Monday, April 19, 2010

Interview with Zohra Saeed

Zohra Saeed has written a romantic story set in the Middle East. Discover how she came to write this authentic tale about a Muslin woman and her love for a Canadian man in 1930, Bahrain.

*She's here to answer your questions and she's running a contest today, too. All details are below.

Tell us a little about the author. (Bio, tidbits, likes, dislikes. If you use a pen name, why did you choose to do so?)

I have been an advertising copywriter for more than 25 years, and have written ad copy – for films, radio, and print- in India, Bahrain and Canada. As part of my work I have also written two books that were commissioned assignments – one on a hotel in Calcutta and the other a real estate project here in Bahrain. I have had articles published in The Statesman (An English language newspaper) in Calcutta, India; The Globe & Mail, Canada and The Halifax Chronicle Herald, Nova Scotia, Canada.

I currently live in Bahrain with my husband who is a banker, and we h
ave two children – one in the financial field in the US and the other a chef in Canada. That’s the ‘Cook’s Tour’ of my life.

Interesting bits - I was born in Ambala, India at a time when the Indian Air Force was just beginning its independence from the British Raj. My father had been a fighter pilot in WWII and was on the Burma front fighting for the Allies against Japan – many stories. My mother, a teacher – and strict grammarian - was a remarkable woman, and I was and still am very influenced by her, although she passed away 12 years ago. She always claimed that I would live by my pen although when I was a child I had wanted to be a doctor. I studied English Literature at Delhi University and have had a lifelong romance with words. However, this is the first time I have attempted to write a ‘romantic’ story. The exercise has opened many avenues – as has reading excerpts and promos from the other authors in this group.

Likes/ Dislikes: Love words, words, words! From cryptic crossword puzzles, word games, anagrams to stories, poems, writing and a fine turn of phrase. Reading – anything, sorry I am an indiscriminate reader. Dark Chocolate – any time. Sherry, not so easy to get here. My husband – top of the list and my two grown up and grown away children. Nova Scotia – which I think is the world’s most beautiful spot – and I feel qualified to say so as I have visited about 20 countries and lived in three. Gardening and pottering around plants. Now, if I could fit a dog somewhere in my life I’d be complete.

Why did I choose the pen name of Zohra Saeed? As I said, this is my first romance, and though it may seem normal to you, when I really began to take note of the Red Rose site, I was taken aback by what would, over here in the Middle East and even in Bahrain – which is relatively free, be considered rather explicit covers, blurbs, etc. In fact, I live in daily dread that the authorities will block access to the site. Also I do hope to write children’s stories – here in Bahrain - so thought it might be wise to separate the two personas. That’s why I decided on a Middle Eastern name after all, the story is set here in the Middle East. My name Rohini (a Sanskrit/Hindi word) means the morning star or Venus and Zohra is the equivalent in Arabic. Saeed, happens to be the name of my old guru and mentor who is a film director in India and it’s Muslim so I combined the two.

Your new release Desert Flower is about Noor, a Muslim woman who falls in love with a Canadian, Andrew McInnis. Without giving too much away, tell us little about their plight to be together.

Before I proceed to tell you about Desert Flower I need to tell you how the story came to be written. Someone in Halifax asked me, “How hot does it get there?” So I decided to write a description of the unrelenting temperatures, “How can I explain that sort of heat to you? Dry. The air so hot you can hardly breathe…” but out of nowhere this romantic story forced itself in upon me as if it just had to be told. I wrote frantically for seven straight days every lunch hour in my office and then that weekend I carried on and suddenly the story was done. It stayed with me for almost ten years until I returned to Bahrain in 2003. A few months before I found Red Rose I shared the story with a few Bahraini girls who told me that it was really authentic and I ought to find a publisher.

