DAMMAM: As Eman Quotah grew up on the west coast of Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, the daughter of a Hijazi father and an American mother, she longed to read novels that explored the complexities of life a Saudi girl like herself was confronted.
Unable to find stories about the identity issues, societal pressures, and family dramas she was experiencing, she decided to write one herself.
Decades passed as she wrote, rewrote, and pondered each draft. In 2020, she finally finished her first novel, “Bride of the Sea” – the book she always wanted to read. The title she chose is the nickname of the city of Jeddah, which translates to “mermaid” in Arabic.
“I wrote as Saudi a novel as possible,” she told Arab News. “My book is about the urban Saudis of Jeddah. It’s so specific, and there are so many other Saudi experiences, I don’t want people to think that I’m trying to represent all Saudis.
The story, which begins in the 1970s, is a family saga that spans four decades and two continents. It’s a multi-dimensional love story set in a distinctive and pervasive political context, as deep and mysterious as the troubled sea.
A young Saudi couple, cousins, get married and move to Cleveland, Ohio, to study. Shortly after the birth of their daughter, Hanadi, the marriage ended. The mother’s name is Saeedah, which means “happy” in Arabic, but she is very sad. She changes her name, kidnaps her daughter and decides to “hide” in the United States.
The father, Muneer, who is a journalist, returns alone to Saudi Arabia. Years later, Hanadi, who is also called Hannah, runs away from her mother. Her trip takes a surprising turn and she finds herself in Saudi Arabia, but not in circumstances that one might imagine.
In every chapter and location there is a reference to a body of water, which seems deliberate. To write a Saudi-American novel, Quotah said she had to create her own literary tradition.
“I took little snippets of real Saudi gossip and then turned it into a novel,” she said. “It was inspired by a true story by a family friend, but I fictionalized it because I wanted to explore other themes, and I had questions about what it would have been like to have experienced a family kidnapping.
“It’s not meant to represent the experience of any particular person or family, but just that kind of merging of different things, and I think the fact that it’s a novel freed me up to create a fictional family, but a family I had never seen before in the novels. — a Saudi family.
“My dad’s family is very large and there was so much drama happening all the time – that person wasn’t talking to that person. I felt like it was a really good canvas to paint a novel on and I wanted to see that kind of family in a story.
As a Saudi American reading the book, I was struck by how the narrative indeed seemed to recall the fragmented stories I heard in my youth; it felt both familiar and foreign. In its 312 pages, it paints an intimate portrait of a Saudi American family separated by oceans, both literally and figuratively.
Quotah now lives in the United States and is a mother of her own multiracial children. Her life is a world away from her childhood home, but she says she is still connected to it.
The book was recently translated into Arabic. It is her father’s language but she no longer uses it regularly. To ensure the translation process was accurate, she enlisted the help of her father, who still lives in Jeddah.
“I went through the Saudi education system, so I read the literature that we were taught there, but most of the books I read were in English,” she said. “I’m not, honestly, a big reader of Arabic novels.
“Generally, when a book is translated, the author has nothing to do with it. But I asked if I could be involved because the publisher was Lebanese and I wanted to make sure that the Hijazi dialect was preserved in Arabic.
“As a bilingual speaker, you always think in two languages, so I was doing that. What happened is that my father helped me. We tried to take things that didn’t feel like Hijazi to us and changed that.
The novel includes a potentially controversial twist, which initially worried Quotah when reviewing the Arabic translation, but she thinks readers are ready for it.
“When it comes to the content of the book, I think Saudi readers, I guess, are more open to different perspectives than people realize,” she said.
“I don’t feel concerned that readers will be offended by anything in the book. The book is meant to show a family’s experiences but also to talk about secrets and truths, and these are themes that Saudi artists have been dealing with for a long time.
One thing some readers might feel is missing from the novel is any reference to the monumental changes in the Kingdom that began in 2018 in terms of female empowerment. Quotah said she was out of the country when it happened, so she didn’t want to write about them in a way that could be seen as inauthentic. She added that she would like to see other authors pick up the slack and explore the changing role of Saudi women.
“I hope we see Saudi novels that deal with what is happening in the country right now, but in my book I felt like I could write very honestly about what I had been through back when I was observing Saudi society,” she said. . “The book is about how things were before.”