Minutes from the Miracle City

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 02 Sep 2019

Member Reviews

This is from a terrific collection of works by this publisher that promotes new authors and gives opportunities to be published.
The heart of this story is Dubai and it has a cosmopolitan feel as it spins and turns around this emerging success, a miracle city of wealth and potential. 
Like a well cut movie. The story follows a number of diverse characters from different backgrounds going about their lives on the eve of Eid.
I really liked the sense of interconnection between all our lives as these various characters brush alongside and briefly meet in this short story.
I liked especially the common themes each held for their loved ones and in their own ambition.
Above all I enjoyed the quality of writing that lifted the piece into a wonderful readable story. It elevates the success of Dubai and is an ideal setting for this well grafted account of ordinary lives.
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This is the third novella in the Fairlight Moderns set from Fairlight Books that I've read, and this one is more of a vignette of the city of Dubai - the mix of people living there, the contrasts, the connections. I would have read a much longer novel!

Interestingly I talked to a student last night who took my storytelling class, and she is applying for an internship in Dubai. Since I had read this book I could talk about it more accurately than I would have been able to otherwise.
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More often than not, most of the novels I come across that are set in Dubai tend to be heavy in subject matter, Minutes from the Miracle City certainly caught me by surprise in sweet in tone it was.  Sabbagh, I felt found a decent balance between the fast pace and substantial enough characterisation for the book's length.   

Would definitely read another of Sabbagh's works on the back of this.

With thanks to Netgalley and Fairlight for the ARC.
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This short novel of Dubai is another excellent addition to the “Fairlight Moderns” series. Short it may be, but it packs a lot into its few pages, a whole small world in fact. It chronicles daily life for a diverse group of characters managing as best they can in this bustling city. We see everything through their eyes, one by one, thus gaining a panoramic view of life in Dubai. These are “ordinary” people and they are described with empathy and insight. Some of their stories intersect, emphasising the randomness of encounters in this most random of places, and I found the book absorbing and very enjoyable indeed.
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This short book follows four non-Indian characters living or traveling through Dubai. It's a fast-moving depiction of an international city which is as rife with economic and social tensions as it is rich with possibilities.
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Last year, I read my first novel published by Fairlight Moderns (Bottled Goods by Sophie Van Llewyn) and absolutely bloody loved it so I was really excited to find that there were a new batch available on NetGalley – woop!

Set during Ramadan in Dubai, Minutes from the Miracle City features several different characters all narrating their interwoven stories – not something that can be easily achieved in such a slim volume. There were some unusual choices – in such a city of wealth I expected to be reading about upper middle-class expats or local rich businessmen but instead there was a real breadth to the types of individuals personified – a taxi driver, a hairdresser, a security guard, an academic, a journalist/writer/mother. I loved seeing their behaviour around Eid regardless of their religion and the challenges that living with the juxtaposition of a modern, metropolitan but also traditional Islamic society afforded them.

My issue with this novella was (as I seem to be writing more and more frequently) that not very much happened. Yes, it was interesting to read about a city that I’ve never been to and to look at the lives of people who are all different to me but I felt like the narrative needed more of an event to pull all of the characters together.

