An Arab couple’s 3-year-old daughter mysteriously disappears from their Bali hotel as they have dinner in a nearby restaurant. The world’s largest search for a missing person ensues as the parents desperately try to find their child. The novel “Hadatha fee Bali,” the latest work of crime fiction from Kuwaiti novelist Fadwa Al Taweel, tells this captivating story. “Hadatha fee Bali“ and Fadwa’s earlier novels, “Hadatha fee Soho” and ”Intihar Jamaee fee Haryana,” are fictionalized accounts of real life cases, among them the disappearances of Madeleine McCann and Mekayla Bali.
Though just published in September 2022, “Hadatha fee Bali” is already in its sixth print edition and may outperform “Hadatha fee Soho,” which is currently in its 31st print edition and remains Fadwa’s most popular work. The 2016 novel also revolves around a khaleeji couple whose child goes missing, this time while they are vacationing in London, and follows the mother’s descent into homelessness and crime in an attempt to find her daughter after her husband abandons her and the search. It was inspired by real crimes reported in London that Fadwa went to the United Kingdom to research further. This was followed by her 2018 novel, “Intihar Jamaee fee Haryana,” which revolves around femicide in India.
The best-selling author stands out as one of a relatively small number of crime fiction novelists from the Gulf Arab states. AGSIW spoke with the 28-year-old author about her experiences as a woman crime fiction novelist, her novel writing process, and the state of crime fiction novels in the Arab world.
AGSIW: How did your interest in writing first begin?
Fadwa: Growing up, I enjoyed reading very much. I especially liked Egyptian author Mahmoud Salem’s work – the series “Al-Moghameroon Al-Khamsa” (The Five Adventurers). I read all of them. They were called “Qisas Policiya,” which just means crime fiction for young adults. I was fascinated with the stories and would buy them with my own savings – it was a real treat for me.
I started writing for magazines such as Majalat Majed, Majalat Mickey, and Spacetoon. To expand my writing skills, I joined the Kuwaiti Writers’ Association at 14. They supported young adults, and I become part of the writers’ community. Writers would look at my work and give feedback and criticism. We used to meet weekly to discuss our writing. This really helped me to work on my techniques as a writer and learn to receive feedback.
AGSIW: Why did you decide on the genre of crime fiction?
Fadwa: Crime fiction involves so many layers of storytelling, and each layer needs to be peeled back for you to arrive at what you are looking for. It is an exciting process, as a writer and as a reader. It is truly thrilling because it’s like one huge puzzle that you have to work at creating. I love how everything originally seems disconnected but actually it all connects back, circles back, and eventually clicks.
AGSIW: Who are some of the authors writing in this genre who have inspired you?
Fadwa: I have been particularly inspired by the Norwegian author Jo Nesbo, who writes mystery novels and whose work has been translated into multiple languages, and, of course, Agatha Christie. I grew up reading her work, translated into Arabic. I learned quite a lot from her techniques and narrative building.
AGSIW: What have reactions in Kuwait and the wider Gulf region been to you as a woman crime fiction novelist?
Fadwa: The genre tends to be dominated by male writers. In Kuwait and the wider Gulf region, readers have been excited that a woman writer is publishing crime fiction. Of course, I get the general question of why not write under the romance genre. It’s interesting that we still have expectations of what women writers are supposed to be interested in.
AGSIW: Has being a woman writing in and researching in this genre presented any challenges for you?
Fadwa: Perhaps the research part has been the most difficult. Because I tend to write about real crimes that I later turn into fictionalized accounts, many times I do need to visit certain countries and talk to people. As a woman traveling alone, it can be difficult, and many times I have faced a lack of support from my family. Also, there is no financial support for any of these research trips, no writers’ grants or retreats. Writing as a woman also sometimes puts you in tough positions, for example, someone would come up to me and tell me how unsafe it is for a woman to travel alone or write in this genre. Sometimes people would ask me why the women characters in my novels behave a certain way and why I present men in a certain light. For example, the male characters tend to be more absent or give up faster than the female ones in the search for their children. Women persist more, while the men give up faster.
AGSIW: Who are your readers?
Fadwa: Both men and women. It’s interesting because it really is people of all ages; young adults have read the full trilogy, and adults who are interested in real life crimes and nonfiction have also read my work. I am in touch with my readers on social media and of course at annual book fairs, so I always get a chance to talk to them.
AGSIW: The novels of your trilogy – “Hadatha fee Soho,” “Intihar Jamaee fee Haryana,” and “Hadatha fee Bali” – are all based on real-life crimes that have happened in different countries around the world. Tell us about the process of choosing and researching the crimes as well as writing the novels.
Fadwa: Well, generally speaking, each of these crimes starts out from watching the news and reading and following media coverage for each crime. I also watch documentaries and read quite a lot. I visit the country where the crime took place, talk to local residents, and get to hear local stories and opinions. Talking to people is always helpful because it gives you a sense of the community and people’s stories, and it helps inform the writing process. Because the work is fictional, I start with the actual facts, then I move on to creating the narrative, filling the gaps, and turning the story into a novel. I use videos, oral interviews, and recordings, which assist me when I outline the novel’s plotline.
Preparing my latest novel, “Hadatha fee Bali,” involved being around historians, including oral historians, and translators, since they interact with local residents. They understand the culture and the important details that tend to go unnoticed, the hidden stories – in my novel I refer to this as “dark tourism”– which includes crimes against humanity, genocide, wars, and assassinations. These dark places, such as the Trunyan Cemetery, really capture the traditions of the villages in Bali. Most tourists don’t consider them places to visit, but I wanted to visit these places firsthand so that I could have a clear and accurate description of the setting, characters, and plot. In all of my novels, I always form a connection with the people and the place that I write about. I believe it’s an important part of writing, and these stories are stories that should be heard.
AGSIW: Some of your novels, such as “Hadatha fee Soho” and “Hadatha fee Bali,” feature “khaleej-ified” or “Arab-ified” main characters and storylines to real-life crimes that have happened outside the Arab world. Why did you decide to do this? Some critics have said this has made the novels unrealistic.
Fadwa: I wanted my readers to be able to relate to the characters, because I am Arab, I am khaleeji and Kuwaiti, and my readers are from this part of the world. That’s my target audience. However, the world today is so much about traveling and being in touch with different cultures and countries. Many khaleejis do travel and explore the world, and the novels are a way to bridge this gap between here and there, the local and the global. I also think that the novel doesn’t owe you anything as a reader; it shouldn’t be “believable” because it is ultimately fiction. At the same time, many crimes do happen to khaleeji parents and individuals and, many times, even worse than fictionalized crimes. I think as readers we always need to ask ourselves this question: Just because you have been lucky not to experience this firsthand doesn’t mean it can’t happen or didn’t happen to others.
AGSIW: Why have you generally not written about crimes that have happened in Kuwait or the wider Arab world? Kuwait, for example, has witnessed a number of crimes that have received much regional and international media attention in recent years that could form inspiration for novels.
Fadwa: I have always wanted to, but in conservative societies this can be difficult. People will ask you who you are referring to, and it can cause quite some trouble for authors writing about real people. However, I hope that my next book will include a local crime.
AGSIW: Your novels all have lead female characters. Why do you consistently write from the perspective of women? Has this been a priority for you?
Fadwa: Because as a woman writer, I do feel these women lead characters should be there. I want to inspire more writers to give space for women lead characters in literature and media, rather than have them as minor characters or support characters. Women characters are complex and can be fun to write because of the many layers affecting their experiences in life.
AGSIW: Your novels have tackled various important global issues, such as human trafficking, domestic violence, and femicide. What do you hope they achieve in this regard?
Fadwa: Reading raises awareness and allows people to think about these issues through fiction, by forming a connection with the characters’ stories, rather than just them being a story in the media. I want people to look at people and pause and think about the other story behind the story that the media has presented or behind what we see. I want people to stop and look at other people and consider their life’s position and stories.
AGSIW: What are your thoughts on the crime fiction genre in the Arab world? What changes do you hope to see?
Fadwa: The crime fiction genre in the Arab world is still male oriented. I hope to see more writers writing in the genre and maybe even a stronger audience for it. It is still growing as a genre and developing. I hope to see changes such as in schools and universities teaching crime fiction, looking at its history, and more literature and documentaries being produced about crime in the Arab world.
AGSIW: What’s next for you?
Fadwa: I plan on writing another novel but currently would like to see my work translated into other languages or adapted to the screen. I would like to write something for television, too.
is the founder of the Khaleeji Art Museum, where she serves as the director, and the founder of Sekka Magazine, where she serves as the managing editor. Alhinai is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies and the University of Oxford and is the recipient of the Arab Woman Award 2020.
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