Desert Flower is set sometime around the 1930s in Bahrain when the Island was a Protectorate of Britain and oil was first discovered in the Middle East. At that time not many Bahrainis and even fewer girls could speak English. But Noor comes from a relatively progressive family, one that has allowed her to learn English at a girls’ school set up by a Sheikha who has been to England. The idea was that she could help her father in his business, as a lot of foreigners had started to come to Bahrain and so that she may find a better husband. Because of her ability with English she is chosen to interpret for her father when the Canadian Andrew McInnis comes to his residential outlet to buy carpets. And it is over the following weeks while explaining about the carpets that the two fall utterly and hopelessly in love. Back then a girl would never have been able to choose her husband, so the danger of falling in love with anyone, let alone a complete foreigner was unthinkable. Remember that even today it is not commonly done, certainly not among the more traditional families and even among the so-called ‘educated’ families where a great deal of wealth is involved, it is frowned upon. Noor is torn, she is the oldest of her father’s children – he has, as was common then, taken four wives – and so a weight of responsibility rests on her. But, she reads. Her mind has been opened and for the first time in that kind of a home an independent will and a personal desire is born. Her struggle is huge and we are privy to her feelings, her emotions and her awakening to her own sexuality. So, do they escape, can they escape? I leave our readers to find out.

Noor is a Bahraini girl. How much research went into creating your character?

Research about Noor. Some of this comes naturally to me. For one, I have lived here in Bahrain for almost sixteen years and have known many Bahraini girls and older women having worked with them. For the other, I am from India, where I was born and grew up and where similar attitudes, including honour killings, still exist in villages and among some business families. So this is not alien to me. What I did need to research was life in the 1930s in Bahrain. I relied heavily on two books, Memories of Bahrain by Aisha Yateem and Islands of Bahrain by Angela Clarke in addition to conversations with many Bahrainis – men and women.
In your story, Noor’s father has the right to hunt down the two lovers and kill them. Is this a true threat for a young Bahraini woman if she chose a man her father didn’t approve of? Honour Killings. Yes, this was true back then in Saudi Arabia and Noor’s family takes much of their attitudes from there, including the ‘full hijab’ which means a complete covering. Bahraini girls otherwise didn’t cover their faces completely. In my story Noor does, it is part of her mystique. Just once, the first time, Andrew sees her face and it’s a case of love at first sight. Today, if a girl from a traditional home should choose her own husband, the family would still ostracise her. However, honour killings are still done in places like Pakistan and are not unknown in Saudi Arabia. So the danger is quite real.

What are your current projects and works in progress?

Current projects These include a children’s story set in Bahrain – completely in verse – a strict 6/6/8/6 quatrain that I’m rather pleased with. Still finalising illustrations with the friend on whose idea the story is based. Another children’s story set in India is currently under consideration by a print publisher there. And I’m working on a much longer story set in Bahrain, which I don’t want to talk about yet. I may do one more romance in a more modern Bahrain, but it’s early days and still gestating.

Tell the readers where they can find you:
Where to find me: I have just started a blog – and have some free stories there. But this is a blog where I encourage readers to send in their writings and will publish them solely at my discretion. It isn’t until recently that I have discovered flash fiction, I have been writing stories this short most of my life. Thank goodness there’s finally a genre for them! I will also put a bio on it which I may add to from time to time. My other favourite medium is verse so I expect to put some of that on too.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell the readers?
Anything else Desert Flower is perhaps the most authentic account you will get, in a romantic story, of the Middle East. Life here is very different from the west. Deep down attitudes haven’t changed much, especially attitudes to women. Having said that there are tiny, tiny changes being made. Bahrain is a very progressive, forward-looking country, women here constitute almost 50% of the work force and it was thanks to them that I began to look for a publisher. I was delighted to receive a 5 star review from Book Reviews R Us, so I do believe that this is both a thrilling and an informative read.

Story blurb:
Nowhere, not in school, not in books, not anywhere that I could imagine had I seen a stranger like that. He had a fine-cut face, a sharp nose, clear eyes as blue as the sky in winter, his skin was pale as creamy milk, paler than my breasts, yet there was nothing feminine about him. His hair was honey-gold, it curled around his head like a halo and his beard was just slightly darker than that. He was an angel sent from heaven to take me through the valley of death to the crystal waters of paradise. The next thing I heard was the thunder in my father’s voice, Gabriel banishing Adam and Eve from Eden, the swords of the guardian angels clashing a warning. “Get back into the women’s quarters. How dare you come with your face uncovered, displaying yourself to the whole world! Have you no sense of manners, of decency? Out! And send Eihab’s mother to me instantly. Shameless!”

