Minutes from the Miracle City
Fairlight Moderns Novella
by Omar Sabbagh
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Pub Date 01 May 2021 | Archive Date 02 Sep 2019
‘Sabbagh is the RK Narayan of our times.’ – Christopher Jackson, poet and biographer
‘Sabbagh gives us something we do not expect: a small place packed with complex dwellers.’ – Adnan Mahmutović, author of How to Fare Well and Stay Fair
‘A cast of vivid characters, whose interlocking fortunes and fascinatingly detailed lives create a compelling story, yet achieve the status of proverb.’ – Fiona Sampson MBE FRSL, poet and writer
‘A delightful kaleidoscopic tale of contemporary Dubai.’ – Dr Pamela Chrabieh, Middle Eastern Studies expert and writer
‘This piece is an oasis of sanity in the toppled modern world, and a perfect travel guide to the soul of the princedom where multiple private miracles do happen.’ – Svetlana Lavochkina, novelist, poet, translator
‘Omar Sabbagh is an extraordinary writer – intelligent, witty, sharp-eyed and compassionate.’ – Dr Jan Fortune, Cinnamon Press
‘Sabbagh situates his prose and the reader in a space where we each rehearse our failures and perhaps, our small victories.’ – Peter Salmon, author of The Coffee Story
‘Sabbagh captures the restless, cosmopolitan spirit of Dubai through a perceptive, touching and often comic narrative in which the dreams and dramas of several disparate and engagingly drawn characters are intertwined. An original, upbeat and entertaining read.’ – Susannah Tarbush, journalist, reviewer and blogger
Average rating from 18 members
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.
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.
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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Edited by Sid Holt for the American Society of Magazine Editors; introduction by Jeffrey Goldberg.