A month of reading on the Dubai Metro

September 11th

It’s a day of coincidences. I’m leaving work when the elevator doors opposite open and a pretty brunette comes out in crutches. Not so long ago, I was that person with an ankle brace and crutches at work. An ankle fracture, I ask. I don’t often talk to people I don’t know, but over the last few months, as I went from immobile to hopping on two crutches, to one crutch and finally limping around unsupported, it dawned on me that ankle fractures aren’t that common and that no one around me knew anything about dealing with one. I really wished then that there was someone I could talk to, who had been through something similar.

In the Metro, I open The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami to page 76. I quickly lose myself in sixteenth century America. After a while, I notice a young girl in a pretty navy dress. She’s reading, which is not that common a sight. A few stations later, she sits down. She’s facing me, and I can see her from the gap between the seats in front of me. She holds up her book, and I gasp. It’s The Moor’s Account.

The friend who lent me this book has quite unusual tastes, and usually suggests books I wouldn’t come across in the ordinary course of things, so I’m really intrigued to see this girl reading it. I instantly feel compelled to take out my phone and write about this coincidence. As we head out of the train, I catch the girl’s attention and we compare notes. For the second time today, I’ve spoken to a stranger. I’m so pleased by this experience that I decide to chronicle it. Then it strikes me, why not chronicle other readers and books in the Metro over the course of, say, a month? I feel confident I’ll have enough material. It seems like there have been more readers on the Metro over the past year than before, and besides, I’d just spotted one yesterday. I decide I’ll start my chronicle from the day before, and go all the way up to October 10th.

September 10th

Rewind to the previous day, when I sat down opposite a man with beard, reading The President is Missing by President Bill Clinton and James Patterson. I’d never heard of it but having just read a James Patterson book a few months ago, I was pretty sure I knew what to expect. It’s a pass for me.

September 24th

Just when I’m wondering if this idea has any legs, a woman from Islamabad strikes up a conversation with me. I’ve moved on to War and Peace, my project for the year, and she says she read it in 1996.

I ask her what she’s been reading lately. She replies that she doesn’t read anymore except for work, which is something finance-related. The last book she read was Family Matters. Rohinton Mistry? She shrugs and says she doesn’t remember the author, but that he was Indian. Then, she narrows her eyes and gives me a little lecture on being focused and avoiding distraction (I assume she means that my reading fiction is a distraction, and it is of course, and thankfully so).

I mentally note her beautifully applied eyeliner and thick coats of mascara, as well as her rapid style of talking as she flits from subject to subject. She recommends Dostoevsky to me, though she considers it “depressing”. And Anna Karenina which again is, “depressing”. I’ve read both, but I don’t say so, as I fear another lecture.

September 30th

I don’t have my book today, so I decide to reply to a friend’s email. If I’d found a place to sit, I’d be asleep. A man my age with greying hair stands before me, reading. He’s standing just far enough that I can’t read the print. I just about make out ‘Foreword’, and I’m mildly impressed that he hasn’t skipped it. I catch the words “philosophy per se” and think it’s perhaps self-help, which is usually the most common genre on the Metro. Then he shifts his book so that the cover is backlit and I can read Murakami in reverse. I’m pleased. But which one? It’s too slim to be Kafka on the Shore, The Windup Bird Chronicles, IQ84 or Norwegian Wood, which are the titles I remember at that moment. I can’t remember the name of the slender one I’ve read, so I resolve to google it, and all the others I haven’t read. After 10 minutes, I give up my attempts to see the title.

At some point I lose track of Murakami-fan-san (as I’m calling him in my head) but then notice a tall, sharply dressed European chap engrossed in a thickish volume, right across the train from me. I consider moving closer to him to see the title but just then, I finally get a place to sit and that is that. I spend some time thinking of the rarity of not one, but two men reading.

When I exit four stations later, he’s still reading and it’s the most recent Dan Brown. Judging by the look on his face, he’s really into it.

October 2nd

To the young Indian girl in the orange top, sorry for the creepy behavior I’m about to relate. I spot her as soon as I enter the train, leaning against the Metro door, engrossed. She’s halfway through her book and I’m slightly envious as all my reading still hasn’t made a dent in War and Peace.

As always, I’m too far away (or too nearsighted) to read the title. For some reason I feel that the book is not in English. I resolve to inch closer to her under the pretext of queuing up to exit. Thanks to some nimble footwork I end up right behind her and tail her doggedly as we change trains, like a creep at the cinema or a private detective, depending on your point of view. But no matter how much I squint, I can’t read the book that she’s now swinging as she walks. It is in English though. Finally, I catch the words Correa, then Lucas Correa, Golden Girl or perhaps German Girl. I have no data so I’ll have to wait till I’m at work to google.

I look it up later and the book is German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa, and it sounds really interesting. It moves from war torn Germany to Havana and then New York. I had not thought of the Metro as source for book recommendations, but it is turning out be quite effective in that respect.

October 4th

My book encounter in the morning is brief. I glimpse The Eight by Katherine Neville while waiting for the tram. Goodreads tells me that it is a historical whodunnit. Damn, Metro folk, you impress me!

The same evening, I’m on the green line train, a few stops away from home. I look at this girl because her outfit’s so chic and then do a double take because she’s reading. Having spotted someone reading in the morning, I haven’t bothered to survey the crowd in the evening. Then follows the now-familiar routine of straining to read the title. The font is large and I make out This is… She’s even holding it up and not obscuring the cover. I do think, briefly, that I should be reading my book instead of trying to see what she’s reading. However, Tolstoy has Pierre joining the Freemasons right now and I’m a bit uninterested. I move closer eventually and read: This is not Your Story. I think to myself, all book covers should feature such large titles. It’s by a Savi Sharma and Goodreads files it under ‘Indian Urban Novel’, a genre that has its share of duds. Now, I’m secretly hoping this is the last book I see, as this piece is getting very long.

October 7th

Nope, I spot another book. After the dry spell at the start, it’s positively raining literature now. The title du jour is that old favourite of the aspiring marketing professional, Freakonomics. The aspiring marketing professional in this case is a girl in her twenties. I’m still at page 350 or so with Tolstoy, and I despair of making progress just as much as Princess Mary despairs of her father ever believing in God.

October 8th

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Now we’re talking! I’ve long believed that the average DXB reader is mostly into motivational books. This sweeping conclusion is based on minimal empirical evidence from the Metro, but since I started this exercise my theory has been given the lie. Right now, I’m in a special bus on my way to Ibn Battuta mall for a store visit. I admire people who can read in the bus, like the blonde before me, and secretly wish her much enlightenment and ability-to-deal-with-life-ness.

October 10th

It’s the last day of my book experiment, which has proven to be more prolific than I imagined. The Metro ride itself is uneventful but there she is in the connecting tram, a woman in her twenties, her book held aloft with its arresting black and white cover and red font. I inch closer (I’m blasé about this now). The book is Millennium 5 by David Lagercrantz. In French. I know this is the much talked about continuation of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander books. I’ve found the original three not especially well-written but extremely enjoyable all the same. I resolve to give the sequels a whirl sometime.

It’s been a fun and illuminating ride this past month. When I started out, I expected to see a few books at the most, and I would’ve bet they’d be motivational stuff or pulp fiction. While not entirely wrong (hello, Dan Brown), I’m pleasantly surprised at the depth and amount of reading I’ve spotted. As for me, I’ve made good progress on War and Peace, reaching page 481 of my 958-page edition, with its tiny print.

ELF’s Festival in a Day: Of Jackson Brodie, Dolphins and Medusa

Last Saturday, I attended a special screening of sessions from the Cheltenham Literature Festival at Novo Cinemas in the Festival City Mall. When I first saw the notification on the Emirates Literature Foundation’s Instagram, I thought for a minute that Kate Atkinson, David Attenborough and Mary Beard were going to be in Dubai. Then sanity prevailed, and I read the finer print.

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That these three amazing personalities were not present in the flesh did not in any way detract from the quality of the event. This, as Ahlam Bolooki, Festival Director, Emirates Lit Fest mentioned, is meant to be the first of many such screenings from Lit Fests around the world. (The Emirates Literature Foundation organizes the Emirates Lit Fest every year in March). I’ve also been fortunate to attend intimate, salon-like sessions in their heritage headquarters in Fahidi, featuring Tim Mackintosh Smith and a young art student, Rawa Talass, in the past.

Right outside the theatre, Magrudy’s bookstore had a little stall featuring works from all the speakers. I picked up the new Kate Atkinson, Transcription, as well as two of Mary Beard’s works on the classics and Rome.

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The Magrudy’s stall at the Festival 

All the sessions were transmitted live from Cheltenham, with 45-minute breaks in between. The clarity of the transmission was top notch, and the presence of erudite moderators enhanced the experience. In each session, there was a shoutout and wave to Dubai, as well as a question (vetted in advance) from the Dubai audience.

Kate Atkinson

Atkinson started off by reading a humorous passage from Transcription and then answered questions posed by the interviewer, Sam Baker. The book is set in 1940, in war time Britain, and the protagonist is a secretary in MI5. It is based on true events, on a long running operation by the MI5 to identify British fascists and Nazi sympathizers. (I immediately thought of Diana Mitford and Oswald Mosely).

