The Emirati Short Story: A Focus on Identity

By Amina Hachemi

When I saw the latest issue of Banipal, I was, to say the least, surprised. Despite
having lived in the United Arab Emirates for 15 years, I had no clue what to
expect: It was the first time I had been exposed to Emirati literature. The only
Emirati literary genre I was acquainted with was the traditional (Nabati) poetry
found in the whole of the Gulf region.

As I read through the issue, it was interesting to observe that, with the exception
of two, the short story authors were all women. I wondered if this was a reflection of the general interest in short story writing on the Emirati writing scene. The themes covered are quite diverse, ranging from the difficulty of dealing with illness to a young woman’s experiences in a new country. However, the majority of the stories are a commentary on Emirati society and the concerns of the country’s population. The strongest impression though was not of any individual work, but of a collective desire to affirm the Emirati identity through writing.

Confronting domestic issues, Basema Younes gives a saddening portrayal of a
wife watching her husband silently succumb to a fatal illness after years of a
one-sided marriage in “Silence.” The desperation of this woman is strongly felt,
particularly towards the end as the emotion intensifies.

The questions surrounding the sudden, immense prosperity of the Emirates
following the discovery of oil are reflected in the discussion of wealth and class
difference. Fatima Al-Mazrouei’s “A Dollhouse” is told from the perspective of
a young girl from a poor family and describes her struggles when faced with
her rich classmates; the tone is compounded by the use of a simple, child-like
voice throughout the story. Abdul Hamid Ahmed addresses the country’s poor
migrant population in “Kuya’s Little Things,” describing the protagonist’s struggle to buy clothes for his new baby son in India. Clearly with the intention of educating as well as entertaining, the writer strikes a balance between informing the reader of the situation of migrant workers and developing atmosphere and the emotions of the main character.

Another depiction of this segment of the population, one of my favourite pieces in this issue has to be “Oil Stain” by Mariam Al-Saedi. In few words and with focus on seemingly insignificant details, she evokes sympathy with the character that increases as the story progresses. Interestingly, while the focus of “Kuya’s Little Things” and “Oil Stain” is the migrant worker, there is a meaningful subplot to both of them in their representation of the relationship with the employer. The former portrays a generous, understanding boss, whereas the latter paints a much less admirable picture of a blatant indifference to the employee.

With a less commonplace plot, Ebtisam Al-Mualla’s “A Fading Light” explores the feelings of a young woman who is losing her sight. Another work that focuses
on the details, the character of the protagonist is endearing and easy to relate to
even in her sorrow.

Given the current anxiety of many over the disappearance, or at least dilution, of Emirati culture due to a majority expatriate community and the rapid development of technology and globalisation, the assertion of the Emirati identity in this collection should not come as a surprise. Indeed, if these concerns are well-founded, the UAE’s latest push for progress on the literary scene is particularly significant. The country now hosts several literary festivals and book fairs, including the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, the Emirates Literary Festival and the Sharjah International Book Fair, and a number of publishing houses and translation initiatives have sprung up, such as Kalimat publishing for children’s literature and the Kalima translation programme.

In such a cultural climate, Banipal’s “New Writing from the Emirates” issue comes at a poignant time and brings with it promise for the coming generation of Emirati writers and for Emirati literature, in general.

Amina Hachemi (@ahach) holds a BA from Paris-Sorbonne University and an MA in Translation, Writing and Cultural Difference from the University of Warwick.  She is a passionate linguist with particular interest in literary translation and writing, especially short stories.  She enjoys creative experimentation and, being of Algerian and Irish descent, she also likes to explore cultural perspectives and interaction through her work.  Amina believes in the arts as a fundamental platform for intercultural dialogue and understanding.  She is currently working as a freelance editor and translator.