Graduate student publishes novel about life in Saudi Arabia

Web exclusive

One GW graduate student has already done what many professionals only dream about doing.

Tariq Al Haydar is a published author.

The PhD candidate, originally from Saudi Arabia, published “Hallat al Abeed” last year – which in English translates to “The District of Slaves.”

The novel – not yet translated to English – tackles modern “racism and tribalism” in Saudi Arabia, where people are classified into two distinct ethnic groups, and those who cannot trace their lineage back to a tribe are seen as inferior to those who can, Al Haydar said.

“My novel is basically about a Saudi twenty-something named Yusuf who has lost his mother in a car crash. His father is unavailable emotionally. A friendship develops between Yusuf and Raja, a black man from Mauritania,” Al Haydar said in an e-mail. “They talk about religion, Socrates, Arabic literature, The Godfather and SLAM magazine among other things.”

In addition to serious issues, Al Haydar said he wanted to portray a lighter side of Saudi Arabia not seen by most Americans. So humor, he said, was a big part of the novel.

“Perhaps one thing a lot of people may find surprising: I’ve personally met at least two Saudis with a sense of humor. Honest,” He joked.

Gayle Wald, chair of the English Department, said publishing a novel is no small feat.

“It is rare for anyone to have a novel published, but even more rare for someone so young and still in graduate studies to be publishing a novel,” Wald said.

Jonathan Gil Harris, director of graduate studies in the English department, said he has gotten to know Al Haydar well and is “delighted” that Al Haydar chose GW to complete his PhD.

“Not only is it an honor for us to have a published author of Tariq’s caliber in our program; his scholarly as well as literary interests in race, colonialism, and globalization also make a wonderfully good fit with our program,” Harris said in an e-mail.

Al Haydar, who taught English at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, before coming to D.C., said he chose GW because of its small graduate program.

“I’m doing an independent research right now and in one session I stayed in the professor’s office for three hours,” Al Haydar said. “Of course, it helps you enjoy the work.”

Al Haydar said he is already playing around with ideas for another book, which will likely deal with similar racial and tribal identities, as well as gender identities and modern “social/power hierarchies” in Saudi Arabia.

“I have a character named Ismael who is a ‘khadheeri’ minority but has figured out how to bypass certain power structures, and so I’m asking in what ways is he still a ‘minority,'” Al Haydar said.

He added, however, that he was not sure how many readers would be able to identify with his character.

“It’s still very early though,” Al Haydar said of the idea.

When asked how his peers in the English department viewed him, now that he is a published novelist, Al Haydar joked, “I’ve heard talk of a statue outside Rome Hall.”

Emily Cahn contributed to this report.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.