Emirati poet and novelist Thani Al-Suwaidi, one of the most prominent Emirati literary artists, died in Cairo on Sunday. He was 54:

He left behind a large family, including a daughter Fatima Al-Suwaidi, who is also a poet.

Thani Al-Suwaidi was born in the Ras al-Khaima area of the Emirates in the summer of 1966 and did his studies in economics. But he found expression as a poet, publishing two collections of poetry: Liyajiff Riq al-Bahr (So the Sea’s Foam May Dry Out, 1991) and al-Ashya’ Tamurr (Things Happen, 2000). His poetic works carried the stories of the sea, and fishermen, and folklore about the lives of sailors. Translations of six of Al-Suwaidi’s poems appeared in the 2011 collection, Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Arabian Gulf Poetry.

But he was best-known for his novella, al-Dizil (The Diesel), which was published in 1994 in Beirut, reprinted in Baghdad in 2006 and in Cairo in 2008. The English translation, by William Hutchins, appeared in 2012.

The Diesel is a coming-of-age story of a gender nonbinary character (named Diesel) who performs as a singer and dancer, has relationships with both women and men, and finds space as a performer. Al-Suwaidi has said it was inspired by his hometown’s oral culture and people he knew when growing up in Ras al-Khaima.

In his introduction to the English edition, William Hutchins writes: “The Diesel is actually more about the role of the arts in liberating and elevating a culture through the simple act of genuine entertainment. It is about the transition of a society from local and traditional interests to the heady distractions of global encounters. It is also, perhaps, about the novelization of folklore.”

And Majid Nur al-Din wrote in al-Ittihad al-Thaqafi in 2011, “No Emirati novel has garnered the amount of acceptance, rejection, discussion, criticism, and analysis that the novel The Diesel[.]”

In an interview with al-Jazeera presenter Tawfiq Taha in 2004, translated to English in the introduction to The DieselAl-Suwaidi said:

The Diesel caused a big stir when it became available in the Emirates and created problems both before and after its publication. I suffered psychological stress before its publication because at that time it was difficult to publish this novel in the Emirates. I hesitated a lot before publishing it. Later I decided to go to Beirut, because that was a suitable place to publish this novel… After this novel was published…I went to Beirut with delight to see my novel and was actually able to acquire a number of copies, which I took back to the Emirates and distributed among my friends…Afterwards the novel began to gain some coverage in the Arab press, although nothing was known about it in the Emirates or in the Gulf region. After it initially became known in Beirut…it spread to Cairo and then to Iraq. Once it created a media buzz outside the Gulf region, it was written about but with embarrassment in the Emirates…One group criticized it for dealing with a topic that society here considers taboo…In recent years, as this novel began to find accep- tance, everyone wanted to write about it, wishing to call it a very important novel, ten years after it was published. Critics began to discover that there was a novel called The Diesel in the Emirates.

Read:

An excerpt from The Diesel on The Brooklyn Rail