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A novelist from the UAE says her career as an engineer makes her a stronger writer

Salha Obaid
Salha Obaid is a fiction writer from the United Arab Emirates. She’s the author of three short story collections and one novel, Maybe It’s a Joke.

Eighteen emerging and established writers from around the world took part in the 2021 University of Iowa's International Writing Program. One of the writers-in-residence this fall was Salha Obaid. She is a fiction writer from the United Arab Emirates and lives and works in Dubai. She’s the author of three short story collections and one novel, Maybe It’s a Joke.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

On how she started writing

"I had very, very, very, very bad handwriting. And I remember that when I was, I think in the fourth grade, my father established a plan for me to copy three articles from the newspaper to make my handwriting better, so that the teachers in school could understand what I was writing. And at the end of the newspaper, the Arabic newspaper, there were short stories from all over the world. And some of them were quite interesting, some of them quite shocking. I remember copying them, and I was very interested about the things that were mentioned in the stories and the complications there. I remember a story about a little girl who was chewing gum and she was laughing and very happy one moment, and the moment after she choked on the gum and she died, she wasn’t there anymore."

“From there, I moved to my father's library, and I discovered stories from all over the world. I read Victor Hugo , and I remember once I finished reading Les Miserable and I discovered that Jean Valjean was dead, I just refused that and I started creating my own, my own words then.”

“After publishing three collections of short stories, I published my first novel. In my novel, I tried to explore the psychological part of the people who are living in the UAE, especially as (the country) developed very quickly. You notice how that place itself has changed. But we don't tend to talk a lot about the psychological changes inside of us. So through this novel, I tried to ask about these changes that have happened and how we are somehow related, with this conflict that has linked us."

On how her work as an engineer influences her writing

“I'm not a full-time writer. I am an engineer and I work as an engineer…I think that my studies in engineering made me think about the psychological parts of people.”

“With engineering, you are always certain about the things you are getting. So you will get the numbers, you will get the results, you will see the things that are established, in front of your eyes. But at the same time, I noticed that I was uncertain about things happening to people, and I started asking myself about the people I was working with…The UAE is a cosmopolitan place with people from all over the world who are going there to work. But we don't tend to talk about what we feel towards each other. Even though we were spending time together from like 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, we tend not to talk about ourselves. We talk about numbers, about plans, about maps and engineering and constructions. But they (coworkers) didn’t seem very curious about me as a person. And, on the other side, I noticed myself not being interested in them. And when I caught myself doing that, I started creating my own story about this, about how people are thinking inside and how maybe we are somehow, some way, sharing the same feelings, the same conflicts, and we need to talk about it.”

On the relationship between photography and writing

“I never travel without my camera. It's always with me, and I tend to take pictures of the details…photography helps me see details and establishing good writing through pictures. I tend to, you know, save a city in my memory so that I can use it later through my writing, someday.”

“If I will take one picture about Iowa, it would be the river — the silence of the river and the quietness…the river, actually, is the one who's doing the observation, not us, because he will be there forever."

Obaid made her comments on River to River. You can listen to the full conversation here.

Matthew was a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio