And Now: Who is Dubai’s Dickens?

Perhaps it’s a vision problem, but I often see multiples. So once I see one questionable analogy comparing Arab and Anglo cultural figures, I see them everywhere.

Yesterday, The National was happy to oblige me: Chris Wright surveyed Dubai’s literary landscape and found it lacking—in particular, lacking its very own Charles Dickens. (Does Dubai really need Tiny Tim and Uriah Heep? Why not its Naguib Mahfouz? Ibrahim al-Koni? Mahmoud Darwish? Abdul Rahman Muneef?)

Although perhaps, in some ways, the call for a Charles Dickens is particularly apt: Dickens, born into poverty and partly raised in debtors’ prison, was charged by the need to speak about the poor of his city.

But none of the books set in Dubai thus far, Wright complained, are particularly Dickensian:

We’ve seen a few so-so stabs at local literary fiction: Ayadh Farooq’s The Rainbow that Never Was, for instance, or Maha Gargash’s Sand Fish. The English author Stephen Wilkins has produced a couple of middling efforts: Dubai Creek and Camels Love Dubai.

We can argue now about whether the Arabic-language novel makes organic sense (the first English novel, Robinson Crusoe, was quite possibly inspired by Ibn Tufail’s Hayy ibn Yaqdhan) or whether it’s a Western import. One can certainly argue that poetry is the true language of the Arab literary arts. And there are strong Emirati poets, both in classical and modernist traditions. But Emiratis (and those living in the Emirates) seem less likely to write novels, short stories, literary memoirs.

Wright doesn’t mention Egyptian author Mohamed al-Bisatie’s recent Drumbeat, set in a “fictional” Emirate (could be Dubai), but it’s not a major oversight. While the book has a wonderful premise and a great start—and al-Bisatie has turned out some fine work set in Egypt—it doesn’t go much of anywhere.

Strong children’s literature has started to come out of the Emirates, in particular Qais Sidki’s award-winning Gold Ring.

But, as I flip through the back of my Beirut39 collection, I don’t see any young Emirati authors. I don’t remember any Emirati prose writers from Banipal, either. Still, many—like the Emirates Literary Group—believe, like Wright, that Dubai’s Dickens is just around the corner, waiting to write his…well, not his Christmas Carol, but you know what I mean.

Also from The National, Sultan Al Qassemi has a thoughtful piece about Gosaibi’s legacy and the future of Arabic letters.