Not long into Desert Mojito, Nazli Ghassemi’s debut novel, her fun-loving protagonist Maya prepares to go to the Dubai World Cup. She has already careered into a pole at Ski Dubai (her attention diverted by the vision of a perfect man on the slopes), enjoyed the amazing scent of Emirati men in Mall of the Emirates and checked out guys at a gym with a rooftop pool overlooking the sea. She has also spent “an arduous day beautifying myself at the hair, nail, facial and waxing salons”.
But in true romcom style, the path of love does not run smooth. Poor Maya embarrasses herself in front of the very man she has a crush on. “All this stuff happens in Dubai,” says Ghassemi with a laugh. “I didn’t have to embellish much.”
And so Maya’s adventures in Dubai begin as she navigates a multicultural melting pot while trying to find the man of her dreams.
Despite Ghassemi mentioning the likes of Dave Eggers, Haruki Murakami and Aravind Adiga as influences, Desert Mojito is not really a work of literary genius. But it is a lot of fun.
As is Ghassemi herself. Born in Iran, she moved to Dubai after it “became too unbearable to live in”, and found that, too often, the fiction coming out of the Middle East focused on the sad, painful stories of women.
“But Dubai is not all about that,” she says from California, where she now lives. “I wanted to write a light, entertaining but insightful story about the region.”
Ghassemi, who admits that she initially envisaged Desert Mojito as a series of short stories, dispenses with heavy plotting and, instead, sends Maya on a series of encounters across Dubai, with a potential slow-moving romance thrown in for good measure.
And while some of these encounters can be quite flippant, it is encouraging that somewhere in between is a conversation with a Pakistani taxi driver who has yet to see his newborn son in Islamabad. Maya also worries that she has become too desensitised to the plight of the construction workers she sees everywhere and assuages her guilt by tipping “everyone in sight”.
Without question, there’s a certain Sex and the City feel to many of Maya’s escapades but, happily, Ghassemi channels the successes of the series rather than the last film, set in Abu Dhabi.
“Oh my goodness, I liked the series but the film – I was in disbelief!” says Ghassemi. “How could the producers not have done their research? It was so wrong that I was appalled!
“But, yes, there is the same playfulness to Desert Mojito that you find in Sex and the City, because my first goal is to entertain. By doing that, you can weave in some serious issues, which, perhaps might get people to rethink their views on different cultures.”
But Desert Mojito’s main success is that Ghassemi manages to pierce through Dubai’s layer of glitz. Though she admits that the North American readers she has spoken to on her current book tour seemed more interested in the city’s luxurious lifestyle, the book tackles the challenges of religion, language, traditions, nationality and sexuality in the city.
“Dubai’s multiculturalism was as important to the book as the narrative, actually,” she says.
“As a writer, it was very interesting to be part of a city in the making. And what really did become clear both from living there and writing the book is that, despite the many nationalities, races and religions, when you get out of your cultural ghetto you realise how similar we all are. We all laugh, we all feel sad, we all fall in love. I wanted to reflect that. Also, I really believe that fiction connects us and politics divides us.”
Not that Ghassemi was completely won over by Dubai. In fact, she worries that for all its comfortable safety, it can feel transitory and mercenary. “My relationship with the place is, well, complicated,” she says. “I love it, and then I sometimes feel like it’s a weird sorority house. But then, I think that’s the same for most people who spend time there.”
Nevertheless, she hopes to return soon, perhaps to talk about a book which certainly speaks from the heart about a city she once called home. “I’ll tell you one thing about this book tour I’m on,” she says. “Nearly everyone tells me they want to go to Dubai after they’ve heard me talk. I’m like a free advertisement for the place. So, in a way, maybe Desert Mojito is my gift to Dubai.”