By Eman AlYousuf
In 2018, I received a call from the US consulate in Dubai, informing me that Ihad been chosen to participate in the International Writers’ Program at the University of Iowa.
IWP is one of the most prestigious creative-writing fellowship in the world. And while it started in 1967—and selects 30 writers from 30 countries every year—more than fifty years passed before an Emirati author was chosen to join.
When I was in Iowa that fall, I would start my speeches to other authors or students in panel discussions and the classroom environment by saying, “Hi, my name is Eman AlYousuf. I’ve come all the way from the United Arab Emirates. A country that is younger than my father!”
I would then point out its location on a map and sketch an introduction to Emirati literature.
Yet this isn’t just about the US. Although, the UAE and especially Dubai might not seem strange, there is very little most can say about Emirati literature or Emirati authors. This is true not just of readers in far-flung countries, but in other Arab and even neighboring GCC nations.
If you doubt me, go ahead and list the names of three Emirati authors you know—and moreover have read a work of their fiction or poetry. See, I told you. It’s not so easy.
So, what is that about? Why do we know so little about Emirati literature?
Well, there are several reasons. Among them are the environment and demographics, and also the publishing movement that started about thirty years ago.
The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven different emirates that united into one country in December 1971. Although it is a very new and young country, it is also one of the fastest-growing. In only two generations, citizens as well as residents of the UAE witnessed enormous changes in all aspects of their lives: from the streets they used, to the food they ate, to the schools their kids attended. Policies shifted, e-government was introduced, and the Arab tribes that lived a solitary life by the sea, surviving on pearl diving and fishing, now live alongside more than two hundred and twenty different nationalities. This change alone is a strong influence on literature.
The literature of double lives
The effect of these sudden changes left its marks on the Emirati spirit and influenced psychological and sociological developments, which then were reflected in the nation’s literary work, as what can be seen in many Emirati authors’ works, such as Salha Obaid Ghabish’a رائحة الزنجبيل (The Smell of Ginger), which was published in 2008. Ghabish talks about Aliya, an Emirati entrepreneur who lives in two different realities, one with her ancestors’ values and traditions and another life in which things are more materialistic than spiritual and morals shift along with people’s interests and benefits. The two worlds that she is living in clash, resulting in a schizophrenic situation.
Ghabish not only highlights dualities in all aspects of Aliya’s life, but also creates another character named Othaibawho still lives out side the city where she preserves her beliefs and values far from the daily struggle that Aliya has to face and fight.
This duality and duplicity that divides everything into two sharp, warring sides is evident in many Emirati authors’ fictional works, such as طروس إلى مولاي السلطان (Letters to the Sultan) by Hessa Al Kaabi, آخر نساء لنجة (The Last of Lengeh’s Women) by Lolowa AlMansouri, عودة ميرة (Mira’s Return) by Aisha Al Aijel, and many of the fictional works of acclaimed author Ali Abu al-Reesh.
Yet the novel has been sidelined because Emiratis celebrate and prioritize poetry, which has been part of the landscape of the Arabian peninsula for thousands of years. Emirati Arabs, and especially Bedouins, define poetry as the best and highest form for translating human linguistic and creative intelligence, as well as to best express one’s heritage, story, and values.
On the other side, short stories have also appeared, supporting novels in their struggle. They, too, showcase duality and a divided society between older generation’s traditions, values, spirituality and modern, materialistic, fast-paced world.
This is also reflected in the surrounding environment, as we see the struggle between different strands in Emirati literature. There is a strand that cherishes the Emirati identity and celebrates desert, sand dunes, and a simpler lifestyle, and uses words from the local environment such as ghafa (the UAE’s national tree) and kharoufa (traditional oral tales). And there is a strand that supports globalization, celebrates diversity, and is very open to change—one that has accepted that these values are now part of the past.
Among the best collections of contemporary Emirati short stories are: إشارة لا تلفت انتباه أحد (“A Traffic Sign that Attracts No One) by Sultan Al Ameemi, ,زهايمر (“Zheimer’s”) by Salha Obeaid, لعبة البازل (“Puzzle”) by Nadia Al Najjar, and سرير أبيض (White Bed) by Afra Al Banna. Motifs that runs through these collections is the changing forms and shapes of families and marital relationships within Emirati society; digitalization, globalization, and a fear of losing a shared cultural identity; as well as a reflection of the wars and political conflicts in the region, such as the war in Yemen and the revolutions of the Arab Spring.
Born in the ‘70s
As a national literature, Emirati literature started in 1971, the year the country was established, which makes it a very young literature to study or write about.
The first Emirati novel published in 1971 was titled شاهندة (Shahinda) and was written by Rashid Abdullah Al Nuaimi. The first collection of short stories was published in 1974: الخشبة ( Al Khashaba), by Abdullah Saqr.
It is interesting to note that Lebanese and Egyptian novels had begun to appear in the mid to late nineteenth century. The book recognized as the first Emirati novel was published around a century later.
Yet Shahinda and Al Khashaba don’t read like young books, and readers will notice a high level of maturity as well as developed writing skill and technique. However, during the seventies, eighties, and nineties, Emirati authors faced many challenges, as it wasn’t easy for them to find publishers for their works.
The Emirati publishing movement
In addition to the huge and rapid changes in Emirati demographics and lifestyles, and the embrace of urban life, the second thing that has most strongly affected Emirati literature is the recent publishing movement. The first Emirati publishing house was launched in 2003. Soon, many more local publishing houses were started up, which today has resulted in a wildly increased number of publications, compromising the quality of those works.
Until just twenty years ago, Emirati authors had to either publish their literary works in regional literary hubs such as Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, or Baghdad which wasn’t always easy or possible, especially for financial and logistic reasons. For shorter works, they could publish in one of many literary magazines and newspapers in the region. These magazines helped the Arab literary scene get to know some good Emirati authors, such as Mohamed Al Murr, Sheikha Al Nakhi, and Mariam Jumaa Farag, to name a few.
However, there was still only a slow spread of published Emirati works, and serious challenges that prevented many strong writers from publishing. Now, on the other hand, Emirati writers can choose to publish in the Emirates or to reach out to publishers abroad.
Another important factor is the centrality of several large Emirati literary prizes and book fairs, including the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), known as the “Arabic Booker,” and two big annual book fairs: the Sharjah book fair held every November and the Abu Dhabi book fair every May. This has created many new opportunities for Emirati writers to meet and hear writers from around the world. The first Emirati novel to be longlisted for the IPAF was Sultan Al-Ameemi’s One Room Is Not Enough in 2017, and the first to be shortlisted was Rose’s Diary, by Reem Alkamali, in 2022.
Today, social media has also helped introduce Emirati writers and publishers to a wider readership. Also, virtual sessions, panels, and exhibitions have supported the spread of Emirati literature, especially during Covid, when the entire world went online.
And yet, despite all this, Emirati literature remains relatively unknown. We need to investigate the publishing movement further and to examine other reasons that have hindered the spread of knowledge about—and interest in—Emirati literature.
Eman AlYousuf is an award-winning Emirati author with a degree in cultural diplomacy and a Master’s in knowledge management. She is the first Emirati to be chosen for the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2018 and won a Fulbright scholarship to teach Arabic to university students in 2020-21. She has published seven books: three novels, three collections of short stories, and a book on Emirati women writers. She started a podcast about cultural diplomacy called “Seven” and wrote the script of a feminist Emirati short film, “Ghafa,” which was screened in Dubai Film Festival in 2017. She is now the head of Arabic program for the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature.
Thank you! Great article!