How Isobel Abulhoul wrote the book on UAE literature


Arabian Gulf writers, especially female writers, are in the spotlight right now. Ever since Saudi Arabian Raja Alem became the first woman to jointly win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (Ipaf) in 2011 for her classic Makkah novel The necklace of the dovesthe international literary scene opens its eyes to the words of women from the region.

Marilyn Booth’s translation of won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize Sayyidat al-Qamr (celestial bodies) of Omani writer Jokha al-Harthi, was followed earlier this year by the Ipaf nomination for the shortlist of compatriot and Omani Writers’ Association award winner Bushran Khalfan for her second novel. Dilschad. Reem Alkamali, the first Emirati writer to be nominated for the illustrious award, was also shortlisted for her book. Rose’s diary.

While international bibliophiles marvel at what they see as a novel cohort of writers, the region’s long-established residents see things differently.

“There has always been an incredibly long tradition nabati Poetry and oral storytelling,” Isobel Abulhoul, trustee and executive director of the Emirates Literature Foundation, told an online audience this week.

At a lecture hosted by the Emirates Society and moderated by its chairman, UK MP David Jones, Abulhoul praised the late Emirati poet Ousha bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi, a prominent cultural figure, considered one of the finest Arabic poets, one of the many highly respected wordsmiths in the Arabian Peninsula.

The great storytellers of the Emirates

The favorite among the UAE’s “incredible storytellers” was, said Abulhoul, her late father-in-law, who entertained the Cambridge-born entrepreneur with “many, many fantastic stories” since she first moved to Dubai in 1968 when she was 18 to start with her Emirati husband to be together.

“When my feet touched the sand on the runway of this small airport as it was then and the sky was dark and it smelled so different, I felt like Alice in Arabia arriving at a place that has so many stories to tell publish,” she said.

In the half-century since that first landing, the co-founder of Magrudy’s bookstore chain and founding director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature has created numerous places for readers and writers alike to share their love of literature.

It’s not just Emirati literature, it’s Emirati literature that is so fascinating

Isobel Abulhoul

Salha Obeid, an award-winning Emirati novelist whose works have been translated into German, who told online audiences how she attended the festival formerly as “an avid reader and more recently as a writer,” said that many women writers are emerging from her country, ” much more than men”.

Award-winning Emirati writer Salha Obaid will take part in the upcoming Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.  Photo: Emirates Literature Foundation

“But at the same time, we have to find our unique voice on the things we really want to talk about,” said Obeid, an engineer with a degree, when discussing the development of literature in the UAE.

As a member of the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority Council and the Association of Emirati Women Writers, Obeid has written three collections of short stories and two novels.

For Obeid, who is also a columnist for the Emirati newspaper Al Roeyathe narrow vision of the Middle East of publishers “who still want to focus on the wars or historical periods with tents and camels”, coupled with a lack of good translators, has limited the publication of Arabic works.

“They sometimes refuse to see how established we are now and how complicated we can be and how many stories we have,” she said.

It’s a good thing that the Emirates Literature Foundation founded its own publishing house, ELF Publishing, this year to present a new generation of authors from the UAE.

It’s not just an outside perception that Obeid said she faces as a writer. She admitted to self-censoring her own work, even when not asked by others.

“I think women tend to do that. I realized I was putting these limitations on myself, so I started being more open about what I was writing,” said the 2016 Al Owais Award winner for creative writing.

Opening up is something the ever-evolving UAE has become adept at in its half-century of existence, and that’s what Abulhoul says is what makes the literary scene “so intriguing”.

“It’s not just Emirati literature, it’s Emirati literature that’s so fascinating because it’s a melting pot of 200 nations and we live side by side, so we’re constantly part of global society,” she said.

Spread the good word about reading

All the more fitting that the so-called “literepeneur” launched a literature festival in 2009 with Emirates, one of the largest international airlines in the world. Under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice-President and Ruler of Dubai, the festival quickly established itself as a regional leader of its kind and offered many guest authors – from Canadian Margaret Atwood to US thriller writer Jeffery Deaver – their first taste of the Arab world .

Now in its 15th year, the festival has attracted more than 2,000 international writers since its inception and has quickly established itself as a regional leader of its kind.

There is still a long way to go before Abulhoul opened the first branch of what she describes as an “educational toy store,” which has since grown into a thriving business with more than a dozen bookstores across the UAE.

Visitors on the first day of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2022 at the Hilton Dubai, Al Habtoor City, in Dubai.  Pawan Singh / The National

Decades of modernization have dramatically changed the UAE’s literary scene compared to when Abulhoul arrived in Dubai three years before the country’s founding.

“Booktok” — a TikTok channel that recommends books with the almost immediate effect of making them bestsellers — is the latest phenomenon “to show the power of global social media,” said the curator of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction .

The pandemic has also provided opportunities to dust off library jackets, Abulhoul said, calling it “a great time” to start reading again.

“And now they can’t do without it,” she said, adding that non-fiction books, especially so-called self-help books, and anything related to Emirati history are “incredibly popular”.

It goes against the tide of traditional Emirati Bedouin culture, where regular exercise meant traveling with books was uncommon, and against the character-limited communication of the modern online era.

“People have become much more sedentary, books are becoming an important part of the home, and that’s wonderful. So reading habits are growing… [and] Little by little you have to remind everyone of the value of literature and that if we don’t read, we won’t have writers,” Abulhoul said.

LitFest returns with “old friends”.

Developing writing skills is a big part of Abulhoul’s mission.

As well as educational events featuring renowned international writers taking place throughout the year, particularly during the Festival, the foundation runs popular annual competitions, including the Oxford University Press Story Writing Competition, and creative courses to encourage students to reach their own potential in reading and reading to release writing.

Most of the authors who come here have become friends, but I also consider the books I’ve kept coming back to as old friends… interpret it however you want, but there’s something very comfortable about old friends

Isobel Abulhoul

Launched in 2021, the Seddiqi Writers’ Fellowship First Chapter is now a flagship program of the Foundation and the region’s only global standard mentoring program for writing.

The grant supports 10 selected fiction writers through initiatives that include exclusive talks with renowned authors, interviews with international agents, editors and publishers, and a trip to New York for special sessions at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

Beyond career initiation programs, competitions on the “forgotten art” of letterwriting are there to encourage writing for passion, Abulhoul said.

“I think the more we can encourage non-competitive creative writing and opportunities to find your voice, the better. We need more of this and I think it’s really important that we all can write,” said Abulhoul, who sits on the board of directors of the Kalimat Foundation, a non-profit organization that champions children’s right to access books and Mohammed bin Rashid Library.

Celebrating the 15th anniversary of the journey, Emirates LitFest 2023 will be titled ‘Old Friends’, a nod to the many friendships formed on and off the stages of the annual event.

“Most of the writers who come here have become friends, but I also consider the books I keep coming back to as old friends, I consider pets as old friends, I consider teddy bears as old friends, I consider new friends who become old friends, so you can interpret it however you want, but there’s something very pleasant about old friends,” Abulhoul said.

The theme will run throughout the festival programme, which this year will feature some 250 authors, a speaker lineup that Abulhoul says will be the largest yet.

The festival director would “like to see” an Emirati writer on stage linked with an author from another country.

“To see them connected by a theme or an idea or by their writing. I think there’s a really wonderful kind of dialogue here, and it’s rooted here, in the home of the festival where it all began.”

Updated October 21, 2022 at 6:00 p.m


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