In her debut article as an Aquila Style columnist, Ameera Al Hakawati, author of Desperate in Dubai, takes us through her journey from an anonymous blogger to a published author who has dominated the UAE bestsellers lists for over a year.
I’ve always wanted to write a book. Ever since I could string a sentence together on a piece of paper (usually wallpaper), I’ve written stories. I even studied creative writing at university, convinced that I would one day write the book that would change the world – or at the very least, someone’s world.
As I grew older and my university days faded away, I sat behind a computer at a publishing house and I thought to myself: ‘This is it. This is as good as it gets. I write for a leading regional magazine. I actually get paid to write. So what if I’ve never written a proper book? At least I’m writing. At least I’m enjoying what I do. At least I have a career that means something.’
It was enough for a while, but the more time I spent in Dubai and the more fascinating women I met on a daily basis, the more I realised that ignoring these stories would be almost sacrilegious.
Desperate in Dubai, my ode to Dubai and the diverse women who live here, began as a blog, and a simple one at that. My HTML skills were crappy, but I knew a little about Blogger so I set up a page and started to write. I had four main characters in my mind (based on people I met/knew) as well as a vague idea of what their stories would be about. That was it.
Living in a country where censorship was still the norm, I also knew I had to be careful when writing about UAE culture
Uploading that first chapter onto my blog was nerve-wracking. I was about to allow strangers to read something that was previously private – my words. Okay, I’d been writing for a magazine, but that was different – it was based on pure, hard facts. This was fiction (albeit based on real events). It was about my creativity, my imagination, and my ability to tell a story, create characters, and make my readers feel something, anything.
I didn’t really expect anyone to read the blog. How would they even know about it? This was pre-Twitter after all, way back in 2009.
I decided to stay anonymous, primarily because I thought it would be liberating. As a Muslim woman, I was certain I’d receive criticism for some of the more controversial topics I was planning to explore. I didn’t want to be hindered by fear, limited by cultural norms. I wanted to write without worrying what my family or friends would think. Living in a country where censorship was still the norm, I also knew I had to be careful when writing about UAE culture. My decision to preserve my anonymity turned out to be a wise move as the blog was blocked by one of the telecoms providers for a while. I’d clearly ruffled someone’s guttra!
People started reading my blog. Not only did they like it, they wanted more. Every day I received emails from readers wanting to know what would happen next. I created a Facebook page. I started promoting my book on blogging/writing/cultural forums to get more readers, and the more readers my work got, the more inspired I was to continue writing. Even if I’d wanted to stop, I couldn’t. I felt as though I had some sort of moral obligation to continue.
About six months after starting the blog, I got an email from a woman who claimed to be a commissioning editor at Random House. A friend of hers followed the blog and recommended that she read it. For a second, my heart stopped. Then, as blood began pumping around my body again, I convinced myself that someone was playing a cruel practical joke on me.
By some bizarre miracle – perhaps the planets were aligned; perhaps it was a combination of good fortune and good timing; perhaps God was looking down on me favourably – the email was real. The editor was real. And she wanted to turn my blog into a book. A real book, with a cover, a blurb, pages, a sentimental dedication, everything.
Of course, nothing in life happens smoothly without a glitch, does it? It took me a year to write half the book and now suddenly I was expected to finish and edit it in less than six months. How was I supposed to do that when I had a full time job, not to mention a brand new husband? I tried to write in my free time but my brain was fried after each intense day at work. Every week that passed was another week wasted. I could almost feel my lifelong dream slipping out of my fingers.
The deadline hung over my head like the blade of a guillotine
That’s when I made the decision to quit my job. I knew I would never forgive myself if I let this opportunity pass. I then spent the next two months writing full time in-between devouring episodes of the Vampire Diaries. I wrote, slept, wrote more, edited, changed plot lines, cut characters. I felt as though I had too little time and I was scared I was rushing it but I had no choice but to churn out the words. I was contractually obligated to finish the book on time. The deadline hung over my head like the blade of a guillotine.
With the help of my husband and friends, I finally did it. I handed it in: 500 pages of life, love, friendship, family, religion, guilt, culture, dishonour and – of course – fashion.
The day it was released was bittersweet: sweet for obvious reasons, but bitter because my real name wasn’t on the book cover. There was no book launch, no signing events, no tours, no TV interviews. Very few people knew I had written it, and those who did gave me the few words of praise I got. Of course, I knew what I had achieved and I was more proud of myself than I had ever been.
Before I had the chance to absorb the fact that I was officially a published author, Desperate in Dubai was removed from the shelves by the UAE Ministry of Something (the censorship guys). The deep disappointment of all that hard work, those sleepless nights and quitting my job all having gone to waste was mind-numbingly painful. The worst part was, no one knew why, or how to sort it out.
By the Grace of God, the ban was lifted after a few days. I still don’t know how. The book rocketed to number 1 on the UAE bestsellers list, where it remained for months and months, before being temporarily overtaken by 50 Shades. It now hops around the top 5, switching between the first, second and third spots depending on what happens to be the flavour of the month.
It’s been a year and a half since Desperate in Dubai hit the shelves. I know it seems as if it all came easily to me, and maybe some of it did. When I look back at my journey though, I realise that it actually took years and years of effort. I’ve been writing stories since I was a child; my career was all about writing (I even did a degree in it); I read an absurd number of books. I took the time and effort to create a blog and think of a story and characters, and I spent hours crafting each word.
There was something else that helped, though: the Internet. You no longer need to go down the traditional route to publish your work. You don’t really need to hound publishers and agents with copies of your manuscript. All you need is a passion for writing, a good story, interesting characters and a computer.