Writing in the Middle East

WordPress is overwhelmingly Western orientated and from some comments I’ve seen, people can assume that everyone lives in America or Britain. You know, ‘our tax system is hopeless’ kind of note, with the author not explaining what tax system they’re talking about.
It’s not a serious flaw but amongst our numbers there are people who live in places vastly different from ‘The West’. Their experiences in writing then publishing a book is very different from what people in the West might imagine.

I’d like to take you on a short tour of my writing experiences in the Middle East to shine a faint glimmer of light on what it’s like. Not just the mechanics but also how it affects the way you think and by extension the way you write.

A bit of background. I describe myself as Scottish by birth, European by nature and Middle East resident by choice. I travel around the region from Kurdistan to Oman and places in between. I’ve lived for extended periods of time in Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Although I’ve been in the region for 12 years this time round I hardly speak a word of Arabic (Jim hangs his head in shame).

The Amazing Diver Sculptures in Dubai Mall

The Amazing Diver Sculptures in Dubai Mall

On writing. I currently live in Dubai and you can sit here in a hotel lobby and you could write a thousand novels based on an evening’s observations. The mix of people, cultures, dress, habits never cease to amaze. At present the number of people from the Former Soviet Union is expanding – lots of hotel staff are now from that area. The other noticable change is the number of Chinese and Koreans. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a vast bazaar, a massive souk where people come to live, do business, holiday and stop-over on their way somewhere else. Most International Oil Companies have regional hub offices in Dubai, mainly to service their operations in Iraq. But for British people its a home from home. You can actually get deep fried Mars bars here (a Scottish delicacy if longevity is not your aim in life).

So the UAE is a comfortable place for someone like me to live. BUT. And that’s a big big BUT. I never forget that I’m a guest in someone else’s country. The law here is not based on English law (like so many other countries), the law here is Sharia and woe betide anyone who thinks differently. Its all to easy for people to imagine somehow that ‘probably things are much the same here as back home’.

And how is this of significance to writers? Well, you can’t just find a publisher here and knock a few thousand copies out then get them into the shops. You have to obtain a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the government (I’ll not go into the process – it’s lengthy but not complicated). If the book contains anything deemed to be blasphemous or would offend local family values then its unlikely to get a NOC.
I’m going through the process right now and my book does contain harsh criticism of the Catholic Church – it may be a factor that stops me publishing here because the Ministry of Culture protects all religions not just Islam. There may be other factors but I couldn’t even guess what they might be. Like everything else in the Middle East your best companions are Patience, Good Humour and an engrossing book to read.

Tigris and the Baghdad Green Zone

Tigris and the Baghdad Green Zone

Going back to the process of writing. I wrote the outline for my book iNation when I lived in Baghdad in 2003. I was in the Sheraton Hotel, situated on the roundabout where Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down. I had a great view from my room overlooking the Tigris. I could see everything in the Green Zone (Saddam Hussein’s palace and other government buildings). I ate often at the palace and wandered through the grounds. I even swam in his pool. Despite what was said in the media at the time the palace. pool, etc were no bigger nor more opulent than a million other houses in this region. The scurrilous hype about Saddam living in grand luxury while his people lived in hovels conveniently forgot to mention how the President of the United States lives in the White House v people in shotgun shacks in some States. Ps, this is not an anti-American rant – I love America and I count many Americans amongst my friends. The media across Europe did hatchet jobs on Saddam every bit at vitriolic as Fox News.

Anyway it was these experiences that planted the seed in my mind. America runs the world now but what if there was a much bigger yet hidden country just around the corner. A country that holds no territory, a country that lives in the world wide web? What would it do, how would it work, could it change the world? Would the change be for good or would it produce a world dictatorship?
When the phenomenon of Facebook burst upon us the book practically wrote itself. I also took the opportunity to give some other global organisations that should be making the world a better place, but are not, a right good Glasgow kicking. A Glasgow kicking is considered by thugs around the world to be the very pinnacle of ‘a kicking’.

Returning once again to writing (I know, I ramble), the act of observing ones country and others from a distance and from within a different culture adds (IMHO) depth and gives a twist to how things are written. You’re less influenced by the propaganda pushed out in those countries, you more likely to see a bigger picture than a local election or the rise in the price of petrol. As many writers have observed, people who live on the margins of society, people who are ‘different’ and people who are from different cultures are often the sharpest observers. Gore Vidal and Jerzy Kozinsky spring to mind. The Middle Eastern culture is so pervasive and different it would be a miracle if your approach to writing didn’t change.

Apart from that, writing here is the same as anywhere else. Sitting at a computer in solitude bashing the keys and hoping something worthwhile will fall out and start reaching for the light.

