like I was writing in a second language; I was thinking in English, that’s why the first 30 pages of Ajwan are stilted and read like a translation. The reason I chose to write an entire novel in Arabic is because my private-schooled children, like most Emirati kids these days, grew up loving and learning English but didn’t like reading in Arabic.’
And when she couldn’t find books that were actually categorised as Young Adult (YA) fiction in Arabic, she decided to yield to her husband’s decade-long entreaty and write a book.
(After ensuring that all six of her kids read Ajwan in Arabic, Noura translated the novel into English, and is now waiting for the manuscript to be picked by a publisher.)
It didn’t help that she chose sci-fi, a genre that had very little frame of reference and existing content to borrow from. ‘I had to make it up as I went along or adopt what I knew from the Anglo-American literature into Arabic. My frame of reference was usually the subtitles of science-fiction movies but at sometimes I’d coin new words such as the Arabic diminutive for anti-gravitational bikes – migrajah, from darajah mignateesya.’
There was no doubt science-fiction would be the certified geek’s choice of genre despite the hardship of writing in Arabic. ‘It’s always been science fiction and fantasy,’ says the author, who grew up on a staple diet of Asterix and Obelix comics, Arabic translations of the Superman, Flash and Batman comics, and English novels such as the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey and Dune by Frank Herbert – two books she credits as huge influences.
The extent of Noura’s geekiness is revealed when she fires away on all cylinders about watching Dr. Who during summers in London before trailing off into off-tangent Star Wars trivia. ‘Did you know surround sound in theatres was invented for Star Wars – it was called THX at the time... sorry! It’s irrelevant!’ she says.
‘Also, Star Wars was a swashbuckling space adventure which introduced us to a princess who is more than capable of saving herself!’ Sounds like Noura discovered the prototype for Ajwan way back in 1977.
However, Noura’s progressive worldview isn’t one all Arab publishers share.
‘The publishing house that published my first two children’s books said Ajwan sounded like it’s for 18 plus and I told them they have no idea what young adults read these days.’
‘Even Ajwan’s publishers, Nahdet Misr [publishers of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings books in Arabic] had an internal debate about whether the book is for 18-year-olds or 15-year-olds. When it came to critical issues and conflicts I didn’t tone [my writing] down – you need to respect young readers’ minds for them to respect your writing.’
The onus of creating change in the quality and volume of Arabic science-fiction depends on the bravery of the publishers, Noura says; ‘they are the gatekeepers.’
To overcome the hurdles that stand in the way of Arabic science-fiction and fantasy, Noura launched her own publishing house, Manuscript 5229. ‘If you look for [Arabic] science-fiction books from the 1960s until now you won’t find many. So how do you create science-fiction writers, both male and female, when there is no science-fiction content in the language that they have chosen to write in?’ It’s one of the issues she will discuss in her talk today at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (6pm; tickets Dh75).
She’s also creating content for an upcoming generation of sci-fi readers by translating classics such as Dune. ‘It’s been 52 years, yet this book, filled with references to Arab and Muslim culture, has never been translated into Arabic.’
Noura bagged the prestigious project on the recommendation of renowned sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster (who has written novelisations of Star Wars and Star Trek and is the author of Flinx series), who is a beloved friend and pen-pal of Noura’s. They were constantly in touch in the 1980s through snail-mail when she wrote to his publishers seeking permission to translate a few of his short stories into Arabic. Eventually motherhood and her job got in the way and they stopped communicating until the two had a serendipitous reunion in London and now regularly communicate on email.
‘I met Alan Dean Foster at a book signing at the Forbidden Planet bookshop in London with my son Saoud. When it was my turn, I asked, ‘Mr Foster, do you remember a girl you’d write to in Sharjah named Noura?’ He gaped at me and said ‘where have you been?!’
For now, Noura plans to go nowhere but milk the UAE’s literary renaissance.
‘There’s a saying in the publishing world, “books used to be written in Egypt, printed in Lebanon and read in Iraq.” Unfortunately, Lebanon and Iraq no longer contribute. But the UAE’s literature has a golden opportunity to shape youth that is a global citizen with our happiness, our tolerance, our diversity and celebration of humanitarian works.
‘I believe books are our saviours and they are what will save us from all of these conflicts.’