This Place of Happiness

‘Where did you get the idea?’ I suspect that that is one of the most frequently asked questions that a writer hears. I am the youngest of three daughters and our mother told us to daydream stories to ourselves if we couldn’t sleep. For me the loveliest part of a story is the daydreaming.                  .

My tutor told me that I should call it ‘Thinking Time’.  But it isn’t. It really isn’t. It is when I lie in bed and shut my eyes, and go to the narrator of my story, and try to see her world through her eyes.  It’s when I hear her talking, or arguing with a character that I am only beginning to see or develop. If I’m not daydreaming my protagonist then, put simply, I am in trouble!

The second lovely thing in writing a story is research. Initially I wanted to write a novel set in the Arab world, because I love the romance of Persian love stories and Sheherazade and her Arabian Nights. I also like the idea of a magical object that binds stories together, and I started googling silver jewellery and words associated with the Middle East. I found this picture. It is a dancer’s bracelet. My immediate reaction was to wonder why anyone would choose to wear something like this. I found that the women who wore these bracelets belonged to dancers from the Ouled Naïll of the Hautes Plains of Algeria. The bracelets were their defensive weapons. I was hooked. I found myself reading books about North African silver, and Tuareg jewellery. I still didn’t really have my story. I read more.

The dancers from the Ouled Naïll were amazing, strong women. The dancers went into the towns to earn their dowries in silver coins. Then they went home, chose their own husbands and bought their own land. If the women became pregnant while they were away, the children were welcomed into the tribe. Little girls were a special blessing. I wondered if I could find any information about where they had danced, and if any still remained. That brought me to the town of Bou Saâda. It is one of the only places where the women of the Ouled Naïll still dance. A note in the article told me that the name Bou Saâda means Place of Happiness or City of Happiness. As I continued to read I learned about women and little girls having the word Prostitute stamped on their ID cards by their French colonial masters. I heard about whore camps where the women were forced into prostitution by the French. The beginning of a story began to form. Then I found this picture. Two women gazing sadly at a baby. Why were they sad? Was the younger woman the mother, or had the mother died? I spent hours looking at the photograph and wondering.

When I was in my early twenties I had an Algerian boyfriend. I was impressed with the warm and easy affection of the Algerians that I met, and I found myself wondering. A ‘what if’ question. If I had a daughter who had never met her father who would she be? If she went to Algeria to find out where she came from, what would she find? So, I settled Amti (Aunty) Fatima on the rooftops as a 20th century Sheherazade and she began to tell her story.

There had to be a Tuareg in the story. He had to wear a blue shesh or turban. The reason is this next picture: look at the eyes. Hmm. My inspiration for Abdulkader. He started with the name Hakim, but some lovely Algerian women said that it didn’t sound like a Tuareg name, and they renamed him Abdulkader, or servant of the Almighty. Who was I to argue?

The Tuareg have been called The Blue Men of the Desert. The reason? Their shesh are dyed with indigo. A beautiful blue dye that rubs off on the skin. I was taught to hand spin wool by a fellow student at West Dean College, and she gave me a small piece of the wool that I made. I had already read about the Tuareg, so when I found that my hands were stained blue with indigo dye it fed into my story.

The novel I am working on is called This Place of Happiness. A dancing girl, Jamila, is rescued by Abdulkader, a Tuareg. Years later the fire that is lit by this relationship becomes a secret that their daughter Aïcha carries with her. A secret that almost destroys Aïcha’s family sixty years later.

If you want to read more you will be able to buy the first chapter as part of an Anthology of First Chapters written by the MA students at West Dean College. It is coming out in June. I will add more details so that you will know how to get a copy. If you want me to email you more details please send me your details on the Contact Me page. I’ll add you to my mailing list. If you want to ask more please get in touch.

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