Years, no, centuries of obedience made me back into the doorway. My face burned with shame. The hot tears shot into my eyes. Shameless! Shameless! How could he say such a thing to me?

Noor, a beautiful Bahraini girl is a Muslim and dares not even expose her face to the Canadian Andrew McInnis with whom she was falling desperately in love. Her father’s stern presence never leaves the two alone. And yet under his very nose the lovers secretly plot to run away even though it could mean that the family, at Noor’s father’s bidding, would hunt them down and kill them. Do they escape? Will Noor have the nerve to follow Andrew’s plan? Will centuries of upbringing prevent these two young lovers from following their hearts?
Also a link to buy your book and I’ll add that, too.

Buy Desert Flower by Zohra Saeed at Red Rose Publishing:

Contest: Visit Zohara's blog and answer the following questions.

1) In which city does Shiv live?
2) What is the name of the collection from which these stories are taken?

3) What does the voice in Space Invaders call the player after he says, “you must softly and suddenly vanish away”?

4) In Space Invaders, what was different about one coin?
5) In A Very Special Relationship why does she weep tearlessly?

***The first three with all the correct answers get a free copy of Desert Flower.
Contest ends midnight PST April 22nd and winners will be announced on April 23rd. Good Luck! Email the answer to: info (at) kmnbooks (dot) com and I'll forward them to Zohra Saeed.


Debra St. John said... Best Blogger Tips

Hi Karen and Zohra!

Just popping in to say hello!

Karen Michelle Nutt said... Best Blogger Tips


Thanks so much for sharing the behind the scenes of your romantic tale!

zohra said... Best Blogger Tips

Thank you! Hope you enjoy the visit

Karen Michelle Nutt said... Best Blogger Tips


Waving back! :)

Andrea I said... Best Blogger Tips

Hi Karen,thanks for mentioning this in an e mail.
Zohra, you have a very intersting life. I work for a company who outsources IT and most of our employees are in Mysore.
Where do I post the answers to the questions?

zohra said... Best Blogger Tips

Hi Andrea, I believe you can post the answers here.
Karen, is that correct?

zohra said... Best Blogger Tips

Hi Andrea!
I just saw where you have to send your answers - Karen put it at the end of the interview. you send answers to info (at) kmnbooks (dot) com
sorry about that I only just saw it!

Mona Risk said... Best Blogger Tips

Hi Zohra, nice meeting you here. I just returned from Egypt and was stunned by the indredible number of women covering their heads and even their faces. It was not like that the last time I visited fifteen years ago. Also I noticed the men have a black spot on their foreheads from hitting the ground during their prayers. I have never been to Bahrain or the Arabian peninsula. I will definitely look for your book that seems much more realistic than the Sheikhs stories written in some romances.

In the next days I will be blogging about my trip to Jordan, Jerusalem and Egypt at

zohra said... Best Blogger Tips

Hi Mona
Thanks so much for dropping by. Regarding your observation of the men with the 'black spot' on their foreheads, these are usually Shias who are rather fervent in their worship and tend to be quite strict in the observation of their faith. I shall certainly drop by your blog, it's interesting to get another point of view. Having said that, I was in Egypt about 5 years ago and their women, like those here in Bahrain represent a good mix of modern western fashions as well as traditional Arab hijab. In fact, you'd be quite surprised by some of the young women here - and they carry it off so beautifully too.

P.L. Parker said... Best Blogger Tips

So interesting, loved it. Thanks for sharing your life and your story.

zohra said... Best Blogger Tips

Hello Ms Parker
I am glad you dropped by, I hope you enjoy reading Desert Flower.

Karen Michelle Nutt said... Best Blogger Tips

Drum roll please.... and the winner is Andrea!


zohra said... Best Blogger Tips

Hi Karen
I want to place on record here and now how grateful I am to you for giving me this space and this interview. Thank you very much.

Karen Michelle Nutt said... Best Blogger Tips

You're so very welcome. I've enjoyed having you here. :)