Qatar Inspires a Writing Instructor Despite Censorship
This article first ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education and appears here under an agreement with The Chronicle.
DOHA—The writer Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar has spent a decade in Doha, the fast-growing capital of the small, wealthy emirate of Qatar. In a memoir of her time there so far, From Dunes to Dior, she describes it as a place that “resists and embraces modernization” and as “full of contradictions, opportunities, and challenges.”
An adjunct professor of writing and literature, Ms. Rajakumar has had her own share of all of those features. As an author and an instructor who works at Northwestern University’s branch campus here, she has helped foster a literary community in a country that restricts freedom of expression.
Yet Ms. Rajakumar herself has run afoul of those restrictions. Last year her latest novel, Love Comes Later, was banned in Qatar. The Ministry of Culture offers no explanation for why it blacklisted the book, which tells the story of two Qatari cousins who are betrothed in an arranged marriage.
Her situation reflects the tricky landscape American academics must navigate in Qatar, which also hosts programs operated by Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and Texas A&M, among other Western universities. Mr. Rajakumar and her colleagues have come here to help push an ambitious education agenda, but they must also observe unspoken rulesabout what can be said or studied.
Despite her censored novel, Ms. Rajakumar remains enthusiastic about living and working as an expatriate academic. She says she was willing to make changes to enable the book’s publication in Qatar.
“I’m a pragmatist,” she says. “I was ready to put a big fat ‘Qatar edition’ sticker on the book—and then people who were interested could look for the international edition.”
Books Built on Questions
A daughter of Indian academics who emigrated to the United States, Ms. Rajakumar, 36, arrived in Doha in 2005, to serve as assistant dean of student affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. A few years later, while working at Bloomsbury Qatar, a branch of the British publisher, she decided to try her hand at writing. “I thought: Wait a minute, I’m as good as some of these authors,” she says.
While pursuing her literary goals, she also encouraged others to do the same. She started teaching writing and founded the Doha Writers’ Workshop, the first group of its kind in the country. Its meetings made her aware of the many stories Qataris were interested in telling.
With support from the U.S. State Department and from Qatar University, she established the Qatar Narrative Series, with an open call for essays by female residents of Qatar. At the time, says Ms. Rajakumar, “People said, ‘It’s such a private culture, they value anonymity, they don’t want to lose face. You’ll never get them to sign their name.’” But the series was a success. From 2008 to 2011, Ms. Rajakumar co-edited four anthologies of Qatari writing.
Ms. Rajakumar, with two of her former students from Qatar “I could still be writing about this place in another 10 years. There are so many layers and so many different types of people. It’s the perfect place for fiction.”
She uses the collections in the writing classes she teaches. It helps to show students “a book of published essays by people they can relate to,” says Ms. Rajakumar, who has also taught at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Qatar campus.
Ms. Rajakumar herself has written half a dozen books, published on Amazon. In the spring of 2014, she released Love Comes Later, the novel about young Qataris trying to find the right partner.
“All of my books are built around a question,” explains Ms. Rajakumar. A major one for the young Qatari would-be writers she’d spent time with was: “Who are we going to marry? Is there any chance for love?” With Love Comes Later she imagined an answer.
When her distributor’s agent let her know the book was banned in Qatar,
Ms. Rajakumar was surprised. She had anticipated being asked to make some changes for the Qatari edition (a common requirement for local publication and distribution), and was prepared to do so. “As a writer,” she says, “if you don’t have readers, you might as well not be writing.”
Neither Virginia Commonwealth, where Ms. Rajakumar was working at the time, nor any of the other Western universities publicly questioned the ban. Responses from faculty colleagues varied, she says, with some giving her “high fives” and others asking, “How are you still here?”
Justin D. Martin, an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern’s campus in Qatar, says that because the case did not receive much publicity, most academics in Qatar were unaware of it. Those who were may have felt it wasn’t that significant. “The banning of a print book in Qatar doesn’t mean much,” he says. “It’s mostly symbolic. You can still access the book through e-readers.”
Ms. Rajakumar’s book is just one of many titles that have been banned—there is no official list, and the authorities do not publicize or explain their decisions, which don’t follow a discernible pattern. Several other works about Qatar that seem more critical or controversial than Ms. Rajakumar’s have been distributed and discussed at the foreign universities, notes Mr. Martin. Ms. Rajakumar believes that the authorities reject “non-Qataris writing about Qataris.”
The literary scene here is growing, but in 2013 a renowned local poet was given a 15-year jail sentence for a poem that criticized the former emir. Qatar wishes to present an image of openness and modernity to the world, hosting top universities, new museums, and international sporting events. But it remains culturally conservative and politically authoritarian. The question of freedom of expression, says Ms. Rajakumar, “will keep coming up and expanding.”
Despite such concerns, Ms. Rajakumar continues to find the emirate a source of inspiration. Her writing and her knowledge of Qatar feed each other. Needing to stage particular scenes—one, say, in a male majlis, the room in Qatari homes where men gather to discuss important matters—pushes her to acquire new information.
“I could still be writing about this place in another 10 years,” she says. “There are so many layers and so many different types of people. It’s the perfect place for fiction.”
In some ways the ban will help her write her next book. The censorship “freed me to write about anything I want because it will never be distributed here,” she says. “I’m not writing with that guy on my shoulder anymore.”
Her next book will be a crime thriller set in migrant workers’ camps.