UAE Investing in Writers, Writers, (Some) Writers

When Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi declared that the saying should no longer be “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads,” but instead some combination of Qatari and Emirati cities, many observers scoffed. Yet the Emirates is not just investing in big book fairs and big literary prizes, but also in individual writers:

Most of the big-name writers who attend giant events like the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, the Sharjah International Book Fair, and the Emirates LitFest aren’t Emiratis. The same goes for shortlistees of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), sponsored out of Abu Dhabi. None of the IPAF’s shortlisted authors have been Emirati citizens.

But, in the last four years, after building up other literary instutions, the country has begun to put money into the development of writing talent, from the “Made in UAE” initiative, to Emirati participation in IPAF nadwas, to the Emirates Novel Award, to the “Dubai International Programme for Writing,” run by acclaimed Lebanese novelist Najwa Barakat. The latter, a five-year program, is set to begin next month.

This isn’t just any writing workshop. It’s a program put together by Barakat, who’s also the founder of the Beirut-based “Mohtaraf” workshop project. Several graduates of Barakat’s “How to Write a Novel” workshop have gone on to publish successful novels. Her first session, in 2009, is credited with producingthree interesting first-time books from young writers.

Now she’s setting up a program in Dubai.

As Jamal Bin Huwaireb, managing director of the sponsoring organization, said in a prepared statement, the “launch of the Dubai International Programme for Writing is a major step in the efforts…to empower young Emirati and Arab talents by supporting them in the field of writing and helping them publish their works.”

Perhaps the bulk of the UAE’s literary-support money is still being fed into poetry. There are big-ticket TV shows like the “Million’s Poet” and “Prince of Poets,” both funded by the Abu Dhabi Authority of Culture and Heritage, and awards for traditional nabati poetry.  But Emirati funders are also giving increasing attention to prose, directed at both children and adults.

After all, if it’s going to be Abu Dhabi…or Dubai…or Sharjah writes, then there will have to be an exceptional concentration of writers in different genres.

In a recent piece about Emirati writing in the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The NationalArabic literature professor Olatunbosun Ishaq Tijani, who specializes in Gulf writing, discussed the development of Emirati writing. He suggested that “Politics is no longer a major thing in Emirati literature. What they are focusing on is the UAE as an open country, where everybody can come and enjoy and … presenting an image of a liberal society.”

While that sounds like a good role for a PR campaign, it doesn’t sound like much fun for literature. Fortunately, there are Emirati writers working in distinctly different directions: science fiction, pop “new adult” lit, YA, dense personal explorations, and literary work focusing on migrant workers. (Tijani also suggests there isn’t a lot of sex in Saudi novels, which is just crackers.)

It’s still unclear exactly which writers will receive state funding. In a call for literary funding last year, Nationalcolumnist Ayesha Almazroui said the state should “support individual writing projects that represent the socio-cultural character of the UAE,” which seems to suggest a relatively neutered sort of writing.

Either way, these workshops will probably help foster some new writers. Also, by a number of reports, reading among Emirati youth is on an upswing, and that can’t hurt. But if it’s going to be “Dubai writes,” then novelists must be free to go beyond what presents “an image of a liberal society.” Who knows. Perhaps Barakat will prescribe the same sort of fearlessness in a workshop that she practices in her own writing.

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