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Talking Location With author Nick Kelly – QATAR

16th January 2021

Talking Location with Nick Kelly… author of  The House of Fortune set in QATAR.

Nick KellyFate is a funny thing. To travel, turn up in a place you like, move on somewhere else because the ferry is convenient, or the train journey is particularly scenic, is all part of the glorious serendipity of life as a wanderer.

When I volunteered to be an English-language teacher with Voluntary Service Overseas in 1975 I was given the choice of spending two years in either Papua New Guinea or Egypt. With a toss of the coin I was plunged into the maelstrom of the Middle East. From the chaos of Cairo my posting took me to the romantic Winter hideaway of Aswan where I immersed myself in the culture of Arabia, learning the language and falling under the spell of the Nile. To teach children who lived in a Nubian village, innocents away from urban temptations, and to surround myself with temples and Pharaonic treasures was a blissful existence and I could still be there now, but I wanted to press on with my increasing fascination with Felix Arabia (South Arabia).

As a schoolboy I learned about the Trucial States and like any young person enjoyed the characters in One Thousand and One Nights; Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba, Aladdin and Scheherazade to name but a few. When a teaching post came up in a tiny little peninsula called Qatar I leapt at the chance. In the autumn of 1977 I found myself working in a community that was even smaller than Aswan; Doha, the capital, reminded me of those romantic tales. There was a prince installed in a palace, with a pastel pink and blue clocktower outside where the citizens would come on high days and holidays. They lived in simple mud-brick homes looking out across the turquoise-blue waters of the Arabian Gulf and they were content, living happily alongside people like me who had come to enjoy the pleasures of sunny days by the sea.

Nick Kelly

Exploring the coast of Qatar in the 80s. There is a simple beauty about abandoned boats on a barren shore. My writing and painting was inspired by scenes like this.

Unlike Aswan where I had been only one of two expatriates, here there was an established community of mainly British professionals and Indian workers who had come to build the infrastructure of what was still officially termed a third world country. My only interest was to meet the Qatari people and learn more about them. Through my students and their families, I soon discovered that here was a population of less than a quarter of a million whose ancestry and heritage was rich in tradition, with a strong determination to be independent. I made it my mission to immerse myself in all that the Qataris had to offer. My intention was to stay for two years and then continue teaching my way around the world. I stayed for twenty-three years!

Although teaching was my profession I was keen to get into broadcasting and was soon reading the news on television and radio. I began making programmes; little documentaries on the traditions of the country, interviews with those who remembered pearl-diving days and the harsher life of old. In the desert I found the rich culture of Bedouin life and boundless hospitality. From 1979 I was working as a full-time producer and presenter on Qatar TV where I explored every aspect of life in the Gulf, eventually filming all around the Gulf states, learning more and more about the history and rapid development that was taking place.

I first had the idea for The House of Fortune during the first gulf war in 1990. All normal programme-making ceased and most of our news came via CNN, watching the occupation of Kuwait, where I had been interviewing pioneering women, both Kuwaiti and expatriate, only months before. Housebound, with windows sealed and gas mask provided, in case of a Scud missile attack, my thoughts turned to writing.

A house in the now deserted village of Al Mafjar in the north west of Qatar. This is where I based the first part of The House of Fortune. I often use these colours for my paintings, even now.

Nick Kelly

The Wind Tower house in the centre of Doha. This is the old merchant house on which The House of Fortune is based in the later part of the story. All family life centred around the palm tree in the centre of the courtyard.

The idea of a fictitious family came to me through all the work I had done on the pearling industry and my fondness for a particular deserted coastal village on the north-east coast of the peninsula – Al Mafjar. I mapped out a family tree beginning with a head of the household who had fought in the battle of Wajbah in 1893 with the establishment of Qatar as an independent country.

I decided to call the family Al Bahr, the name for the sea in Arabic. It is a genuine family name anyway. The book deals with the struggles the family faces, with the men going out to sea to find pearls or face starvation. It is a saga through the years. Britain maintained its colonial influence and this features throughout the book.

From the village in the north the story moves to Doha and a fine merchant house based on one which still stands to this day. I used the house many times when making TV programmes. It is a typical merchant house with a wind-tower and a courtyard. The Al Bahr family grow up here through the middle of the twentieth century, as they adapt to new ways of living and the country’s increasing prosperity.

The characters are an amalgam of friends and acquaintances I met over the years and the protagonist is very similar to a very successful Qatari businessman. One of the main challenges was to create the feeling of the pleasures of a simple life and neighbourliness which could be found in the early days, something which I experienced. As the decades passed and development grew this closeness began to dwindle, but Qatar still retained a certain charm. I’m not so sure that is the case now.

The original painting for the wraparound cover of The House of Fortune. I tried to capture the vast emptiness of the desert, and the Qataris’ love of the sea. The house, with its wind tower and palm tree is on the front cover and the Emir’s palace and mosque, high on the hill overlooking the Arabian Gulf, are on the back cover.

The House of Fortune takes us up to the early 70s. I am currently writing a sequel which will cover the period from then until the present day.

Tips for Writers:

  1. Love your subject. The more intense the feelings, the better the prose, the more successful the novel.
  2. Research is most important. Learn as much as you can about the place and people where your novel is set.
  3. Attention to detail. Make sure that every day and date is accurate. In my case with an historical novel this is even more important. If a fictitious event happens, for example, the birth of a child at the same time war broke out, the child must be the correct age later on in the story.
  4. Make your characters come alive with vivid descriptions. Colours, smells, sounds, temperature all add to the mental image built up in the reader’s mind.
  5. Draw on your own memories of books that you have read and how much you love certain passages and techniques. In my case I love books that involve food and the pleasures of eating together. I go into great detail about cooking and eating, reflecting the country in which the book is set.

Nick Kelly

Catch Nick on Twitter and Insta (Artist) Insta (Author) and Facebook

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