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Maha Gargash: The Sand Fish

Noora lives in the hills, one of the last of a tribe, Al-Salmi, that has almost died out. The tribe had run out of water and gone off searching for more. They had found a well belonging to another tribe and, contrary to custom, had helped themselves to the water, without asking permission. The tribe that owned the water not only killed the perpetrators but came to the Al-Salmi village. Those that did not run away (never to return) were killed. Only Noora’s family survived as their dwelling was remote. Noora’s mother has died and her father is slowly going insane, leaving only her and her brother, Sager. Sager is becoming a young man and sees his responsibilities to marry off his sister. But Noora is wild and loves running barefoot round the hills with her brother. When she is spending time at a nearby village, being groomed to become a wife and doing the sewing for the village, a skill she learned from her mother, she meets a young man, Rashid, who shows her a hidden lake in the mountains. They meet regularly there but he is engaged to another woman and, in order not to go against the wishes of his widowed mother, he does marry her, leaving Noora heartbroken.

On her return home, a husband has been found for Noora. She will be his third wife, the first two having produced no children. Her job, of course, is to have a baby. Her future husband – Jassem – is a well-to-do merchant who makes some of his money by having divers dive for pearls. However, it is getting more and more difficult to find the pearls and he is increasingly pushing the divers to go deeper and stay down longer with obvious negative effects on their health. Meanwhile Noora is taken to his house, which she finds more comfortable than her own and meets the previous two wives, Lateefa, old enough to be her mother and who looks after Noora, not least because she wants her husband to be happy, and Shamsa, just three years older than Noora and the daughter of a rich merchant. Shamsa is bitterly jealous of Noora and makes her life difficult. After a short introductory period, Noora is visited every night by Jassem and soon finds she quite likes him, not least because he teaches her reading and writing as well as having sex with her. But no child is forthcoming.

Jassem has an assistant, Hamad, whom Noora notices but soon she gets to know him. She helps him by sewing a garment for his diving and soon she is bravely talking to him more frequently. She also even leaves the house with the slave girl, Yaqoota, to explore. When the women are moved away from the town in the hot season, Lateefa seems to engineer excuses for Shamsa and Hamad to go back to fetch missing items. When Noora finally gets pregnant, everyone is happy, but whose baby is it? Of course, this is a feminist book, in that Noora is a free spirit who is subject to the rule of men who are acting in their interest and not hers. Clearly, Gargash is saying, it should be she who should be allowed to choose who to love, not the other men in her life, whether her younger brother or the tribal elders. And, ultimately, it is Noora who makes the choice, though not necessarily the way we might have expected.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by HarperCollins