Overall, this was an interesting character driven novella but I personally would have appreciated a more dynamic plot.
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I found this a pleasure to read. The title refers to Dubai, a city of wealth and impressive architecture that has grown up out of the desert. To Westerns like myself you get the impression Dubai is a place where only material things matter. This novella is like a love song for Dubai. The different characters, each offering a different POV aim to show the city is far more than a place of wealth and excess. The chapters alternate between different POV’S. This took a couple of chapters to get used to. This could have been handled better in a novella. Dubai is really the central character here. I would have liked this to have been longer to really get to know the characters.
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This short novella is beautifully written and demonstrates what a melting pot of culture Dubai is.  The story is set in the days leading up to Eid and features Dubai natives, Pakistanis, Brits, and Phillipinos, all struggling to make their way and survive in the UAE.  I love books where the characters' lives intersect with each other, perhaps without them even knowing that they are linked in more than one way so this was right up my street.  This is the second Fairlight Moderns book I've read and the best, so I'm looking forward to reading more.
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Set in Dubai, this novella follows a web of inter-tangled characters in the days leading up to Eid, the quick but seamless  switches between character viewpoints mirrored the energy of the city
Ending on a frustrating but very well timed cliff hanger.  There were a lot of character names to follow and tie together, all of which cropped up a couple of times, none really taking centre stage which I imagine was the intention, making the city itself feel like the central figure, I really got the sense that it was the location bringing together all these different people from various backgrounds. From a selfish, curious perspective I really wish this had been longer as I really like this format of story telling, e.g. one character might accidentally bump into someone in the street, they don't know each other but one has a brother who owns a shop the other has just come from where he had an argument with the manager, its the format that can go really well (think Love Actually ) or go terribly wrong.  I really enjoyed this novella and I think it fits perfectly with the purpose of the Fairlight Modern series.
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I have read several of the novellas from around the world published in the excellent Fairlight Moderns series and been much impressed by them.  Here we follow a handful of characters, mostly foreigners drawn to Dubai for work and hoping to make enough money to pursue their dreams of a better life, often back home, certainly somewhere else.  Their everyday lives intersect in ways that point up the differences between them in their social status and also underline how they are all visitors to a country that welcomes them as workers, but does not assimilate them into its own society.  Dubai is no melting pot, nor it is a haven for refugees.

‘Dubai was an overtly cosmopolitan space ….. a success story precisely because it didn’t try to countenance such cosmopolitanism by creating some wishy-washy, overly liberal and ultimately mendacious middle ground.  No.  One had the local population, who were the only true bona fide citizens, and one had the vaster majority of expats, from all over.  The country and the princedoms had kept their Islamic identity intact.  The expats knew where they stood as guests.’

We have a series of snapshots of different characters’ lives over a couple of days leading up to Eid.  At heart, this is a love story, or at least a budding romance.  That was fine, as far as it went.  I had hoped to come away with a little more of a feel for the streets of Dubai.  My biggest niggle, though, was with the writing.  It doesn’t always read naturally and some of the language is jarringly overblown, less so as the story progresses but at the beginning almost enough to put me off continuing.
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Set in Dubai, a city which I visited earlier this year and found endlessly fascinating, I expected to enjoy this novella far more than I did.  The author admirably explores a lot of different characters from varied backgrounds, but given the short length of the story, not enough attention has been paid to these individuals.  I liked the way in which the stories were all connected with one another, but some of the prose was rather overdone, and it sometimes read quite clumsily.
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This is the second novella I've read published under the Fairlight Moderns imprint, and it is lovely.  The main character would have to be the setting, Dubai, the miracle in the desert that boggles with its display of unbridled excesses, during the final days of Ramadan on the eve of Eid.  But Omar Sabbagh, who writes like the poet he is, uses a cross-section of characters, everyday residents some of who are necessary for Dubai to operate as it does.  Most action takes place in taxi cabs, houses, most notably, a "woman's only" beauty salon, and restaurants.  I was reminded of Robert Altman's Short Cuts which introduced individuals whose lives all intersected in various sometimes hilarious ways, and by the finale, had formed a web of intrigue.
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Minutes from the Miracle City by Omar Sabbagh (http://www.omarsabbagh.me/) is from Fairlight Books' Fairlight Moderns collection:

"a collection of short modern fiction books set in different locations around the world.  Smaller than a novel in both size and length, yet all heavy- hitters in their own right, the novellas are the perfect way to bring literary fiction into our busy lives.  Ideal for book club readers who enjoy fiction with contemporary themes and quality writing."

The first book I read from this series was [book:Bottled Goods|38720267], an innovative novella in flash, deservedly longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and Republic of Consciouness Prize (and unlucky not to be shortlisted for each), and this is another worthy edition to the list (if slightly more conventional in form).

The author of this book, best known as a poet, has a Palestinian father and a mother with Syrian and Iraqi origins, who met at the American University of Beirut, before moving to England at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War. He completed his (impressively extensive) studies in literature in the UK, before taking a visiting professorship at his parents alma mater in Beirut, and then teaching at the American University of Dubai. This novel is a companion piece to his first fictional work Via Negativa, which was set in Beirut.

Minutes from the Miracle City, cinematic in its style, is set in bustling Dubai during one Ramadan, and in the lead-up to Eid. It tells the story of the city through the perspective of a a succession of varied characters, including a Pakistani taxi drivers, a Filipino cashier, a Moroccan beauty salon owner, a Ugandan security guard, a Nepalese nanny, an English businessman, a Lebanese hedge fund manager and an Emirati journalist, and their families.

It opens with Hakim driving his cab:

"Hakim had been driving a taxi in Dubai for over twelve years. He’d watched the princedom grow. He’d seen it sprout towers, villas and compounds, schools and colleges, clinics and parks, restaurants and bars, hotels, banks, and roads and roads, and more and more roads and roads; all that, all this, until it made him dizzy to think of it. He’d seen the urban relish and gusto, the bravery and the brag and the boast of it all. And a small piece of his insides gloated to be a part, however slim, of that vision and tour de force –as though his soul’s wide window was the more glint-ridden by dint of it, beneath the vast, electric, all-engulfing sun."

His passenger is an English businessman (Oliver), and while Hakim listens in one side of a telephone conversation, and is tempted to comment, he decides to forget it:

"Besides, Dubai was large and populous; though it had happened once or twice, as if willed by the hands of angels or djinns, Hakim was quite certain he’d never encounter this same customer-Englishman again."

The novel proceeds by passing the (privileged third person) narrative baton from one character to the next, although the novella seems determined to disprove Hakim's view of Dubai.

Hakim after dropping off Oliver goes to a supermarket where he is served by a Filipino cashier Ricardo, who shortly after does his regular delivery of groceries to a Englishwoman, Rachel ... who coincidentally happens to be Oliver’s wife.  During the delivery Rachel is arranging a catch-up with an old friend Saaed, an Emirati journalist, whose sister Hala, at that very moment, happens to be at the beauticians where she is a customer of Ricardo’s wife Shirley; and when Rachel later meets Saaed, at a cafe, their waiter is the brother of Patrick, Ricardo’s friend and a security guard at the same supermarket. All this within the first 3 chapters. And as for Hakim and Oliver, well while they indeed don’t meet again, Oliver does again end up in Hakim’s taxi, but this time driven by Hakim’s partner for the night shift, Vinod, and Hakim himself ends up in a road-rage argument with a car driving Rachel.  

Minutes from the Miracle City is a deliberately upbeat take on Dubai. In an earlier interview while in Beirut the author, commenting on his poetry said:

"I would feel strange to write political poetry when I lead an easy life ... Because I live in a bubble so to speak, I’m euphonious. I look for beauty rather than gritty truth. There is something about a beautiful line that is just as important as politics."

and Minutes from the Miracle City has a similar flavour.

In another interview in 2017 Sabbagh seemed to suggest that his intention was to write a non-fiction rather than fictional treatment of Dubai:

"My Dubai-book, contracted-and-commissioned, is to be, rather, a book-length reflective thought-piece on Dubai, provisionally-titled: Minutes from The Miracle City: An Essay on Dubai in Today’s World. It will reflect the success story of Dubai, in the world of Trump, Trumpmania and Brexit, and so on…"

Instead here, he has perhaps the dominate character, Saaed, a journalist and the one character for whom Dubai is home, writing such a book:

"He, too, was working on a book, whose title was Minutes from the Miracle City. It was to be a prolonged meditation on the phenomenon of contemporary Dubai."

And the more philosophical parts of the novella include Saaed's (and by extension the author's?) thoughts on the city state:

"He’d read the romantics, and indeed believed that they, with their infamous ethos, had done the modern world a good deal of damage. For example, Dubai was often dubbed to be a ‘superficial’ place. But such pat judgments, automatisms almost, proved obtuse. It was since romanticism that people had got into their heads that superficies were pejorative; it was the influence of the romantics that had led people to forget the integrity of appearances, hunting as they always were for some elusive, supposedly authentic ‘depth.’ No, to reach the true essence of a thing, one had to go via appearance.
...
Dubai was a feast for the eyes, which, post festum – a Latin tag he’d learnt from its use in Marx – became or could become a feast for the soul. For all his liberal and progressive views and for all his westernised experiences, he believed deeply in the ongoing project, virtuoso, sublime, that had made Dubai and the Emirates his homeland for the second time.
...
Dubai was a success story precisely because it didn’t try to countenance such cosmopolitanism by creating some wishy-washy, overly liberal and ultimately mendacious middle ground. No. One had the local population, who were the only true bona fide citizens, and one had the vaster majority of expats, from all over. The country and the princedom had kept their Islamic identity intact. The expats knew where they stood as guests. And this overt advert to alterity was healthy. As Saeed had said in his article, ‘the other’, respected precisely as a wholly distinct ‘other’, meant that the mutual respect and the mutual tolerance was workable, rather than being some kind of melding façade."

Overall, another fascinating voice in English literature from this excellent new collection from Fairlight Press.
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A fluffy novella set in Dubai following a number of characters from different countries and walks of life (a Pakistani taxi driver, Moroccan hairdresser, a Ugandan security guard among more) whose stories collide in the days leading up to Ramadan.

I think my lack of enjoyment of this was down to going into the book with the wrong expectations - the story is quite simple and sweet, focusing primarily on a romance, while I went in expecting some insightful and biting social commentary on life in a middle eastern city. Unfortunately the characters didn't give me a new perspective and the it was too overwritten.
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Minutes from the Miracle City is being published in July 2019 by Fairlight Books as part of a new clutch of “Fairlight Moderns”. The “Miracle City” of the title is Dubai, which has grown out of the hot desert into a business hub characterized by striking high-rise architecture and designer shopping malls. In my language it is said that money can build a road in the sea – apparently, it can also build bustling cities in the desert. For an outsider (such as myself) this blatant show of wealth easily gives the impression that this is a materialistic, soulless place. But in this novella, Omar Sabbagh, a poet and critic who lives in Dubai, suggests that this is not the case. Through journalist Saaed, back to his homeland after a stint in London, Sabbagh voices the following observation…

“He’d read the romantics, and indeed believed that they, with their infamous ethos, had done the modern world a good deal of damage. For example, Dubai was often dubbed to be a ‘superficial” place. But such pat judgments, automatisms almost, proved obtuse. It was since romanticism that people had got into their heads that superficies were pejorative; it was the influence of the romantics that had led people to forget the integrity of appearances, hunting as they always were for some elusive, supposedly authentic ‘depth’. No, to reach the true essence of a thing, one had to go via appearance…”

Sabbagh challenges the readers’ “pat judgments, automatisms” through what can be considered a “choral” work. Indeed, although Saaed (and his ruminations about Dubai, love, religion and nearly everything) eventually take centre stage, the novella weaves together the individual stories of several characters, including Ugandan brothers Patrick and Edouard, Philippine supermarket cashier Ricardo and his young family, Moroccan beautician Farida, and well-off English couple Rachel and Oliver. Over the final days of Ramadan, we follow them around the city, as they try to build (and in some cases, rebuild) their lives, just as Dubai took shape on the sands and grew into a vibrant cosmopolitan city. 

In the opening chapters, the rapid switch between the different characters was rather dizzying – I felt as if I were watching a film with rapid camerawork alighting from one actor to another. Perhaps Sabbagh purposely wished to convey this effect – indeed, in the acknowledgements at the end, he credits his wife Faten Yaacoub’s “filmic mind” as an influence on his writing. As for myself, I felt I got a better grip on the novella once the links between the various characters started falling into place. The writing is insightful, often poetic and, when Saaed speaks, quite philosophical. There are, admittedly, some awkward stylistic gear-changes when the characters switch to informal dialogue after passages of “heightened” language. (Incidentally, I was surprised to find the word “chinwag” used no less than three times in what is ultimately a short book). 

The book also broaches other interesting topics – for instance, the challenges facing young practising Muslims as they balance faith and tradition with living in the contemporary world. But it’s all done with a light touch. Cynics may huff that this portrayal of Dubai is too rose (or gold?) tinted. But why not? The book, culminating in the different characters each celebrating Eid in their own way, is ultimately a thinking person’s feel-good novel and is none the worse for that.
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