Of dreams and happiness

Hamdan Salim al Yahyai, a writer among many other things, quietly published his debut book in the UK last month. Titled Dreamaholics, the story spans many generations, cultures and continents through characters who dared dream. As the synopsis on the back of the book says, “by the time you have read it, you would have visited islands within you, and explored the treasures hidden in each island”.

Peopled with colourful characters, Yahyai’s dreamers come from far and wide – like Vanessa, an Irish slave girl bought by a Portuguese merchant from Porto who buys her freedom when she’s just 14; and Yokiko, the daughter of a Korean taken away as a prisoner of war to Japan and eventually bought by a Portuguese trader. Yokiko grew up to become a cook and marries Ali, an African cook on a ship that docked in Porto.

 Rich in characters, layered and several plots running in parallel within the context of historical events, Yahyai’s narration is easy reading, turning to a more figurative style every now and then. “On that night the fever rose higher and higher, and as the full moon swiftly left the night her wonderful soul left with it,” is how he described the death of Vanessa’s mother early in the book. The imagery is vivid letting readers let lose their imagination to see in their minds the setting of Vanessa’s restaurant named ‘When the sea kisses the land’.

 Yahyai himself visualised many of the scenes he painted with bold colours and minute details in the 318-page book. A recce to Portugal was of some help. “I spent a week in Lisbon and drove around Fatima, Porto and Sintra. The trip gave me a better understanding of the geographical and cultural aspects in the story. But it wasn't as inspiring as I thought it would be, simply because the story is set in the 18th century and Lisbon today has trams, underground trains and McDonald’s. I had to rely mostly on my imagination to write the book.”

 His first exposure to Portuguese culture, however, was in 1999 when he joined a nine-month English language programme in London where he had many Brazilian classmates. “Social media wasn’t a thing those days so we’re not in touch but if they read the book, many of them will find their names in the book,” Yahyai reveals. He also had a Japanese classmate in the programme called Yokiko.  

 Yahyai’s repository of experiences and exposure to characters from diverse cultures have been further enriched by a wide array of professions he’s dabbled in. His first job was flipping burgers at a Burger King. A Certified Accounting Technician, he has worked as a public relations officer for a cement manufacturer, operations manager of a construction company, a salesman peddling landlines and broadband for TalkTalk in London and he once owned a business selling tiles. Dreamaholics opens with Vanessa’s husband Salazar heaping praise on an azulejo – a traditional Portuguese and Spanish painted tin-glazed ceramic tilework – made in his factory.

With a diploma in sports science, Yahyai worked as a fitness instructor and personal trainer for ten years before taking on his current job in logistics in the oil and gas sector working two-weeks on, two-weeks off. He admits it’s not as exciting as fitness training but the income is far more regular. It was, in fact, a cursory introduction by a Brazilian client - who he helped keep fit – to his son Gonzalez that triggered the book. Salazar’s grandson will be named Gonzalez and appear in the second part of the book currently in the works.

And Yahyai’s story won’t end in the second book either. The wide canvas will spread over to India, the Philippines and further on to China – of which there’s already a hint in Chapter 1 of the first book – with the plot spilling into Book 3 to finally end in Oman when the Portuguese colonise parts of the sultanate. That’s as much as he can reveal without giving away spoilers.         

With so much planning involved in this mammoth production, besides the physical effort involved in writing it, it begs the question - why did he decide to quietly release the self-published book without any fanfare? “I’m new to this field. I didn’t realise what a time-consuming process it is involving agents who take months to even grant an interview. I went to the 2018 London Book Fair where there were over 150 agents but couldn’t meet a single one of them.” With the lessons he’s learning now from the first book, he’s hopeful of securing a proper deal in the forthcoming ones. And he also needs a better editor than the one who worked on Dreamaholics. 

  As for why he felt the need to write a book in the first place, Yahyai says, “I felt I had to help people.” This dawned on him when he was all of 23 in 2003. “I asked myself, how can I help people? At first, I thought, I should be a speaker, but soon realised I’m too shy to speak in public. So I thought I could write to inspire people. If I can help even one person find happiness in their life when they are at a point when they see no way out, I would have succeeded. If I can change even one person’s life who is stuck at a difficult stage in their life, my job is done.”

He finally got down to writing his book in 2017. “I wanted to write about life, but life is too big, so I chose characters to show different backgrounds and their struggles and how they overcame these.”

Dreamaholics is available in Lulu, Al Fair and WHSmith, besides Amazon. His email id, in keeping with his need to help people find happiness, is happypeople.hy@gmail.com

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