Even as I write this, the call to prayer from the mosque next door reminds me that I’m a legal alien in Dubai. Humdalala!

iNation Has a New Home

iNation’s new home – it’s own wee website. I did this as a place where people can go if they want to know more about the book.

I’m interested in your opinion – does this kind of approach help authors any?

Let me know what you think – its still under construction (WordPress does not make it easy either!)


The Very Inspirational Blogger Award


I’ve been nominated for the Very Inspirational Blogger Award by Seumas Gallacher. A man who is so generous in helping others I don’t know how he finds the time to be a business consultant, a Blogger of the Year, writer of an amazing crime series (see the Jack Calder novels at his blog http://seumasgallacher.com

I have nominated YOUR BLOG as Very Inspirational

Here are the rules:

  • Display the award logo on your blog.
  • Link back to the person who nominated you.
  • State 7 things about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 bloggers for this award and link to them.
  • Notify those bloggers of the nomination and the award’s requirements.


7 Things About Me

  1. My looks. When I was born the midwife held me up the ankles and the doctor smacked my mother
  2. I was raised in a small town in Scotland called Airdrie whose only claim to fame is that a ‘town worthy’ moved furniture with an ‘unfeasibly large’ wheelbarrow
  3. I was once mistaken for Dennis Waterman and asked for his autograph (Refer to point 1)
  4. I know more about the human condition that Freud and Jung put together – all through working in an ice cream van in Glasgow (all human and, not-so-human, life is there)
  5. I speak Glaswegian, Klingon, Xhovain and Gibberish (Tich Tor Ang Tesmur – Vulcan, just to show off)
  6. My historical hero is Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a brilliant engineer (Google his name and be amazed)
  7. I’m going to live to be 120 or die trying

My 15 nominated blogs are…

Lazylauramaisey (a blog on everyday things that linger in the mind)


Christian Mihai (this guy can write – amazing books and blogs)


The Limping Chicken (for all of us who have impaired hearing)


Why Evolution is True (an island of sanity in a sea of madness)


Philosophirish (only an Irishman could give this view on life)


Texana’s Kitchen (cooking and philosophy on one plate)


Zoopraxiscope! (excellent blogs on the birth of cinema and links to films you never knew existed)


Right Wing Nuts and Bolts (I don’t agree with one word this guy writes – but he challenges my views, just excellent)


Raising 5 Kid With Disabilities (Awesome, incredible, inspiring, humbling)


We Ran Away Today (a epistle of great charm and depth)


The Philosophunculist (thoughtful, insightful and worth more than just  a look – and he likes Chris Farley)


C L Bolin’s Books and Art (I discovered her today and I’ll follow every word she writes)


60yearoldwriterteacheactor (the title says it all)


The Matt Walsh Blog (Oh yes!)


Books and Their Covers

I wondered when books started to have ‘art’ printed on the front? I guess in the old days a book was leather bound, because they were valuable and leather was the only viable option. I suppose someone had to invent the idea of paper covers for books and it’s possible that such a thing would have been seen as trivial in the old days. I’ve seen leather covers with embossing and gold leaf on the front but not many, to my mind the Victorians et al preferred a plain and sensible cover. Before purchasing a book they must have read sizeable portions of the book to find out what it was about.

Modern book buying was shorthanded by the clever use of covers to segregate the target audience, and to give the buyers a quick way to sift through a myriad of books. Embossed gold signifying a ‘woman’s book’, menacing objects signifying murder and mayhem, weird spacecraft telling of science-fiction therein. The blurbs tease with ‘Will she ever find true love?’, ‘Can the police unravel the clues in time?’ and on to intrigue the potential reader to dig deep for a purchase.

The cover has become such an important element of a book that it can never be ignored or seen as something to just wrap a book in. E-Books more so – the ‘cover’ is the first hook to sell the book. Segregation of the buyer is less important (because the books are already segregated into ‘mystery’, vampire’ and so on. What matters more than ever is an eye-catching combinations of colours and images. Then the browser can focus onto what the cover is telling

Virtual beings, hot babes, ghosts in the machine and a ‘hook’. Awesome! Or not.
Images purchased from istockphoto

them,accompanied by text that informs and teases.

I sat and thought about this for a while. My own book needs a cover and ‘blurb’. My musings took me through ‘why’ all the way down to ‘how’. A journey of self-discovery and learning was about to commence. As well as writing I paint, so there was an in-built drive to design my own cover. After all, no-one knows what the content of the book is better than me. What followed was almost as hard as writing the book.

