Creativity is Emirati: Banipal publishes selected works of UAE writers

Emirati authors Khulood Al Mualla, and Sara Al Jarwan - Courtesy Ali Ghandtschi

Last week, the Syrian poet Adonis emerged as one of the favourites to win the Nobel laureate, to be announced later this month. Meanwhile, Egyptian Wiam El Tamami won the Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize for her work on a story by Mansoura Ez-Eldin. It's not just an important time for Arab literature within its traditional heartlands, then - the work produced in translation would seem to suggest there is an increasingly global interest.
Exciting stuff. But what about literature from the United Arab Emirates itself? It was cheering to learn that some of the entries in the Young Translators Prize came from here, but the much-heralded Beirut39 project, which focused on new writing from the Arab world, didn't contain a single Emirati author. The work of Qalam, the literary project from the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage that aims to support UAE creative writers at the international stage, proves that the authors are there. But recognition of Emirati creativity, within the wider region, remains lower than perhaps it should be.
The new edition of the literary magazine Banipal aims to put that right. Published three times a year to expose UK and western audiences to Arab culture, it presents the work of established and new authors and poets translated into English. Their new issue, Banipal 42 - New Writing from the Emirates, is a selection of work from 27 UAE writers published with the full support of the Emirates Foundation.
It was the poems and short stories by Emirati authors in the culture pages of 1980s Lebanese newspapers that first alerted editor Samuel Shimon - an Iraqi writer now living in London - to the literary scene in the UAE.
"I have followed it ever since," he says.
Once Shimon became convinced that the time was right to focus an issue on Emirati authors, he travelled across the region to meet them. He talked with writers about who was good, who was new, even who had stopped writing.
"I think I now know more about Emirati literature than the Emirati themselves," he laughs.
The range is broad: the issue, out today, contains two short stories from Abu Dhabi's award-winning and established author Fatima Al Mazrouei, but also an excerpt from new writer Rawdha Al Belushi's very first collection. But though it's put together with all the zeal and hard work one might expect from Banipal, it hasn't been the most straightforward of journeys.
"I thought it was going to be much easier," chuckles Shimon with the relief of someone who has finally sent off the final page to the printers. "When we announced this issue we got quite a lot of strange comments from Arab intellectuals, doubting the merits of an Emirati literary scene, or even the idea of a scene at all."
Of course, Shimon begged to differ. And the reaction made him even more determined to find a broad range of work that was as accurate and representative as possible.
"We wanted to show them!" he laughs. "The difficulty was that things have changed hugely since I first came into contact with Emirati literature 30 years ago - and continue to change. In the 1990s, for example, modern poetry dominated the scene, but in the past 10 years there have been very few emerging voices in that field beyond Khulood Al Mualla."
Shimon thinks that's a reflection of the huge encouragement for Nabati poetry. But such a shift has had a happy by-product. Short-story writing and novel writing are once again becoming stronger and he points to the impressive work of Sara Al Jarwan and Fatima Al Mazrouei, among many others. He's particularly encouraged by the number of women writers he comes across.
"All the good new writing is short stories from women. And they're fantastic, really. You know, people will always talk about the same names when they talk about Emirati literature, even though many of them have stopped writing. So while I know there will be those who ask why certain writers have been omitted in Banipal 42, these people are not writing now. We didn't want to concentrate on the pioneers, but the exciting new voices. And there are plenty of them."
So is it possible to include the work emanating from the United Arab Emirates in this explosion of interest in Arabic literature?
"What's happening here is a reflection of what's occurring in the rest of the Arab world - a great enthusiasm and interest for fiction, and particularly novels," says Shimon. "Some of this, I think, is because people are more confident with English. They've been educated, they're reading more books because they're not waiting years for them to be translated. There is the International Prize for Arabic Fiction now, which has been very important. So I am sure in the next years we will be reading terrific fiction, novels and short stories from the Emirates."
In the meantime, Banipal 42 is a pretty good place to start.
(The National)