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Shamal Days by Sabin Iqbal: book review

Life of an ex-pat in an oil-rich country.

“A good memory inflicts more pain: it doesn’t numb you, but watches you become helpless with a sense of loss, like a butterfly’s regret. A bad memory is like a butcher’s knife- it just cuts through, making you bleed, without regret but not without angst.”

What is it like living in another country, a country that gives you stability, that’s like philosopher’s stone in its homeland, that gives you money, home, car and in return takes a lot away from you, your identity, for you are not one among them, you are an immigrant or in fancier terms an ex-pat? You are not allowed to go back and there are special laws that divide you from citizens. Maybe the worst is to accept the reality that there’s no one waiting for you back home. It’s just you, all alone in the land of oil and sand.

Shamal days is set in one of the gulf countries, names don’t matter here, for the rulers and their rule is almost the same. Workers and laborers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka swarm up there to serve the Sheikhs and Princes in return for a promise “life is better than your land, not as good as far across the Atlantic but still better” and of course not all promises are fulfilled here. Like one of my ex-lovers told me “Promises are meant to be broken”, some broken souls never see the glittery life that they imagined. They live in the ghettos like zombies, work in construction or clothing factories for hours beyond the legal limit, never see their families ever again, and eventually get lost and buried in the shifting sand dunes.

Abbas, an editor who worked his way up the ladder from a proofreader, saw beyond the veil, where greed, hunger, power struggle, racism, the iron fist of the monarch, corruption controlled the air and water of the oasis. Abbas oftentimes is seen reminiscing his abused childhood days in the boarding school, estranged family, utterly confused uncles, losing business, and old glorious days in Kerala. Abbas sees how the foreign land is slowly entering into more volatile days with Iraq’s invasion in Kuwait and following repercussions, the Arab spring, young voices on the streets demanding for more freedom and rights, risings of extremists, it almost feels like the history of entire 90s periods summarized in 300 pages.

Replacing Abbas’s name or even not mentioning it won’t make much of a difference just like the absence of the name of the country didn’t. It’s a case story about the life of both legal and illegal immigrants living far away from us, building the economy of a foreign power with their sweat and tears.

“There are some incidents in life whose memories can never fade, no matter how long ago the events may have happened and no matter how many other memories have come to pile themselves over them.”


A middle-aged bachelor heading the editorial at a newspaper in an imagined country in the Arabian Gulf, Abbas is beset by loneliness and the attendant regret – a life punctuated by ifs and maybes, and the dreariness of the dry and dusty shamal winds. Presented with the opportunity to finally bring about change in his life, will indecision get the better of him or will he be able to steer his life away from his less-than-beautiful reality?

Set in the 1990s, with the escalating violence in West Asia serving as a backdrop, this is the story of Abbas and of the small newsroom that brings together people – from different backgrounds and with individual stories but shared editorial goof-ups – to a country built and run by the expatriate workforce.

Shamal Days is a whimsical, ironic take on the aspirations and resentments of expatriate life in a tiny desert country and on the political unrest in the region.

Shamal days is written by Sabin Iqbal is published by Harpercollins and to order your copy buy here.


Sabin Iqbal is a well-established journalist and author of the critically acclaimed The Cliffhangers. He is also a festival director and curator of the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters. He was editorial director of Kochi-Muziris Biennale, senior editor at Tehelka, and senior assistant editor at Business India. He lives in Thiruvananthapuram with his wife, Mariam, and children, Keziah and Sean.

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