"We're not looking for Western recognition"
A cluster of excited fans was waiting at the table of Saudi fantasy author Osamah bin Muslim. They had their hearts set on getting their books signed. Bin Muslim is a hit with female readers in particular. His trilogy "The Orchards of Arabistan" has thrilled them with heroines who go on exciting adventures in a country full of magic and jinn. Fantasy is currently hugely popular in the Arab world, offering mini escapes into a world where there are no barriers, taboos and prohibitions.
Entertainment, lifestyle and self-improvement were other important genres at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair this year. Music, Emirati TikTok stars doing cookery demonstrations and art workshops for children provided a cheerful backdrop to the fair's ambitious programme. This year's guest of honour, Turkey, organised dervish performances, while an Emirati brass band entertained visitors every evening.
With its readings and panel discussions, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is also a vital meeting place for intellectuals from across the region. People could be heard talking about the future of Arabic books in a digital world, the growing dominance of the English language and how artificial intelligence will change the book market. The discussions on these topics proved comparatively open. This is important, considering that the outlook in the region is currently bleak and hope is a rare commodity.
The Arab Spring lives on in literature
Former model democracy, Tunisia, is now back under autocratic rule; in Lebanon, the state is disintegrating; Egypt is more autocratic than ever and Syria's President Assad was welcomed back into the fold of the Arab League in May after 12 years – as if the uprising against his regime never happened. It is as if, finally, a line has been drawn under the Arab Spring.
Yet the desire for freedom of speech, open debate and exchange continues undiminished. The pain of all those dashed hopes is being expressed in literature, said Syrian author Lina Huyan Elhassan at one panel discussion of female Arab writers in exile.
Elhassan, born in 1975 and now resident in Beirut, told how she was forced to leave Syria in 2012, barely escaping with her life, how she had lost her brother in the protests against the regime and how all this had changed her writing. The nine novels and books she has published to date mostly centre around the issue of life in exile. "I write to forget and yet to remember," she said. "For me, literature is memories – memories that are full of horrors."
In Abu Dhabi, such memories – the experiences of an entire generation of authors – can be spoken of. Celebrated international authors, such as the Egyptian-Sudanese writer Leila Abouleila, who writes in English, or Egypt's star crime author Ahmed Mourad and a whole host of newcomers, translators, illustrators and publishers were all in attendance.
The young Algerian author Said Khatibi has also worked through some painful memories in his works. His trauma was the Algerian Civil War (1991–2002), which was fought between the military and the Islamists. Khatibi said that the war cast a shadow over his entire youth. His historical crime novel, "The end of the desert", which so far has only been published in Arabic, is set during the popular uprising of 1988, when people took to the streets in Algeria to protest about food shortages.
"The problem is not that we don't have any good authors," said Khatibi, who now lives in exile in Slovenia, "but that we don't have the inner freedom to write openly about sex, religion and politics. Even in those places where there is no state censorship, we have this self-censorship in our heads – and we have had it for many, many years."
Khatibi won the 2023 Sheikh Zayed Book Award in the Young Author category for the high literary quality of his book and his innovative introduction of the historical crime novel into the Arabic book world.
Prestigious international awards
All winners of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award are selected in a rigorous process by a committee involving international experts. This ensures the focus remains on the literary quality of the works. The Sheikh Zayed Book Award, which has a prize fund of U.S. $1.9 million, and the International Prize for Arab Fiction, or IPAF, also known as the Arab Booker, are now so prestigious that they put all other literary awards in the region in the shade. More than half of the works submitted for consideration for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award this year were written by women.
For the United Arab Emirates, literary awards and the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair are key policy instruments. The UAE is keen to portray itself as a country of cultural dialogue. The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is "part of the United Arab Emirates' soft power," said Ali bin Tamim, head of the Arabic Language Center, which promotes Arabic-language books through its translation programmes, organises the book fair and is responsible for the presentation of the awards. "Our goal is to bring people and cultures together, to bridge differences."
With the confidence that has grown out of the country's economic success, the UAE is sending out a clear message to the old cultural centres of the Arab world – Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad – all of which are in decline: "We are the future; the future of Arab culture".
Authors who write in Arabic have a very hard time getting their voices heard at an international level. Publishing companies' chronically weak sales structures, customs problems and political borders make distributing books hard.
Moreover, bookshops and libraries are few and far between, people don't read much, and in many countries, people just don't have the money to buy books, which are a luxury commodity.
On top of all this, book piracy makes life very difficult for publishing companies. "We want to value Arabic literature and support it," said Bin Tamim. "It is particularly important for us to foster interest in the Arabic language."
After all, he said, the art of telling stories is "part of the Arab DNA" and a particularly diverse art. "We should learn from our own tradition and listen to the many voices in both Arab and European literature."
The UAE's cultural policy is also sending a message to its own society, of which 80 percent are migrants drawn from over different 20 countries. The policy is clear: while the UAE wants diversity and is fostering it, it is not about to neglect its own Emirati heritage.
That's important in a country that has transformed itself from a barren desert to one of the most modern states in the world within the space of a generation. After all, it needs a narrative for its future that can hold all this together.
Influential Emirati author and columnist Dubai Abulhoul, who is a member of the UAE Youth Parliament, put this self-confidence into words during a discussion about the "future of the UAE".
"For long enough, the world has been talking about the Middle East, but now there is a new generation with its own agenda," she said. "We finally want to speak for ourselves."
We are the future
Abulhoul founded the Dubai-based Fiker Institute, a think tank that promotes cross-border cultural exchange and introduces post-colonial positions. She says that she doesn't expect recognition from the West for what has been achieved in the UAE. "We're not looking for Western recognition for what we have built up, namely a modern society where everyone gets a chance."
Yet the elephant in the room – autocratic rule in the UAE and indeed across the whole of the Arab world – fails yet again to get a mention. Although always hovering in the background, any political reference at the book fair is limited to vague allusion. The same applies to the devastating role played by the UAE in regional conflicts such as Yemen and Sudan.
Since all efforts at democratisation in the region have led to a massive backlash, with the situation in many places worse than before the Arab Spring, "liberalisation, not democratisation, should now be a priority," urged British non-fiction author Ed Husain.
Husain said that he hoped that this liberalisation would come first and foremost from the countries in the Gulf, referring among other things in this respect to neighbouring Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is turning the country inside out. Publishers are extremely curious about what the book fair in Riyadh in October will bring. There has been much speculation about the level of openness to be expected there.
Yet liberalisation has the potential to be explosive too. "We need freedom to be able to discuss matters of religion," said two young Emirati men at one book fair stand, "otherwise we cannot develop." After all, they went on, it is difficult to assess what is true in Islam and what is not.
They added that they are pretty much the only ones in their circle who feel this way, which is why they were so delighted about the ideas they had encountered at the book fair. Both were interested in critical non-fiction books about Islam and entered into lively discussions with others at the stand. Whether we're talking reform Islam, books about the Holocaust, or works of religious criticism: cultural dialogue is an open-ended process.
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan