The first thing that must be said about visiting the United Arab Emirates is that the traveler does not get a full picture due to the invisibility of migrant workers hidden away in work camps outside the glitz and glamour of cosmopolitan Dubai.
I first visited Dubai in the spring of 1984 and came away from a short two weeks there feeling underwhelmed by what seemed to me a very international city, but also one in which people came from all over the world only to make money, while literature or culture of almost any kind played a minor role. At the end of this March, I returned to Dubai and found an ambitious cosmopolitan center that cannot so easily be dismissed as a literary and cultural backwater. A few days before I arrived there, I read that the first ever International Prize for Arabic Fiction, aka the Arabic Booker, had been awarded in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, to Bahaa Taher (an Egyptian novelist I have long admired) for his 2007 novel Sunset Oasis. The project was launched by the UAE's Culture Ministry a year ago and gave itself instant credence through the selection of a work by a widely respected novelist of accomplishment. His previous novels in English are Aunt Saffiya and the Monastery (U of California P) and Love in Exile (AUC Press). Like the much talked about Abu Dhabi Guggenheim Museum, the Arabic Booker shows the Emirates' willingness to spend a ton of money on great culture, but what marks the UAE's cultural scene even more is the presence of large amounts of private money in the cultural sector, a rarity in the region. For years now, writers and critics throughout the Arab world have coveted the now prestigious and very lucrative Oweiss Award for lifetime achievement in a literary career, whose winners rank among the most important names in Arabic language writing. If the IPAF has so quickly come to be called the Arabic Booker, I would suggest that the Oweiss award, funded by a private foundation to promote arts and culture, is gaining the status of an Arabic Nobel. The Kelema translation initiative, which I mentioned in my previous post, is also privately funded.
Of course, coming from Cairo, with its 5000 years of civilization and centuries of intellectual and literary activity, it's still hard not to see a certain glitzy superficiality characterizing culture in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the other Emirates. In this sense, the extreme newness of the cultural scene in the UAE is reminiscent of, well, the United States, which was regarded similarly from across the pond until very recently. In fact, the analogy could be extended. I continually wondered if I wasn't back in the States. The skyscrapers scattered throughout Dubai reminded me of Houston's boast that it has the tallest building in the world outside of a downtown area (and I feel relatively certain after seeing Dubai's skyline that this is an empty boast). Of the dozens of countries I've visited on five different continents, only the UAE can rival the US in cars with automatic transmission and Starbucks on either side of the same street corner. The people I met there all seemed to be working 70- and 80-hour workweeks, just like professionals and academics in the US. One night when my cousin, his partner and I did find time to go out for a drink, he compared the scenesters surrounding us to folks in Los Angeles, where he'd lived for almost twenty years, and where party-goers also tend to 'dress to impress.' Our drive through the Emirate of Sharjah, with its alcohol proscription, put me in mind of the 'dry counties' one is constantly encountering in North Texas, and the immigrant cab drivers that took me to and from the airport made me remember the two years I lived in New York City. Even the Borders bookstore at the Mall of the Emirates was an exact copy of the one about a mile from my apartment in Houston, filled with books in English by and about the Clintons or Bushes. The only difference was two small sections of Arabic books in a far corner. The least busy section in the whole store was the Islamic books; the general reading in Arabic carried a few novels and books of poetry, but also translations from the English of books by Edward Said, Robert Fisk, and Doctor Phil.
All of this makes one wonder where the proponents of a 'clash of civilizations' are going to find another civilization to clash with. And if this is the vanguard of Arab civilization, can it really be too mysterious and alien for its literature to be translated, distributed, reviewed and read in the US?
Published Apr 3, 2008 Copyright 2008 Hosam Aboul-Ela