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The City and the Writer: In Dubai with Nujoom Al-Ghanim

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Dubai as you feel/see it?

Today, Dubai is a very busy city. It has different faces as well as various paces; fast and unbearable during the day, colorful and wild at night, beautiful but noisy, light sometimes, grim other times, elusive but welcoming, playful yet tough, sophisticated but easy to know, strange yet friendly, hard even though it has a tender heart. It’s the city where I was born and where I learned how to love and wait for things to take shape so I would understand them better. The city has grown up along with me. Therefore, although I think I know it, it overwhelms me somehow. Sometimes, I feel I am her enemy, others times her victim. We might not know each other very well but I think we understand each other and we survive together.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

When I went to my old neighborhood and could not find the places of my childhood—the alleys, the houses, the small grocery stores. They were all removed or replaced by new shiny retail or wholesale stores. It was shocking and a real pity.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

There used to be a place called the “Tomb of the Master” (in Arabic, قبرالوليّ). This tomb had become the visiting place of people who had suffered physical and mental illnesses, psychological traumas, etc. In those days people treated it as a shrine. It was a refuge. And if someone healed or received a blessing, he/she would offer their thanks. Others kept returning to experience the peacefulness of the area. As a child, I used to join my parents or relatives when they went there. It was a magical place even though it was simple. It was a significant place not only to our parents and grandparents but it was part of the deep fabric of my generation’s early consciousness. I can now vaguely remember this place. Once busy almost all year long with visitors from everywhere, today with the growth of the city, the tomb and the area around it is lost among the many modern projects in the district. The sad thing is that the cultural side of it was eliminated from people’s lives and the city’s memory.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

I wish there were good English translations of our early classical poets’ works, namely,
Buti Bin Suhail, Mohammed Bin Thani Bin Gitaami and Mubark Aleqaily. From the younger generation of Dubai poets, I think Khalid Albudoor and Adel Khuzam should be read.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I always go back to the beach, a spot in the Jumeirah area that keeps calling me and inspiring me. That is were I learnt to love Dubai once again—after all the developments.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know about?

Dubai Public Library which is located on one of  Khor Dubai—Dubai Creek’s shores on the Bur Deira’s side used to be the main cultural hub for many activities including lectures and poetry readings besides its basic function as a place for reading and borrowing books. I consider it one of the earliest literary and cultural initiatives in Dubai. I used to hear lectures there when I was young, and when I was older went there and enjoyed reading books and magazines that came from the Arab world that made me feel connected to them. I hope that this place will always be nourished and treasured for its history and cultural value.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Dubai as a whole is very seductive and captivating. It pulls you into its details and corners. It has its nooks and wideness. When it started getting bigger and sophisticated I began to hate it. I felt strange in it. I had to find a way to make peace with it for it was pushing me away from it instead of taking me into its arms. Only in recent years have I started experiencing its other faces, and realize they can be peaceful, beautiful, safe, clean, diverse, welcoming, liberal, affordable, but only if you choose the right places, times, and seasons.

Where does passion live here?

I would say in the old neighborhoods, the beaches, and the desert.

What is the title of one of your poems about Dubai and what inspired it exactly?

“The Yearning of Homelands for their Countrymen.”

We think we are at peace,
our feet planted in our homelands
and our heads high, inhaling the fresh outdoor air.
We think our dreams are enough to reach the horizon
but as soon as we enter the cities,
horror grips our souls
as they lose their way in the narrow streets
not knowing which gate to escape through.

It was inspired by how horrifying it was for me when I walked through the old allies of our old neighborhood and felt suffocated and cut off.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Dubai does an outside exist?”

In the great desert. It is the deepest city one can touch and feel. It is the city of sand which extends itself all around the horizons filling the eyes. There you can learn a lot about silence and about the stars. And when night falls, it’s like a soft blanket around you.

NH's Discovery of the Month:

There is contrast everywhere in this desert metropolis—dunes and glittering towers, camels and sports cars, malls and Bedouin life, cheap taxis and a metro system. It is a cosmopolitan city (with an estimated 150 nationalities) yet one with deeply rooted Islamic customs. An ambitious city that has seen stupendous economic development in the last thirty years. Oil reserves were discovered in Abu Dhabi in 1958 and changed the Emirates drastically. Britain withdrew from the region in 1968, and the same year Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah, Umm Al Quwain joined, and in 1972, Ras Al Khaimah, forming the United Arab Emirates. Yet the images I keep going back to are of men in dishdashas or khanduras. Women in abayas or sheylas (headscarfs). Shawarma and shisha cafes, kahwa (coffee) with cardamom and dates (date palms have been cultivated in the Arab world for 5,000 years). A place that still keeps the traditions of falconry, camel-racing, traditional dhow-sailing. How do you make sense of such contradictions? Maybe you shouldn't. Instead, let the place guide you in its manner.

I went to Dubai in March of this year. I was invited to the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature. The writers who opened the festival were Yang Lian, Ben Zephaniah, Margaret Atwood, Simon Armitage, and myself. It was a fantastic mix of voices and one of the busiest festivals I’ve attended. Most of the events were full. Isobel Abulhoul, the festival director is passionate and dedicated to making the festival more dynamic each year. Apart from the invigorating literary events I attended, I visted Burj Khalifa (the world’s highest building), Burj Al Arab, the Jumeira Mosque and Iranian Mosque, Dubai Museum, Spice Market, Al Bastakiya (a glimpse of the past—one of the oldest heritage sites in Dubai), Dubai Creek , Sheikh Zayed Road, and the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. But the magical moment for me, was while in the desert. Infinite sand, keeping you in its breath, its gold colors, and as night approached, in its silence. A silence that can convert the heart into whatever it wants.

About a month later, unexpectedly, I was back. This time with IWP and the US State Department. The writers on this literary mission were Bob Holman, Joshua Ferris and myself, accompanied by Christopher Merrill (poet and Director of IWP), Kelly Bedeian (Program Officer) and Ram Devineni (filmmaker). Ram's short films about our trip can be found on various literary magazines, namely, Guernica and BOMB magazines. We were originally suppose to go to Nepal (look out for my upcoming entry from Kathmandu), Pakistan, and Afghanistan. But we were diverted from Pakistan to UAE because Osama bin Laden was killed. On this visit, I grew increasing interested in Bedouin life and the culture behind the skyscrapers.

It also made me think about how the art and literary scene has changed in this region. When I edited The Poetry of Arab Women, a decade ago, we were still communicating via fax. Arab women poets were unknown to Western readers. I edited the book to eradicate their invisibility. I could sense then that the literary landscape in the Gulf was going to change fast. Today, many more Arab poets and writers are translated into English and other foreign languages. The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, or “Arabic Booker”) is an important presence in showcasing Arabic novelists. The British publishing house Bloomsbury Publishing opened a branch in the region, the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation, in partnership with the Qatar Foundation (Doha)

Interesting places: Kutub Literary Circle; The Third Line gallery; Dubai Community Theatre & Art Centre (DUCTAC); Bookstores (mostly in malls)—Book World in Satwa; Magrudy; Kinokuniya; and Jashanmal Book Store. Also, Banipal’s new issue is on New Writing from the Emirates.

The visual art scene is one of the most dynamic in the area. In Dubai, Ayyam Gallery ( is magnificent. They represent intriguing Arab artists, and Art Dubai, the leading contemporary art fair in the region is not to be missed. 

While in the area, consult TimeOut Dubai, L’agenda, the French cultural guide, and The National for what's exciting.

And if you like movies, see Emirati filmmaker Ali Mostafa's City of Lights.

Published Nov 1, 2011   Copyright 2011 Nathalie Handal

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