In less than a week from now, Dubai will open its doors to writers and readers from across the globe with the commencement of the 15th edition of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Renowned authors and personalities from across the globe including the likes of Jeffrey Archer, William Dalrymple, David Walliams, and Shashi Tharoor, will grace the festival stage to discuss their stories.
As much as the return of the festival brings excitement, as an Emirati, one cannot help but feel a yearning for more Emirati representation on the big stage.
The U.A.E. and especially Dubai are known for their ambition, of striving for greater heights and pushing the boundaries of what is possible. It is a place of dynamism and energy, where the “city of the future” is constantly reinventing itself and where anything seems possible.
Yet when it comes to literary fiction, we are but a work in progress. Contemporary Emirati literature is still to produce an author of the stature of Paulo Choelo, Haruki Murakami, or Stephen King, or a piece of literary work that has transcended our borders and received universal acclaim. Surely this is not due to a dearth of talent or worthwhile stories.
Dubai is a place of contradictions, where the modern world meets traditional desert culture, where modern architecture stands side by side with centuries-old mosques. It is a place of globalization and multiculturalism, where people from all over the world come to live and work, making the city a melting pot of cultures and languages.
If anything, it is the perfect breeding ground for countless unique perspectives and inspiring stories; stories of hope, despair, love, of life. Yet, these stories still remain hidden, on the fringes, silent.
The rich literary history of the UAE and Dubai
Emirati literature, unfortunately, doesn’t get the same recognition outside the U.A.E. as some of our neighbors in the Gulf region do. Very little is known in the English-speaking world about literature from the U.A.E. or its rich history.
But in truth, our literary tradition dates back centuries with references to Nabati or Bedouin poetry from the U.A.E. found in medieval historian Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah, published in 1377. Prominent Nabati poets including Ibn Daher and Ibn Li’bun lived in what is today the U.A.E., in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Al-Taghrooda, a traditional form of Bedouin chanted poetry, was included on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This alone is a testament to the rich heritage of literature in the United Arab Emirates. Perhaps, the oral nature of these forms of literature and the consequent limitations when it comes to records, are the only reasons why the heritage of Emirati literature still goes unrecognized.
Today, there are a number of organizations and institutions dedicated to preserving and promoting these traditional forms of literature. The Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, for example, preserves the home of Mubarak bin Hamad bin Mubarak Al Manea Al Oqaili, considered to be one of the most prominent Nabatean poets of Dubai as a heritage museum.
More recently, the poetess Ousha bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi, whose work has been quite influential in the development of contemporary Nabati poetry, particularly among young female poets, has resonated across the United Arab Emirates. An annual award for female Emirati poets has also been established in her name and a section has been dedicated in her honor to Dubai’s Women’s Museum. Referred to as Fatat Al-Arab, her legacy was even celebrated with a Google Doodle in November last year.
Contemporary literary talent in the UAE
The UAE is home to a wealth of writers and poets, who share a passion for telling stories that reflect the diverse range of experiences found in the city. Emirati writers, such as Mohammad Al Murr and Nujoom Al-Ghanem have been producing excellent literary works in Arabic for decades. Other established names in Emirati literature include Shaykha al-Nakhi, Rashid Abdullah Al Nuaimi, Salha Ghabish, and Omar Saif Ghobash, whose work has been much discussed over the years.
Among the new crop of writers is Sultan Al Amim, whose first novel PO Box 1003 has received praise and been adapted into television, while his second novel One Room Is Not Enough was longlisted for 2017’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
Nadia Al Najjar is another contemporary writer who has been gaining popularity among Emirati readers. Both her novels Cities of Passion and Trio D have won accolades within the Emirates.
Novelist and short story writer Salha Obeid’s works Perhaps It’s a Joke and An Implicitly White Lock of Hair have also won numerous awards within the United Arab Emirates.
Noura al Noman writes young adult science fiction in Arabic, which is a category that was nonexistent until her first book Ajwan was published. She has already published a sequel to the book titled Mandaan and has more sequels planned.
Amal Al Sahlawi is a poet who writes in classical and stream-of-consciousness styles. She is also a member of Untitled Chapters, a group of Emirati female writers promoting poetry and literature in the Emirates.
Shamma Faisal Al Bastaki is another writer who is tipped to soon become one of our greats. Her ethnic-poetry collection House to House was the recipient of the prestigious ADMAF Creativity Award.
Yasser Hareb is the author of multiple best-sellers including Towards a New Thought, Picasso, Starbucks, and The New Slaves. His novel Take Off Your Shoes has a foreword written by Paulo Coelho which suggests that international recognition for contemporary Emirati literature is not a distant dream.
Perhaps an area where we are lacking is Emirati literature written in English. For years Maha Gargash has been the sole baton carrier of Emirati literature in English.