But the conversation was wider ranging than that.  Atkinson spoke a little about Life After Life and A God in Ruins, as well as her Jackson Brodie series of crime novels (yes, there’s a new one coming out soon!). She touched on the rather strange and patronizing New Yorker review of Transcription, which while mostly complimentary, contrasted her with Rachel Cusk (who’s highly acclaimed novel Outline, I found unreadable) and called her a matron, which she thought was “not just sexist, but ageist”. In response to Sam Baker’s observation that she’s one of the few authors who’s both popular and critically acclaimed, she said she is bewildered that her work is labelled as ‘women’s writing’ or ‘family stories’. The latter, I can personally attest, is complete nonsense, no less ridiculous than if Evelyn Waugh were to be accused of doing the same.

On being pressed, Kate spoke a little about her “process”. I was reassured that she finds the whole writing and artistic inspiration business mysterious. Unlike other author lists of definitive dos and don’ts, her tips felt quite nebulous. She likes to start with an interesting title, going so far as to fit her ideas around it. She generally has a beginning and an end in mind and then sort of works out the middle.  While she always has one or two story ideas bubbling beneath the surface, she likes to let them marinate (her word) for a bit before she starts writing. The longer her ideas marinate, the better the story is likely to be.

David Attenborough

This was without a shadow of doubt, the main draw of the day. In fact, though the ticket covered all three sessions, many people chose to attend only this one.

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Sir David was interviewed by Emma Freud, great-granddaughter of Sigmund and niece of Lucian, the artist. (She’s also Richard Curtis’ wife but clearly an accomplished woman in her own right).

Ms. Freud had the famed naturalist, who was there to promote an updated edition of his book Life on Earth, reminisce about his early days in the BBC, which were also the early days of the BBC itself. Initially, he said, programmes were broadcast rather than recorded because the Beeb didn’t have funds for film. When he went on to become programme director for BBC 2, he, and other likeminded individuals, commissioned a wide variety of programmes to cover a broad range of interests, even niche ones. He contrasted that with today’s ratings-and-revenue mentality.

As always Sir David came across as humble and funny, even more so than on his Graham Norton appearances. He agreed with Emma Freud that people probably adore him because they project their feelings about the natural world on to him.

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Full house for Sir David’s session

There were many observations of interest. He mused on how all the advancements in technology that allowed him to shoot increasingly sophisticated shows were made possible by military research – night vision, heat sensitive imaging and drones to name a few. He also said how in spite of all his achievements, he still feels like an imposter, as he’s not scientist or a researcher making new discoveries in the natural world, but “merely” a creator of documentaries.

Answering an audience question, Sir David said he thought animals in Africa were the most endangered, largely because of population growth and the resulting encroachment into animal habitats. In response to another question, he said he would most like to converse with Dolphins, who he said were highly intelligent and socialized.

Much was also made of how he’s seen more of the earth than any person alive today.

Mary Beard

This was the session I was the most excited about, having watched Professor Beard’s Rome documentaries, and read her LRB pieces. Her book Women and Power is an expansion of those two articles, Women in Power: From Medusa to Merkel and The Public Voice of Women. In these lectures, as in her book and her session on Saturday, Beard draws on her extensive knowledge of antiquity, particularly the treatment of women down the ages. Much of what is below is covered in those pieces but it’s worth repeating. Examples of misogyny she mentioned from literature include:

  • Telemachus shutting Penelope down because “speech is for men”
  • The Medusa story and how it’s all about a strong woman (ergo, a troublemaker) needing to be shut down (decapitated) by a male (Perseus). She tied this to the horrible imagery from Trump supporters that superimposed Hilary’s face on that of Medusa and Trump’s on Perseus, printing it on mugs, tees and more. She said more than anything else, she objected to the normalization and “domestication” of such imagery, as though it was something mundane and so, somehow ok.
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland, in which women found and run a country entirely without men, one which is utopian in how peaceful and progressive it is. The women still believe however, that they’re doing a bad job and that the men would do a better job of it.

Professor Beard, who is active on Twitter, and is famously known for engaging her trolls, also spoke about #metoo. She believed the real test of the movement’s effectiveness should be measured in how it changes the lives of ordinary woman, especially 10 years down the line. In her words (loosely paraphrased) it should make a difference to “the woman being pushed up against the wall next to the copy machine”. The question from the Dubai audience asked about her views on the power of women and feminism  in the Arab world, and she took the time to answer it with grace and thoughtfulness, saying that Westerners often think that Western liberal feminism is the only template for a woman to navigate the world successfully. She also spoke about the veil and her words showed a deep understanding of cultural nuances.

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Excited to get started on these!

There was some fun between sessions, once when someone from the audience decided to play ‘bad lip reading’ with two Cheltenham audience members, and another time when the mic was accidentally left on at Cheltenham and we were treated to a blow by blow account of someone’s cat giving birth. After the David Attenborough session, a mic was passed around amongst the Dubai audience. One woman said “He’s the most inspiring person I have ever seen, and I am 83″, upon which a collective gasp ran through the audience.

The entire evening, dubbed Festival in a Day, was reasonably priced at AED 120 and tickets were available on platinumlist.com.