When I was researching The Room and the Chair I spent time in Dubai. The soul free zone that Dubai has become in the minds of most architects was part of the experience, as you can see from some of the photographs I took from one of my hotel rooms. Yet Dubai intrigued me more than it repelled. I’ve been fascinated by the Emirate’s treatment of non-citizens–from India, Pakistan, Africa, etc.–to build their glittering domain. I’ve also noticed that Dubai had become the pleasure dome for people from a number of much more restrictive neighboring states–Iran, Saudi Arabia in particular. The exploitation, the ambition, the decadence–it felt richly interesting to me. So I wasn’t surprised when I learned that Joseph O’Neill’s next novel is tentatively titled Dubai.
Recently of course there’s been almost daily news about the assassination of a Hamas operative in one of Dubai’s hotel rooms. Today the London Telegraph reported that Mahmoud al-Mabhouh whom they call “a senior Hamas military commander” to emphasize his eligibility for assassination, was injected with a muscle relaxant and then smothered. I’m not sure anything we know right now gives us enough information to determine whether the assassination was legitimate, moral or legal.
For so long now people enjoy saying that non-fiction has novels beat. Reality, the old argument goes, can be so much more wild, strange, etc., than fiction. The Room and the Chair has a scene in a Dubai hotel room. An Iranian nuclear scientist is trying to hide in one under rather strange circumstances. (He’s faked his death.) It’s a product of my imagination, but the novel presents it as a fully realized set of scenes. The newspaper story of al-Mabhouh’s death, however, has many missing pieces. The assumption is Mossad did it. The assumption is the 20 or so people caught on various surveillance cameras were involved. Robert Baer, a former CIA operative who writes books and pieces for The Atlantic and various other publications wrote this past weekend that these kinds of assassinations probably won’t occur anymore because there’s too many cameras. Yet i would argue that the insufficiency of the known facts in the assassination story argues for fiction’s power. In a novel, the moral conundrums can be explored. In non-fiction, they remain suspended.