However, there is currently a younger generation of budding writers including the likes of Dubai Abulhoul, whose Galagolia: The Hidden Divination is the first Emirati fantasy novel in English, Afra Atiq whose spoken word poetry has been presented on various international platforms, Hessa Al Muhairi, whose book The Dinoraf was a recipient of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2018, Maryam Saqer Al Qasimi, whose story Where Did the Letters Disappear? was adapted into a musical play, and many others that give us hope that we will see more Emirati literature in English and also Arabic in the years to come.
But despite the rich variety of writers and stories in Dubai’s literary scene, there is still a need for new writing. We need authors who can headline a literature festival outside the UAE or writers who transcend the boundaries of language as the likes of Paulo Choelo or Haruki Murakami have done.
The current literary scene in Dubai
The corpus of literature coming out of Dubai is still a work in progress. However, the literary scene in Dubai is as vibrant as ever with new forms of literature taking center stage. Spoken word poetry has become increasingly popular in the United Arab Emirates in recent years.
Dubai also has a thriving poetry slam community with a number of “open mic” events being hosted in different venues across the city such as Punch Poetry, Blank Space, and Dubai Poetics, to name a few.
This form of poetry is not only a way for poets to express themselves and share their perspectives on a wide range of topics, but can also be seen as a reiteration of the literary roots of the region and an extension of the Nabati or Bedouin poetry tradition.
Many poets in the UAE use slam and spoken word poetry as a way to explore their identity, heritage, and culture, and to express their views on the current social, political, and economic issues. They often use simple language, humor, and satire, in a similar way to Nabati poetry, to comment on contemporary issues and the daily struggles of the people in the region.
The scene is relatively new and is still emerging but it’s gaining popularity among youth and the community, and it’s helping to foster a sense of community and artistic expression among poets, both amateur and professional.
We also have a younger generation of readers who are interested in literature and want to read. The observance of Reading Month every year in March has greatly contributed to this. So there’s no doubt that the number of young readers in the UAE is only bound to increase. But there is a dire need for Emirati literature that they can relate to.
The diversity of Dubai’s literary scene is one of its greatest assets, as it allows writers to explore and express different perspectives, experiences, and stories. This is particularly evident in the works of immigrant and ex-pat writers, who often use their unique viewpoints to explore the city’s hidden stories, which is why we need more immigrant and ex-pat writers to come to the fore too.
The challenges inhibiting contemporary authors in Dubai
If Emirati literature is to take its place in world literature it needs to transcend the boundaries of language, religion, and gender.
One of the biggest challenges is the lack of a central hub for the literary community. While there are a few small independent bookstores and cafés that host events, there is no dedicated space for writers to gather and connect. This can make it difficult for writers to network and build relationships with other members of the community.
Another challenge that writers face in Dubai is the lack of opportunities to get published. There are very few local publishing houses and most do not accept unsolicited submissions. This means that writers have to work extra hard to get their work noticed by editors and agents.
In order to overcome this, there needs to be more support for writers and publishers in the city, as well as more events and platforms to showcase the work of local writers. There is also a need for more funding and resources to be made available to writers so that they can continue to create new stories and explore the city’s hidden stories.
The role of festivals and organizations in Emirati literature
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature has a crucial role to play in terms of helping Emirati writers. One of the most important aspects of the festival is its focus on promoting literature from the UAE and Dubai. The festival provides a platform for local writers to share their work and to connect with readers, and it also encourages a culture of reading and writing among emiratis.
The festival also includes a number of initiatives aimed at promoting literature from the UAE, such as the Emirates Novel Award, which is open to writers from the UAE and the Arabian Gulf region.
In addition to the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature Dubai’s literary scene includes a number of other literary events and initiatives. These events provide a platform for local authors and writers to share their work and for the public to explore the city’s literary culture.
There are also several literary clubs and organizations dedicated to fostering the growth of literature in the city, such as the Emirates Writers’ Union and the Dubai Poetry Academy. These organizations provide a space for authors to come together, collaborate, and share their work.
What’s the story Dubai wants to tell?
As the city continues to grow and develop, the narratives of those living in the city often get lost in the background. More needs to be done to ensure that the stories of the people of Dubai are heard and understood.
With such a large and diverse population calling it home, Dubai must surely mean many things to many people. The traditional culture of the region and the modernity of the city, the tensions between the two, and the way that the city is constantly reinventing itself are all tied into Dubai’s identity.
The city is an inspiring place to be and its unique energy is palpable in its streets and its people, which is why Dubai is often dubbed the City of Dreams. But what does Dubai dream of? What is the story that Dubai yearns to tell?
Ashley Barboza works as an editor and on ocassion writes opinion pieces and columns for Shortlist Dubai. He is an avid reader before he is a writer and at top of his favourite stack are the authors Haruki Murakami and Yuval Noah Harari. He is an alumnus of The English and Foreign Languages University and has also had a stint as an Assistant Professor of English Literature.