"They make us look victimised. Do I look victimised?" – Princess Hend Al Qassemi
Arab women as heroines
S heikha Hend Al Qassemi is many things but she's not your typical Arabian princess, nor is her royal life limited to crocodile bags. As the Editor in Chief of Velvet, a princess, a member of the UAE royal family, an architect graduate, philanthropist and an author of The Black Book of Arabia, Al Qassemi is fast becoming an international voice for women in the Middle East. In fact, her book, which was originally a series of stories penned for Velvet before it was turned into a book in 2015, has now spread to Russia. Here, Al Qassimi dissects the collection of real stories told by Arab women and at the same time unveiles herself as a heroine...
Congratulations on the launch of your book in Russia. Tell us, how did it all come about?
I was contacted by Bloomsbury, a publishing press, which is the same publisher of "Harry Potter". I was honoured as they were very interested, and they were like "can we have some of the stories and make a book about them"? So I worked through them (the stories) for almost a-year-and-a-half and after that, the book was ready. First, they wanted more stories, and then they wanted less, and then they selected the 12 best stories. And then they asked me to make it longer, add more details about the location, the space, how they looked, to make it juicier. Then they asked me to summarise it, so it was a back-and-forth process. I learned a lot from this experience.
How did you decide which stories to publish?
I would only take stories that were offered to me by the real heroes or the victims of the story. I like to tell the story that teaches a lesson. It could be a happy ending or a sad ending or a painful ending, but in the end it's a good lesson for all of us, to learn from these experience. I mean unrealistic stories don't teach you anything, they just teach you that this is a beautifully written story. I mean people thought this was a book about good women. No! Some women are bad. Some women were victims. But everyone has a story to tell that is worth listening to.
Your stories are about pain and love. Why did you choose such diverse emotions?
People don't believe it, men don't understand it, even women don't understand. So I gave a voice to pain, like it's a present. If there is pain you have to understand it, you have to accept it, you have to know that if it's there. Then you have to allow the pain to go away, to pass.
I'm putting reality in a book.
The women in your book are heroines. Which story resonates with you the most?
There was a story of about a woman who goes blind on her wedding day. There is another story of a woman who paid Dhs20 million to get her husband out of prison, as told by her daughter. I receive a lot of stories from emotional broken-hearted women, so in the beginning I wasn't interested, but when she told me the story of her mother I was numb. I admired her mother, and I asked to meet her. She was living on community service for Dhs8000 and she had three children. His debt was Dhs40 million, she paid 20 million, and the government forgave the other half. Now they are rich, they're happy, and the wife, now makes perfume at home. The story just shows you how strong a woman needs to be. You are their guide, the fire that cannot be blown out.
Some people have questioned the validity of the stories. What's your response?
Some people do say that none of the stories were true, but I say that I can give them names and that they can go and meet these people, each and everyone.
What's your opinion on how women in the Middle East are viewed?
We don't have many books written by a woman about other women. The books we do have about women from an American or European point of view usually make us look very victimised. Do I look victimised? I mean we have certain boundaries, which we grew up with but we live in equilibrium. If you want to break them, then break them, you are a free woman.