The Doha-based magazine Just Here recently asked two successful Qatari authors for their views on “what’s holding Qatar back, in the literary sense.”
They first spoke to Sophia al-Maria, author of the memoir The Girl Who Fell to Earth (reviews in Egypt Independent, Kenyon Review, NYTimes), and next to AbdulAziz AlMahmoud, author of the successful القرصان (The Corsair, trans. Amira Nowaira, profile in The National).
Unfortunately, neither was asked about censorship issues in general or about the al-Ajami case in particular. But they still make for interesting interviews. Just Here editors said they were “surprised by the stunning difference in their perceptions,” although I don’t find the two Q&As so far apart. First question: Why aren’t Qatari writers as celebrated as those of other Arab nations?
Al-Maria: “I think there is not that culture of support for writers in the Gulf region as a whole as we see in other literary hubs around the Middle East[.]”
AlMahmoud: “The truth of the matter is that Qatari writers are not supported the way other writers are supported.”
The interviewer then notes that there are plenty of books about Qatar’s rulers, state, and culture.
Uh, yeah, al-Maria says, “There’s this weird nostalgia for something that never existed… People are not thinking clearly or critically about our history. I think as a nation we need to break out of the clichés.”
Uh, yeah, AlMahmoud says, “I don’t think this is what the public is asking for, honestly. Sure, it should be part of the public awareness of the nation, but no more than that. … he books related to Qatar and Qatari culture are at times amusing and pleasant to read, but for the most part they become a decorative piece in someone’s living room.”
Art and film have gotten funding, the questioner says. Has that “affected the appeal of writing” as a profession?
Here, their answers do diverge a bit, although I don’t think they’d disagree with one another’s points. Al-Maria: ” I think the major problem is that the publishing industry is in trouble all over the world, it’s really grim, even in the UK, New York, etc.”
AlMahmoud: “This is a critical issue in Qatar; the younger Qatari generations have lost interest in writing and reading overall. The State needs to create programs or institutions that aim to reinvigorate and reawaken the level of appreciation of the literary field amongst the local community. ”
And are Qataris just too “comfortable” to become writers?
AlMahmoud says yes: “The system is failing us. What I mean is that Qataris are leading a very easy life, having an easy privileged life has its drawbacks. This privileged lifestyle has stripped Qatar and the youth of the competitive and risk-taking spirit. Our current lifestyle does not support the growth of a flourishing and hardworking generation. “
Al-Maria says yes, but: “I do think that there is a sense of complacency. But I also think that it depends on each generation in Qatar. … Young People in Qatar don’t necessarily understand what an incredible privilege they have, sadly very few use it.”
What do you need to be a successful writer?
Al-Maria says: “Lots of writing!”
AlMahmoud says: Writing skills, research, and purpose.
The interview ends with the prompt, “The future for Qatari writers will look like…” Here, they do diverge in a sort of glass-half-full and glass-half-empty sort of way.
Al-Maria: “I think the future looks very bright. I just hope that we get to see more of new ideas and new thinking, not the same old historical memories and nostalgia. There is so much happening right now that is interesting that should be written about and recorded.”
AlMahmoud: “The way things are now; the future does not look promising. However, if we work together as a community, we could reshape what the future will look like.”