Spreading the word of Emirati literature

The growing popularity of international book fairs, combined with a proactive young Emirati literary community, is creating a surge of interest in writing from the Gulf

Nujoom Al-Ghanem is accustomed to reading her work out loud. As a regular on this year’s international literary festival circuit, she has had plenty of practice. The Dubai-based poet was a participant in both the London Literature Festival and the biennial Poetry International in London (the UK’s largest poetry festival). “The people were great poetry listeners,” she says of the audience at Poetry International. “I felt the warmth of the atmosphere. After the reading, there was a discussion, and I could tell from the feedback that they had really liked the sound of my reading and my work.”

Al-Ghanem is one of a flurry of writers from the UAE who have had platforms on the international literary circuit in recent months. At this year’s Berlin International Literature Festival, there were two award-winning Emirati writers reading their work: the poet Khulood al-Mu’alla and the novelist and short story writer Sara al-Jarwan.

Since the inception of the Arabic Booker – the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) managed in association with the Booker Prize Foundation in London – in 2007, recognition for works produced in the Middle East North Africa region has risen exponentially. In September, the UK publication Banipal – a monthly magazine that focuses on Arab writing – ran an entire issue featuring English translations of Emirati writing. “In previous issues, we’ve introduced contemporary literature from Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Palestine and Lebanon. It was time to give Emirati literature a turn,” says the magazine’s Editor, Samuel Shimon.

The issue has proved particularly popular, reflecting the burgeoning international demand for Emirati writing, notes Shimon. “When we launched it at the Frankfurt Book Fair, we had a great response, and a lot of interest, both from Arabs and Europeans.”

Dubai-based Adel Khozam, considered one of the best poets in the UAE, recently had some of his poems published in the Switzerland-based publication, Lisan and last year, a large collection of his work was translated into German. He highlights a couple of key reasons for the surge in international interest. On the one hand, he says, “book fairs have helped spread the word to foreign printing houses”. But, he adds, much of the promotion of Emirati literature has come from within.

“The new poets, and writers from my generation, are more active and productive in publishing. We also have a lot of young poets who write directly in English and who promote their work by participating in literary gatherings or through websites.”

When the UAE’s litarati talk about literature festivals, they are often referring to Dubai’s own Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (EAIFL), the largest literary gathering in the Middle East. EAIFL attracts authors from around the world, many of them bestsellers, including the likes of David Nicholls, the author of One Day, and Nicholas Sparks, the American writer who penned The Notebook. Isobel Abulhoul, the festival organiser, says that participation has grown steadily each year. Tickets sales went up 35 per cent in 2011, and many festival visitors come from overseas. The event serves as a creative forum for writers from across the planet, introducing non-Emiratis to the Gulf’s literary scene, and, by extension, gaining Emirati writers exposure overseas.

“I personally spoke to groups from Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia who came to Dubai for the festival, and there were quite a few visitors from the UK,” says Abulhoul. She notes that events featuring Emirati writers are gaining in popularity.

“There is great interest in literature from the region, because people from further afield are fascinated to learn about the different types and structures of poetry, and how important an art form it is for the Emirati community.”

The popularity and accessibility of digital media is also playing a part in the exchange of ideas between writers from all corners of the planet. Parallel to this, writing genres emerging from the UAE have started to shift. Poetry, and to a lesser extent, short stories, already enjoy a rich heritage in Dubai. Recently, however, local writers have started to experiment with form. “The traditional kinds of poetry and writing is still very strong, but we have noticed some more modern trends. For example, rap poetry, and use of colloquial Arabic are just two new aspects being introduced in the local literature,” says Abulhoul.