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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Sand Men by Christopher Fowler

The Sandmen   by Christopher Fowler

Initially, I was not at all sure what to say about this one.  After reading it, it just seemed completely fantastical, and yet--there were elements that sounded so real that a little investigation was in order.  

Character development is usually very important to me, but I don't think the characters were at all what the author wanted you to think about--the characters really only stand in to tell the behind the scenes story of Dubai.  Even the plot, which veers from an intriguing look at a delusional world that actually exists  to a kind of mythic, murderous cult situation has a point.  

A little bit The Stepford Wives, a little bit Rosemary's Baby, a lot of environmental criticism, and criticism of double standards, slavery, and a warped legal system.

A novel that I almost dismissed when I finished, turned out to be a kind of allegory. Fair warning:  this becomes a rant with a bunch of links.

An indentured, invisible majority

Dubai, together with its emirate neighbors, has achieved the state of the art in the disenfranchisement of labour. In a country that only abolished slavery in 1963, trade unions, most strikes and all agitators are illegal, and 99 per cent of the private-sector workforce are immediately deportable non-citizens. Indeed, the deep thinkers at the American Enterprise and Cato Institutes must salivate when they contemplate the system of classes and entitlements in Dubai.  via Fear and Money in Dubai by Mike Davis
From The Dark Side of Dubai by Johan Hari:   "A British man who used to work on construction projects told me: "There's a huge number of suicides in the camps and on the construction sites, but they're not reported. They're described as 'accidents'." Even then, their families aren't free: they simply inherit the debts. A Human Rights Watch study found there is a "cover-up of the true extent" of deaths from heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide, but the Indian consulate registered 971 deaths of their nationals in 2005 alone. After this figure was leaked, the consulates were told to stop counting."
"I approach a blonde 17-year-old Dutch girl wandering around in hotpants, oblivious to the swarms of men gaping at her. "I love it here!" she says. "The heat, the malls, the beach!" Does it ever bother you that it's a slave society? She puts her head down, just as Sohinal did. "I try not to see," she says. Even at 17, she has learned not to look, and not to ask; that, she senses, is a transgression too far."   

I would have preferred the book to have avoided the cult aspect--the truth is horrifying enough. Perhaps even more so (i.e.  a Norwegian woman was raped and reported the incident to the police. She was tried and convicted of having had sex outside of marriage and sentenced to 16 months in prison.  Thanks to the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, she has since been pardoned.   You can find out more here and here.  Marte Dalelv was also fired after reporting the rape; her employer?  Janet Jackson's billionaire husband Wisam Almana.

At the same time that a rape victim can be arrested, prostitution thrives and is "overlooked" by enforcers of sharia law.  A Guide to Brothels in Dubai.  

Just one more link, this one is to an NPR transcript about the refrigerated beaches, but look up the other environmental issues for yourselves.  The more I read, the more offended I become.

I've developed a deep disgust for this playground of excesses, and had I not read Fowler's novel, I would never have given this city a second thought. It is appalling that so many celebrities vacation and perform in Dubai, where Human Rights have no place.  Shouldn't they be responsible for vetting the places they choose to entertain?  


Suspense/Thriller/and enough truth to make you ill.  Oct. 6, 2015.  Print length:  320 pages.


  1. I had a pen pal for a number of years who lived in Dubai. I can't remember what she did for a living, a secretary or something, but she was well off and not a native. She wrote about her immigrant experience and about her life mostly. I do remember her talking about how there were the very rich and then the very poor, but she never went into depth about it. I didn't realize how bad it was there. It's appalling. Thank you for sharing, Jenclair.

    1. I was astonished at how the excesses of Dubai are founded on the backs of foreign workers who are treated so badly. Sharia law is also a frightening thing for people who are not raised in that culture. The hypocrisy is astounding.

  2. At first glance I've a feeling this book isn't for me and after reading your thoughts I was more appalled by the things happened there. I don't think I'll read this book but I might check out the others.

    1. I just quit looking at articles about Dubai. The more I read, the creepier the place felt. Surface glitter with distressing undertones.

  3. Oh wow, those links about Dubai are intense. I didn't know much of that at all! It makes me want to read a nonfiction book about Dubai and what it's like there today.

    1. Perhaps the best thing about fiction is that it leads to discovering more about what is fact. I find it strange that the negatives of the playground have been so underplayed. Fowler said in an interview something to the effect that his first draft was almost nonfiction. I wonder if there are any genuinely investigative books about Dubai--I'd certainly be interested.