Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Writing Room Bursary: Part One

In February 2012 we announced Saudha Kasim as the winner of our first ever Writing Room Bursary. 

Scroll down to read Saudha's winning extract, taken from her novel In the Medinah.

Saudha's prize is a full editorial report, worth £1000 and prepared by one of our professional editors.

To shed a bit of light on the editing process we will be reporting on our winner's progress and her experience in The Writing Room.

The Competition
We asked writers to send us the first ten pages and synopsis of a complete work of fiction, on which they had not received any professional advice.  After reading all the entries (and then reading them again, after some panel disagreements - eat your heart out The Man Booker) we decided on Saudha, and the extract from her novel In the Medinah, as our winner.

We were really impressed by her piece, the confident yet subtle writing immediately establishes an engaging narrative voice with an intriguing backstory. The strong sense of place and activities of the wider world complement a finely-drawn family portrait, filled with intimate detail.

We wanted to read more.

Saudha has now submitted the full manuscript of her novel, and our editorial report is underway.

We've been getting a lot of requests from readers (and writers) desperate to read Saudha's work...we have great pleasure introducing her competition entry here.

The Winning Extract
Please note: Copyright remains with Saudha Kasim, you must not reproduce it without her permission.

In The Medinah
A novel
by Saudha Kasim

The Blow! What is the Blow?
Who shall teach thee what the Blow is?

-Sura 101, The Blow, The Koran

Part One – A Storm in the Desert

In the years and decades to follow, Shameem will, whenever she thinks of The Medinah and the years she spent there, remember this: night time drives on the swooping highways vending through the hills and the series of orange streetlights browning the mountains, yellowing the roads, shining on her father’s face.

She will remember the descent down the overpass, her mother’s soft sigh as her shoulders relaxed and her brother’s eyes closing from sleep as they went around the flying fish roundabout, briefly skirting the Corniche with the black sea beyond an unfathomable vastness. Her father would park the car in the lot in front of the long white row of buildings with walls that tasted of salt (she knew this to be true – she’d run her tongue on the wall of the local all-girls’ school one evening when her mother was not watching). They would tumble out of the car and the stink of the low tide would hit them – fishy, briny smells and Shameem would wrinkle her nose.

It will feel as though the smells are with her now, two decades ahead and a sea away.

Chapter One

On the Monday afternoon a week before the Americans launched their storm in the desert, Shameem knelt on the beige carpet in the living room with her nose pressed against the screen of the NEC television set. Nine of the ten channels showed nothing except black and white grains and one showed State TV that broadcast for nine hours every day. The three o’clock Koran recitation programme was in full flow. An old mullah with a thick, snowy beard that reached his navel sat at the head of a long green room in which prepubescent boys in spotless white dishdashas sat against the two long walls, facing each other across the width of an emerald green rug. Shameem, with her face flat against the screen, saw nothing but a bright green ground and white blobs reciting the Yāseen. Her nine year old brother, Rahim, sprawled behind on the two-seater sofa, spoke in a low voice: “She will kill you if she sees you like this.”

Shameem broke off her communion with the television screen and rocked back on her heels. The static still played across her face and her shoulder length black hair.

“There’s nothing on TV.” Shameem pressed each of the buttons again. She pressed the narrow panel on the side of the screen and it opened, to reveal the gear-like dials which she’d turned so many times that the tip of her right forefinger often had a fine groove down the middle. She had committed to memory the labels of each of the dials – UHF, VHF. Ultra High Frequency. Very High Frequency. Her father had taught her the mysteries of television tuning.

“Voltron comes on at four thirty.” Rahim thought the half hour episodes of Voltron, even when dubbed in Arabic – a language he didn’t understand – was the only bright spot in his day.

Shameem, who’d discovered the delights of English language-only television in Dubai (Channel 33, broadcasting for much longer than State TV in The Medinah), said, “I want to see Addams Family. Or Archie.”

But all that she got from the TV was the sing-song of  boys reciting the Koran.


When their parents, Abdul and Tahira had taken them to Dubai over the Christmas holidays, Shameem had been smitten. Rahim, however, had found the city, with its one tall skyscraper sticking out in the middle of all that flat land, its endless number of parking lots and claustrophobic shopping malls, intensely boring. The first view of Channel 33 in their hotel room had captivated Shameem (Sesame Street in English!) and she had asked Abdul on the second day of their stay, while they were having breakfast in a small restaurant in Karama, if they couldn’t get it on the television back home.

Abdul, halfway through a crispy masala dosa, frowned and said, “You could try tuning it. I don’t know if their transmissions are that powerful though.”

But Tahira, who knew how obsessions took root in her eleven year old daughter’s mind, cut in: “No. Don’t fiddle around with that TV set. School will start next week. You’ll have too much homework.”

“But they show Archie in English!”

“Archie? Your school has asked us to not let you read or even watch them. They even sent that notice around.”

A notice that Tahira and Abdul did not get from Shameem since their daughter had torn it up and thrown it away in the bus bay outside the school compound.

Instead, Tahira came to know about it from Amala, their neighbour on the ground floor. She had read the notice (Dear Parents, Please ensure that your children do not read Archie comics...Bad English...Slang...Grammatically incorrect) with pursed lips and thought of the little shelf in Shameem and Rahim’s room filled with the Archie digests and magazines and strips clipped by Shameem from newspapers.

“So are you going to throw them out? Maybe we can both collect them all and burn them on the roof together,” Amala, plump and matronly, had grinned.

“How many do Asha and Anita have?” Tahira thought of Amala’s two demure daughters, slim and prim with their long hair tied in plaits, ribbons knotted into extravagant bows.

“Maybe a dozen or so. They had bought a boxful from India last summer. They are too expensive to buy here. Most of the pages are blacked out. They don’t like two piece swimsuits and short shorts here.” Amala guffawed.

Those swimsuits and shorts that covered voluptuous breasts and backsides. Tahira had been furious when she’d first caught Shameem with a comic in one hand and half eaten chocolate bar in the other, the previous April.  Shameem told her that she had borrowed it from a school friend and Tahira had seen it for days afterward on her bed, next to the pillow. After avoiding it for some time, she finally gave in and opened the book. Tall, American girls loafed on beaches with their flat stomachs exposed, their perky breasts at attention when smiling at boys.

Tahira remembered the comics of her youth – the two scamps Boban and Molly making erudite comments on Kerala politics and gently poking fun of the adults around them. Boban and Molly were a world away from the lustful Archie and his gang. A bikini clad Betty wandering through Boban and Molly’s world would have been forcibly shoved into a sari and asked to keep her belly button to herself.

A part of Tahira had wanted to take the book away, to protect her daughter. What, she’d thought later, would that achieve? Shameem would find new ways to read what she wanted.

And she had, persuading Abdul to buy her some on their visit to Kerala last summer. Shameem had come back from Thrissur railway station with twelve Archie digests that Abdul had bought from the Higginbothams stall on the platform. Anything Shameem wanted to get or do, she invariably managed to get done.

It proved so in Dubai. Abdul, who Tahira thought spoiled their daughter far too much, quelled Shameem’s fears of returning to The Medinah bereft of the animated Archie. He said he would buy her a VHS tape of the cartoons. They would look for it the next evening when they went on their final shopping expedition.

In the somnolent hotel lobby stuffed with potted palms and plush sofas where they waited for Abdul’s cousin to take them on an expedition to Jumeirah Beach, Tahira told her husband not to buy the tape.

Abdul, reading the day’s Khaleej Times, was puzzled. “They are just cartoons.”

“They are not good for her.”

“I don’t see the harm in reading comic books. We read them – I still see you reading Boban and Molly.”

“Molly doesn’t roam around a beach half-naked.”

“Is that what Archie does?”

“Archie’s girlfriends do that, yes.”

“Girlfriends eh? So you read them too.”

“I had to – I had to know what she was reading.”

“Of course you had to.” She could hear the laughter he was trying to suppress.

“So will you please not buy her the tape? And remember – you promised you would search for an Ustad for them.”

“From Archie to religious lessons. You really make the most obvious moves. If they’re reading vulgar comic books, it must be because they have no religious grounding.”

“It’s not just me who’s been asking you to get them religious education. It’s your father, too.”

“My father, the Madarassa teacher. Of course he’d suggest something like that.”

“So you think they don’t need it?”

“Not at this point of time, no.”

“Then when?”

“Tahira – did going to the Madarassa help us? No. They didn’t even teach us Arabic properly. I had to learn it when I reached The Medinah.”

“When things go bad...”

“They won’t.”

“They will and you will blame me.”

That was how it always worked.


Abdul bought Shameem the tape when Tahira’s cousin took them around Karama the following evening to buy clothes and shoes, which were far cheaper in Dubai than The Medinah. Rahim, seeing his sister getting the tape, asked for cartoons as well.

“Which do you want?” Abdul asked his son.



The next morning, at dawn, they piled into the car and started their four hour journey back to The Medinah.

Tahira looked at Dubai disappearing in the side view mirror. The World Trade Centre, the lone black tower, receded to a thin dark line in the pale blue winter atmosphere.

At the border check-post they were stopped and the car searched. The video cassettes were found and confiscated by the Kingdom Police. Videos not checked and approved will not be allowed in, they explained.

Abdul said he had the receipt – they were just cartoons for the children. The men, impassive and lean, bored almost, said in Arabic that the law was the law. These VHS tapes were contraband, they couldn’t let them in to the Kingdom.

Shameem cried and sobbed all the way back. Not even a stop at a small provision store in a dusty town fifty kilometres from The Medinah to buy and drink cold packs of laban comforted her.

Rahim played with the watch he’d been gifted by Tahira’s cousin. He wasn’t mourning the loss of his Popeye tape. The watch, with a hinged dial the shape of a rhino and a built-in game was much better than the digital ones worn by his friends.

When they reached home – a two bedroom flat in a four story apartment building near the old souq and the Corniche – Shameem had cried herself to sleep.

Tahira let herself into the house first and as the children straggled in and went to their bedroom, she went to the cupboard in the master bedroom from which she pulled out the bag of comic books she’d hidden before leaving for Dubai.  When she passed the children’s room, bag in hand, she heard her daughter complaining. It was all Tahira’s fault – she wanted the tapes to go away. She must have prayed for it. Whatever Tahira prayed for, Shameem told her little brother, usually came true.

No, Tahira wanted to go in and tell her. Not everything.

Maybe she should give the books back to her daughter?

Then she remembered Shameem’s grades in the December exams – all Bs and a disgraceful C – and she carried on, out to the front of the apartment and to the empty lot where the municipal garbage bin stood. She threw the books in. A cat sprang out, hissing at her indignantly. Tahira watched it streak away. She was regretting it already.


Bereft of the tapes and the comics, Shameem had taken to the futile task of trying to tune the television to Channel 33 every day for a month. She had convinced Abdul to try as well but nothing happened. Occasionally she found flickering, ghostly figures.

“Channel 33?” she’d ask her father.


“What is it?”

She’d press her ears to the TV speakers and convince herself that the song was there, underneath the noisy static:

They’re creepy and they’re kooky

Mysterious and spooky

She hummed the rest.

“It’s not really there,” Rahim said.

The afternoon ritual of trying unsuccessfully complete, the groove on her finger a little more pronounced, she joined her brother on the sofa and watched Voltron and Ifthahya SimSim, Sesame Street in Arabic. They watched the letter ba turn into houses and oranges.

When both shows were over, Tahira pushed them to their bedroom where they sat at their small desks and cracked open their books. Tahira watched them write out their homework assignments as she drank a cup of black tea.

Shameem fidgeted in her chair. Rahim, quiet, placid Rahim, kept his limbs in place and in order. Tahira, her tea finished and cup cold, looked out the bedroom window. The almond tree cast a shadow on the wall of the girls’ school as the sun set. Somewhere in the neighbourhood goats were bleating. The breeze blew in from the sea, the branches of the almond tree shook and a chain clanged.

The quiet never lasted long here.


State TV showed the half hour English news bulletin at eight o’clock. In the days before the war drums were banged with increasing fury, they were sedate, soporific events. The King received diplomatic cables from other kings, presidents and prime ministers. The cables he answered to or sent were also read out – just the names of countries or leaders, never the details. He held his council in the middle of the desert somewhere. He appointed ministers and retired ministers. In between there was the odd bit of international news: Arafat featured prominently, as did Hanan Ashrawi. Palestinian children in a permanent state of flinging stones at Israeli soldiers – untiring and constant or so it seemed to Tahira, Shameem and Rahim, who would watch the scenes of the Intifada each day and feel momentary dread and despair. Dread and despair which melted away when anodyne pictures of Queen Beatrice or Prince Rainier meeting the King followed the daily Palestinian/Israel news. Abdul, alone in the family, did not react.

On some days the English news bulletin was read by the platinum blonde British expatriate Caroline Saunders, who, according to Abdul, was not really a journalist. She must have, he contended, known the right sheikh. Then again, most things to do with State TV and Radio meant knowing the right sheikh.

On days when Caroline Saunders didn’t read the news, Tabassum Ali read it. She was Indian, from Delhi, and had a proper journalism degree. This was an advertised fact in The Medinah. Most of the advertising was done by Tabassum’s mother, Jahannara Ali, a director of the Indian Cultural Association in The Medinah and a popular State Radio host. Tabassum’s father was Ajmal Ali, one of Abdul’s oldest friends, who’d divorced Jahannara and lost custody of both Tabassum and his younger daughter, Ruqsana, to his restless wife. In The Medinah, Jahannara lived under the patronage of Sheikh Hafeez, a close friend of the King, the Minister of the Interior and one of the most powerful businessmen in the Kingdom. Ajmal, separate from his wife and children, lived a more prosaic life, working as a chartered accountant for The Medinah’s biggest fruit and vegetable importer.

Jahannara declared often that she lived for Culture. Culture drove her life. It was what drove her to Abdul’s office every year, trying to drum up sponsorship for events put on by the association. Abdul, as office manager, had to put up with listening to Jahannara hold forth on the need to expose the Indian expatriates to Culture. He listened until it grew unbearable and let Jahannara talk to his boss, Sheikh Qahrawi. Qahrawi didn’t really care for Pankaj Udas concerts or kathak performances. He would sit through Jahannara’s passionate declamations about the need to reclaim and submit to the beauty of the Arts with a barely suppressed smile. Abdul, watching his boss reach for the chequebook and sign one off with a flourish, would ask after Jahannara left, “Why?”

“It’s a good thing.”

“You never attend these programmes.”

“No,” Qahrawi would gently nod, “No, I don’t. But a number of your people get pleasure from them. Even you.”

“So you’re doing it for us.”

“You people work too hard.” Qahrawi laughed.


  1. Saudha this is beautiful. Captivating from the first sentance to the last. The voice is so right it's instantly comfortable, like an old friend reading a story from a big old comfy chair by the fireplace. I love the fact that there is an immediate relationship with Shameen, a real curiousity about where she's going to go and how she's going to get there. The imagery, sometimes subtle and sometimes wonderfully in your face creates a fabulous sense of place, a looking glass into another culture, a different world. I also really like the fact that Shameen, whilst undoubtedly intriguing, doesn't entirely steal the show, the remainder of the family are all worthy and wonderfully interesting too. Not a direct comparison at all but your introduction reminds me of Half of a Yellow Sun, - obviously it's not as harrowing - but that direct access into a different way of life from such an inclusive and welcoming perspective was a tool that worked really well in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel. I'm not in the least surprised that this has been chosen for review. As a reader I was hooked from the start and would probably find the novel hard to put down. The mystery, the calmness balanced against the hint of complexity ahead and the undercurrent of sarcasm is utterly compelling. Thanks for sharing, the very best of luck with it. I very much look forward to picking it up from a book store one day!
    Hope this is useful!

  2. Awesome Saudha! Shameem is very interesting and would love to read more!
    All the best,

  3. Hi Saudha – many congratulations. This is great writing and a fascinating opening. The prologue is stunning. ‘Vending’ puzzled me at first but I really like the sound it makes and the images of the opening section which flash past like those streetlights. Licking the walls is just unforgettable.
    I like the Dubai trip too for the cultural insights although wasn’t so comfortable with it told as a flashback which I think detracts from the immediacy.
    My only other problem is that there is a complex cultural background here which will be unfamiliar to many. You might have to be careful not to introduce too many people at the beginning. I’m thinking of the paragraph about Tabassum and Jahannara. If we need the family details maybe they could be saved for later?
    But really, I am just nit-picking. This is distinctive and all the characters are convincing. I want to know what the future holds for Shameem. Looks like a great winner which will hopefully go all the way for you. Very best wishes.