Are Gulf Cities the New Capitals of Arabic Literature?

Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi published a piece on Al Monitor, “Gulf Cities Emerge as New Centers of Arab World” which he said, in a public Facebook post, was “controversial even before publishing it”:

SE_Cover_72dpiThe essay contends that the saying “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads” no longer reflects reality, and not just because Baghdad’s literacy rates have plummeted following the US-led blockade and occupation. Al-Qassemi points in particular to the last few years of upheaval, which, he writes, have meant that a:

…new set of cities started to emerge in the Gulf, establishing themselves as the new centers of the Arab world. Abu Dhabi, its sister emirates of Dubai and Sharjah and the Qatari capital, Doha, have developed as the nerve center of the contemporary Arab world’s culture, commerce, design, architecture, art and academia, attracting hundreds of thousands of Arab immigrants, including academics, businessmen, journalists, athletes, artists, entrepreneurs and medical professionals.

Although the statement has, as you might expect, led many to wave their hands and say that you can’t buy culture — no matter how many Guggenheims or Louvres you build — you could also add that the shift in cultural power did not begin in December of 2010.

In 2007, the Abu Dhabi Book Fair launched a partnership with Frankfurt, the world’s most important literature meet-and-greet, which helped the city develop an immense, professional fair that attracts writers and publishers from around the world. This is also when the Abu Dhabi-based International Prize for Arabic Fiction was established, and, in the years that followed, Sharjah also stepped up their book fair immensely, attracting even more publishers and raising the profile of Arabic children’s literature with the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature.

But perhaps the last few years have solidified the importance of Emirati and Qatari resources. This past summer, Mohamed Hashem, head of the acclaimed Egyptian publishing house Dar Merit, applauded Gulf investment in Arab books:

The Gulf States, for example, by using their resources and book fairs, can contribute to rescuing the book culture. When I was attending an exhibition in the Gulf, I remember that one Gulf figure purchased one book for AED 3 million. This is excellent, as this will only serve to revive the book industry. The Gulf States can contribute to solving the problems we are facing by investing in culture, provided that freedom of opinion and expression in books is safeguarded and maintained.

But, but, but! Al-Qassemi’s critics will say. You can buy a lot of books, but that doesn’t mean you can create them.

Certainly, a reading and writing culture is not produced overnight, and monetary investment is not the only factor. Indeed, certain sorts of investment — I have previously argued — could do more to stunt literary culture than foster it, particularly depending on how many strings are attached to each dirham.

However, for instance, the Goethe Institut’s project to foster “100% Emirati Children’s Books” has led to some excellent books.

However, for instance, the Goethe Institut’s project to foster “100% Emirati Children’s Books” has led to some excellent books. Perhaps children’s books are an easier start, although Goethe’s also moved on to young adult literature, and it will be interesting to see how many strong YA novels come out of the Emirates in the coming years, following in the footsteps of Noura Noman’s Ajwan. 

There are also, of course, Arab authors from other countries who now live and write in Qatar (Amir Tag El Sir) and the Emirates (Nasser Iraq, others), and poets of some standing, including one of my favorites, Nujoom al-Ghanem.

But is it money or stability that spurred — and continues to spur — literary projects in Lebanon, for instance? What about the great writing still coming out of Iraq, and — as Sinan Antoon just wrote for Al Jazeera — the ongoing love of poetry? Certainly, a country’s social and political climate matters, and Ghaddafi and Ben Ali managed to half-suffocate their countries’ literary communities. But, more than financial resources, literature needs a climate that allows criticism and boundary-breaking. In his response, Asad Abu Khalil argues this “minimum condition” is not allowed in the Gulf.

By the choice of opening line, he implies that the future holds a saying that goes something like: “Abu Dhabi writes, Doha publishes, and Sharjah reads.”

There is no question that the big Emirati cities have become very important literary players: regionally, even globally. But this is not all that al-Qassemi is suggesting. By the choice of opening line, he implies that the future holds a saying that goes something like: “Abu Dhabi writes, Doha publishes, and Sharjah reads.” (Or rearrange it how you will.)

Al-Qassemi concludes that “the traditional Arab capitals may be down now but they certainly aren’t out. These cities that dominated the Arab psyche for decades in the 20th century* are rich in culture and human and natural resources. Nonetheless, if and when they begin the process of turning their fortunes around, they will encounter an Arab-world landscape dominated by the new, formidable Gulf cities that have set a standard that is hard to match not only regionally, but on a global scale.”

Gulf cities are formidable, certainly. But will they be forces of major scientific and artistic innovation? And, moreover, why would Gulf authors develop their literature in Arabic when so many of the institutions of higher learning teach in English?

*And, well, before the 20th century.

There are many other responses to al-Qassemi’s article. Here is one.

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