Q: You’ve hooked me on wanting the feel of being an ex-pat in Dubai. Imagine that you and I are sitting in a Dubai hotel bar. (You’re buying, because that sweetens the fantasy for me; I’m cheap.) Who would be sitting around us, rough percentage-wise? Men, women, Emirates, other Middle-Easterners, Europeans, Americans? How would people be dressed?
A: Men and women in about equal numbers. The men are mostly Europeans and Americans, but there’s a good sprinkling of Middle Eastern men too, and probably a few Indians. Most of the women are westerners, but some of the western men and Arabs have Asian girlfriends, mostly from the Philippines. There are a handful of Arab women, none of them locals. They are Lebanese, probably, perhaps a Syrian or Jordanian or two. Everyone is wearing western dress. The bars are not allowed to serve Arabs in traditional dress. Most people are either in smart-casual—the men in chinos and polo shirts and loafers, the women in cocktail dresses—or perhaps are dressed a little more casually than that, in shorts and tee shirts. The best-dressed people are always the Lebanese, who are the Italians of the Middle East. They’re in Armani and Versace and Dolce and Gabbana. The Lebanese women are stunning, and they know it—like the Italian ladies, again.
Q: What are you writing now? Novel, short stories? Where is your work-in-progress set and who’s the focus? What do you see as your next publication?
A: The new book is a novel set in Italy and Croatia, mostly around a hundred years ago. The main character is a historical personage, Gabriele D’ Annunzio, who was easily the most important poet, playwright and novelist of his time in Italy, but also a very renowned playboy, the most decorated Italian soldier of the First World War—even though he enlisted when he was already 52—and after the war the founder of a short-lived utopian republic on the Dalmatian coast, which survived mainly by piracy, like Somalia today. So yes, he was a pirate too. And a prince. Mussolini had the king make him a prince afterwards, mainly to buy him off. A pretty interesting guy. Not a very nice one, but fascinating, because he believed in the Nietzschean ideal of the ubermensch or super-man. He thought a man could make anything of himself that he chose—and he proved that that was the case. This will be my next publication, I think. Give me another year or two.
Q: You teach at the University of Central Arkansas, mid-America, borderline South, home state of Razorback football and of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and of the Clinton Presidential Library. We know from reading Stoning the Devil that you’re an astute observer of human interactions. On the face of it, relationships between young women and young men in the U.S. should be different than in the U.A.E. Young women are independent here, young men today less likely to see “womanizing” as cool. But I have a theory that males are hardwired to have sex, if they could, with everyone attractive to them, and females are hardwired to be more selective. Of the apparent difference between how young women and young men relate here compared to the U.A.E. (and I suspect the difference is apparent), how much of it do you think is on the surface and how much runs deep?
A: Let me quibble with you over your definition of Arkansas. It’s not borderline South, it’s South, believe me. I was married to an Arkansan. She and everyone I know who lives here would be offended by the appellation ‘borderline South.’ It’s true that it’s a complex state. The northwest corner has quite a bit of the Midwest in it, but if you draw a line from the north-east corner to the south-west corner (it’s almost square), everything south and east of that line is not only South but Deep South. Much of it is Mississippi Delta, the home of bluesmen like Albert King, Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Bill Broonzy. Only Mississippi has more important bluesmen than us. Johnny Cash was Arkansan too. I was married in a plantation mansion on which the slave shacks are still standing. That’s South, man. Cotton fields and swamps. Alligators. Fried catfish and barbecued ribs, y’all. But anyway… I agree with your theory—it’s what anthropology tells us, isn’t it? Women are certainly a bit more selective than men, though a lot of them lead pretty active sex lives here, compared to the UAE. You might argue that that’s superficial, I suppose, but I think there are real differences. Women can choose their sexual partners and life partners in a way that most Gulf women could barely dream of. If an Emirati girl has a boyfriend, it has to be surreptitious. Women have much, much more control over their lives here than Emirati women do. That’s not to say that some of the same sexism doesn’t prevail here. And of course it’s true that in some ways Southern women are more conservative than others in the country. They wear lots of make-up, they wear provocative clothes even if they’re going to church—especially if they’re going to church! that’s where they meet their boyfriends!—and they like their men to be he-men. Football players and soldiers are popular choices. Still, don’t think that the South resembles the Persian Gulf all that much in anything but religion. There is a lot of fundamentalist faith here, that’s the biggest similarity.
Above, the author in the U.A.E. Below, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.
Garry Craig Powell’s writing has appeared in Nimrod International Journal, McSweeney’s, New Orleans Review, Red Wheelbarrow Literary Magazine, among others, and he has been awarded writing fellowships by the Arkansas Arts Council and the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, Eureka Springs, Arkansas.