I thought of hundreds of possibilities, looked at hundreds of book covers and browsed the book stores. This activity threw up ten good ideas, I set to producing the cover, and….nothing. Not one piece of book-art worthy of publication. And, more importantly, they didn’t tell the reader what the book was about. They were more confusing that illuminating.

Then I had a brainwave on movies. Nowadays movies share the same media platforms as books. In many ways the art of the movie poster with their lurid designs and information on who stars in the movie, who directed it and so on are redundant. But the need to reel in a purchaser remains the same. Movies need art-covers to sell. Enter IMDB, my favourite site after WordPress.

To complete the art-cover story another element appeared in the shape of Piet Mondrian. Always a favourite artist. A Dutchman who worked out how a combination of colours, their size and juxtaposition would be pleasing to the eye. No-one knows why his art is popular, or why it’s so heavily used in the advertising world (look at most make-up boxes and Piet is looking right at you) but he nailed it.

And that looped me back to my book cover. I decided it would have a Mondrian layout complete with primary colours – because a more complex description of the content can be given. From that starting point the rest was a doddle – right up until i bounced off the ‘software barrier’. None of the software I had could handle the layout plus all the ‘lets make a book-cover’ software advertised had a little note hidden at the bottom that showed it was a Photoshop plug-in. Now I’m a dab hand at assembling Ikea furniture (which a friend of mine says is a particular form of insanity) but with Photoshop I can’t get past the first instruction line. The learning curve to use Photoshop is so steep that someone (like myself) who has only a few decades left to live shouldn’t attempt it (IMHO).

A Ghost in the Machine
Image purchased from istockphoto

But the wiles of man know no bounds and with a combination of grit, perseverance, guile and accidental good luck I fooled Microsoft Word into producing the art-work. It’s not exactly what I want but it’s at least good enough to send to a professional as an example of where I’m going with the cover. I think the colours I’ve used are too intense – maybe they need to be more muted?

Once the layout was sorted I searched istockphoto to buy the images I needed. I enjoyed the experience. The photos available are amazing (at amazingly low prices too) and all of the sites were a joy to use. A lesson for all companies that seek to sell services through the web. For my money I can use the images up to 500,000 times on paper or unlimited times electronically. A real bargain I thought.

Another angle of course, a challenge not yet encountered, is the upload criteria: the format, size, numbers of pixels, file size and, I’m sure, a dozen other barriers to getting it on Kindle will arise.

That done I turned to the ‘blurb. I’d produced some as the book progressed but the story had changed somewhat (see blog ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer). Writing the blurb turned out to be as difficult as producing the cover art. I think writers have a particular problem with the blurb, because it’s not writing – it’s marketing. And should be handled by someone who knows what their doing. Being of sound mind – not, I busied away at drafts and scenarios. What emerged is OK, but like the book-art it’s maybe a framework, an idea, an insight into what I want that a professional can shape into something better.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer

Well, I’m hip deep in the big rewrite of ‘iNation and The Tears of a Billion Children’. First third now complete and I’m battling the urge  to run for the hills. The writing will continue though and no matter what I will prevail. 

Only those who write can know the loneliness of the art. No-one can help, no one can advise, no one can make a difference. It’s you and the book. But onwards we go, firing up the computer each day hoping that the plot will resolve itself, the characters will at least go along with our ideas and the text will at least be readable.

We keep writing because to stop would be unthinkable. We would be reduced to people who have tried and failed. We would stand in the shadows and watch those with more grit and perseverance take the glittering prizes that we know in our hearts could have been ours. We would eavesdrop and hear people whisper ‘he tried to be a writer once, you know’.

So each day we pick ourselves up and hurl ourselves once more into the breach in an act of self-defiance. We rage against the gods of literature to create something that is bigger than ourselves. To be a writer above all else. To be published. To be able to stand and say ‘I am a writer’.

So, my fellow writers…SHOULDN’T YOU BE WRITING?

I am.

Looking Through My Movies

I started to catalogue my movies. It’s a displacement activity to stop me continually rewriting    my book. I’ve got all the usual ones, the same ones that you have probably. All 5,000 of them (every one bought full price to keep Hollywood Imagegoing – somebody has to do it).


Big Dook

So the catalogue thing isn’t a trivial undertaking.

Then I got bored with that and decided to list the more interesting ones. The ones that scare, repel or make you laugh out loud. And I didn’t include any modern ones because you’ve already seen them twice.

The list is heavy on foreign movies and film-noir. Sometimes both in one package (see Rififi for the first heist movie ever made).

This is the link in case you want to check them out        http://www.imdb.com/list/U6TV–tDs-k/

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