Q&A with author Sophia Al-Maria

NU-Q: You’re best known for your impressions of “Gulf Futurism”—a term you coined. What do you think Qatar’s future journalists and storytellers need to look out for when they’re telling Qatar’s stories? 

Sophia Al-Maria: Take the time to observe. Use your intuition. Keep your standards high. You need to be particularly careful not to fall into the trap of manufacturing empty content for the Web. So that means: Dig deeper than the surface of obvious stories; get to know the situation you are covering or writing about. That’s especially true if it’s fiction because if you don’t know what you’re writing about it will really show.

NU-Q: The New York Times referred to your multiculturalism as one of the “conflicts” that shapes your memoir The Girl Who Fell to Earth. How do you see the Qataris and Arabs who have grown up around the world and are now graduating from an American university in Qatar? Are they held back by lack of a singular identity or do they have the advantage of multiple perspectives? 

Sophia Al-Maria: Humans are polymorphous; we go through a flood of emotions a day and many different versions of ourselves over the course of a lifetime. So I believe the concept of singular identity is a false one. To create some kind of unified “people” by virtue of nationality, language, religion or race is an increasingly outdated (and dangerous) way of looking at a human experience that defies that kind of definition. I think young people in the Gulf in particular are at the center of this question of being some of the most traveled and educated and culturally eclectic people in the world and yet are expected to live in an increasingly mono-cultural environment. There is no word for us yet really, but we’re legion.

NU-Q: What, in your view, are the biggest Western misconceptions around the Gulf and what do you see Gulf-born journalists with Western training doing to reverse these misconceptions?

Sophia Al-Maria: Western media is deeply affected by the region’s PR. By that I mean they come here to report events they are invited to report about. That leads to an easy “in” for Western journalists to poke at the facade and not take us seriously. So my greatest hope is that Gulf-born journalists will bring rigor and intelligence to their task of observing the truth about this place and that they do it for the benefit of people here and not just for the show.

NU-Q: What is your charge to graduates who are equipped to grow the creative field in Qatar?  

Sophia Al-Maria: As graduates of NU-Q you will be big fish in a small pond in Qatar. You can probably do just about anything you want if you cultivate the connections and the skills. But most of all I encourage you to go outside of the mainstream for your inspiration. Dig deep into the Internet. Educate yourselves about the field. Above all, question why you want to make or do what you want to do.  If it’s for money, don’t bother. But if you want to make films because when you watch your favorite scene the hair stands up on the back of your neck, or you want to be an artist because the feeling of touching paint to your canvas gives you strength – then it’s important you take those urges seriously.