Three Emirati poets are on their way to London for a showcase of the UAE’s fertile literary scene, as part of the Southbank Centre’s annual London Literature Festival (LLF).
Nujoom al Ghanem, Khulood al Mu’alla and Khalid Albudoor will be reading their work in Arabic as part of the international event, which includes talks by Palestinian, Lebanese and Saudi Arabian authors alongside writers from the US and Europe, such as the novelist Bret Easton Ellis and the social theorist Slavoj Žižek.
The event organiser Rachel Holmes, who fell in love with Emirati poetry when she attended the 2009 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, said: “Emirati poetry was a new discovery for me. “It was one of the highlights of the festival.” Al Ghanem, al Mu’alla and Albudoor were performing at the Dubai event, and Holmes, explaining why she wanted to bring the poets to the UK, said :“We plan the festival around the very best emerging and established writers from around the world."
“A heavenly gift” is how al Ghanem describes the way poetry entered her life. The Dubai-born poet and filmmaker is one of the Gulf’s most famous literary voices, with six published volumes of poetry and four films to her name, and she’ll be one of the three Emirati poets performing in London.
Although she has also trained in television and worked as a journalist, she says that poetry has always been closest to her heart. “It helped me look at the external and internal worlds differently,” she says. “I feel more complete when I write, more into my own territory, and more real.”
Al Ghanem’s verse is emotional and freeform, often made up of short, haiku-like lines. “Scattered by the wind”, reads one sparsely worded poem, “That’s how/She saw/Her death”.
She says wryly of her style: “Of course I was influenced by the new movement of the free-verse poets in the Arab world when I was still too young.” And she also counts Baudelaire, Rimbaud, TS Eliot and Shakespeare among her heroes. Her subjects tend to be intensely personal moments: reflections on time, nature, family and the small moments of everyday life.
Al Ghanem has performed to English-speaking audiences before, but says she’s “thrilled” to be reading at the LLF.
After the poets read their work in Arabic, Margaret Obank, the editor of Banipal magazine, and the translator Greg Mosse will read English versions of the work. “I just hope that the meaning of the poem is conveyed,” al Ghanem says. “It’s just so hard to convey rhythm and sound, even in the best translations.”
The difficulties in translation however, are slight in comparison to the satisfaction of breaking cultural stereotypes. Al Ghanem points out that, for a nation often seen as socially conservative, Emirati poets are often frank about personal topics. “Throughout history we’ve had numerous poets, storytellers, and novelists who wrote unforgettable pieces of art on love, sex, emotions and lust,” she says. “Our modern writers are no exception.”
Two such writers, Khulood Al Mu’alla and Khalid Albudoor, will also be performing at the same event in London.
Al Mu’alla won the Buland Al-Haidari Award for Young Arab Poets two years ago and has published four collections of poetry. Born in Umm Al Quwain and raised in Ras Al Khaimah, she studied architecture at UAE university, before studying project management at Reading in the UK and Arabic language in Beirut.
Her poems are full of delicate metaphors: in one, The Unexceptional Poet, she describes her feelings as “the soft flapping of a sparrow with one wing”. A keen interest in science also fuels her work, as does Sufism.
Albudoor, who previously worked as the director of Radio Dubai, will also be performing. A founding member of the Emirati Writers’ Union and the recipient of the Al Khal Prize for Poetry in Lebanon in 1991, he’s at the forefront of the modernist poetry movement in the UAE. Last year he edited an English-language anthology of 19th and 20th century Emirati love poems entitled Looking Back With Love.
Albudoor’s own work, like Al Ghanem’s, is made up of short, vivid lines describing intense personal revelations. “My longing increases/Whenever birds stand in my balcony,” reads the love poem The Trees, “And you/ Whenever the years fall off/Our Window/You seem sweet/Like a summer shore.” Other poems from his collections deal with fear, loneliness, desire and dreams.
Rachel Holmes hopes that bringing Emirati poets to the UK will help Londoners understand something of the country’s heritage. “It’s a way of accessing the culture at a recognisable human level that isn’t about oil and shopping” she says.
Another colourful character who will be giving a talk is Abdo Khal, the Saudi Arabian author, teacher and former political scientist who won the $60,000 (Dh330,000) International Prize for Arabic Fiction this year for his satirical novel Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles. Set in Jeddah, where Khal lives, and named after a Qu’ranic reference to hell, the book criticises Saudi Arabia’s rich upper classes and has raised eyebrows for its strong language and explicit themes. Like Khal’s other work, it has been banned in his home country. When he won the award in March, Khal was unapologetic, saying: “In my view, every novel must allude to the Arab ‘taboo triangle’ – consisting of religion, politics and sexuality.”
He’s not the only author from the Middle East to be making the trek to London. The Lebanese writer Hanan al Shaykh will be talking about her memoir The Locust and the Bird, about her mother’s breaking of Sharia law after having been forced to marry her brother-in-law, while Susan Abulhawa will talk about her debut novel Mornings in Jenin, which looks at Palestine’s bloody history through the lens of one family.
Among all the talks and readings, there are also many eclectic events for people who don’t see themselves as literary buffs. Site specific theatre will take place outside in a skate park, and there will be dance sessions, writing workshops and beatboxing as well as science events and stand-up comedy. “This is literature made live,” says Holmes. “It’s not passive. It’s not just a lot of boffins sipping their water and being intellectual. It’s what we all love about reading.”