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21Jun

Arab Writing Is Alive And Flourishing

The Western world is yet to fully grasp the number of excellent Arab fiction writers due to language barrier. However, things are about to change for Arab writers the world needs to know and hear about. The question is how well do you know your world literature?

writingAbu Dhabi: Known for its dazzling skyscrapers which creates one of the most magnificent night skyline you can find anywhere in the world; Abu Dhabi is the Arab World’s cosmopolitan metropolis. With its burgeoning economy that has made it a popular destination for expats, it is known for its rich and diverse cultural heritage and history. Hence, it is no surprise that it recently played home and host to the first International nadwa (workshop) for Arab fiction.

The initiative which was launched this year by The International Prize For Arabic Fiction (IPAF.) Now in its third year, it holds a yearly Prize for the literary novel genre, equivalent to the Man Booker Prize for the Arab world. The IPAF aims to champion excellence in contemporary Arabic literature of the highest quality and works in association with the Booker Prize Foundation.

The nadwa is modelled on other international writing workshops. Hence, it must be questioned as to why it has taken such a long time to recognise one is needed on the international literary landscape? However, it is also fair to acknowledge the efforts being made to redress the gulf between the ‘Caine Prize’ writing workshop for African Writers, which has evolved over the last 10 years and the numerous writing workshops in the UK and US. These workshops, including the likes of the ‘Asian American Writers’ Workshop’ help emerging writers to develop their skills and gives them a visible platform to be seen, heard and get better at their craft.

Peter Clark is an IPAF trustee and the nadwa’s coordinator, he explains, “The workshop brings together promising writers, from different Arab countries to discuss their work and creativity with experienced writers and the ultimate aim is to encourage good writing and bring it to the attention of the rest of the world.” The eight writers picked for this inaugural workshop are described by the judges who chose them as ‘some of the most gifted and promising writers of the emerging generation’ of Arab writers. And five of them have also been selected to be part of Beirut 39, an elite group of Arab writers under the age of 40.

mansouraThe workshop which took place over a nine days period was conducted in Arabic and the writers wrote in Arabic. However, there are plans for the final work of each writer to be part of an anthology, which will be translated and published in both Arabic and English. The opportunity also gave the writers access to established writers from the Arab world, who served as mentors and worked closely with them in one-to-one sessions. Mansoura Ezz Elden, who has been shortlisted for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and Mohammed Hassan Alwan, were two of the nine participants. They admit this is the first time they have participated in a workshop of this sort and agree that these kinds of workshop are not a common thing in the Arab world. Alwan says the reason for the lack of such workshops could be due to financial reasons. He said, “A lot of money has been spent to fund art and literature events in the Arab World. However, most of this money goes to prizes and festivals. If you agree with me, both types of events have a public relations element that encourages funders to buy some good publicity which writers’ retreats, apparently, don’t generate enough of it. Find a funder who recognizes the real essence of non-for-profit projects and you’ll see more workshops as this one in the Arab world.”  While Elden says the trend is changing with the inception of writing workshops like the nadwa and others in Lebanon and Cairo but this “Workshop is totally different, because the participants are well known young writers, not beginners.”

Alwan has published two novels and a collection of short stories, while Eldeen has a novel, a collection of short stories and she runs the review section of the renowned Egyptian literary magazine, Akhbar al-Adab (Literature News.) They say the workshop has helped them, though in different ways. Alwan said, “Joining eight accomplished writers in a quest for refining our in-progress short stories and novels was as valuable as taking eight consecutive classes of creative writing.” While Eldeen admits to doing something she is not familiar by threading in a new territory with her work. “It was a fruitful experience, it was also an adventure because as a writer, I was not used to letting anyone read my work while writing but this workshop helped to change that habit,” she says. Hence, she says the most important gain from the workshop was being able to “See her work through the eyes of other writers and to be more flexible.”

So, what does a writing workshop of this nature do for a body of work or literature from a different part of the world? Surely the aim is to open the minds of people in different parts of the world to the fact that Arab Writing is alive and flourishing and that the literary world and readers alike need to embrace it and stay open minded. Clark says he hopes “It gives recognition to emerging talented writers, encourages readers and instils awareness that the future of Arab literary creativity looks good.” For the writers involved, Alwan says he would like to believe that the workshop will help Arab fiction and writers “Overcome the shortcomings of their writings that the after-publishing critique often fails to do since it is either usually too late or too harsh.” He adds that this triggers a level of defensiveness from the writer and prevents him or her from understanding why his or her work is being criticised by the critics. So, “providing such critique while the text is in development is much more acceptable and is received as an opportunity to improve the text rather than undermine it,” he adds.

Both authors are adamant about the biggest challenge faced by Arab writers which they say is the issue of translation. The lack of translation has meant some of best works from Arab writers, fiction and non-fiction is yet to cross over into the mainstream literary scene despite the fact that Arab writing keeps evolving. Hence, Eldeen believes that translating the work which comes out of the workshop into English would be one of the most important and positive results of it all. Alwan says he would like to see a change in the number of works translated across the Arab literary landscape. “There is still not enough funding for massive translation projects. Only a little fraction of what’s being produced in the Arab world gets translated to other languages,” he says. A gauntlet of opportunity for Western publishers if they are bold enough to seize the opening this gives and listen to the Arab world’s elite writers and take a chance.

Clark points out there are plans to develop the workshop further while both writers express their hope of it becoming a more frequent event with a broader scope of writing, more diverse participants as this would be a platform for the writers to exchange ideas and their experiences. They also would not mind being involved in future workshops. Eldeen says she actually fancies the opportunity of being a mentor, while Alwan is quick to point out the fact that having mentors for this year’s workshop was a blessing. Hence, it is important to keep that aspect of the project because “At the end, Arab mentors can be more effective in communicating with the participants. It’s not only because of the shared spoken language but also the cultural backgrounds that play significant roles in shaping the ideas behind the stories and novels being developed.”

MohammedOn the subject of censorship within the Arab world, both writers have different points of view and how a writing workshop can help them overcome that hurdle. Alwan said, “Since the participants are from different countries in the Arab world and experience different levels and types of censorship; they share the condemnation of it but not the extents of which they can challenge it, the experiences they had with it, nor the techniques they use to minimize its negative effect on their writings.

“Hence by mixing them together, they inspire each other and share their experiences in regards to dealing with censorship.  However, Eldeen says, “Any workshop cannot help writers to express themselves freely. The writer should express himself freely whatever the price is. Freedom is the most important thing for a writer.”

Until there is such a time where censorship does not exist in any form and writers can write freely, the IPAF says it will continue to work with the writers involved and connect them to other important literary platforms through partnerships and organisations. These organisations will work more directly with the writers, and be of great benefit and enhancement to them says Clark. Mean while, Eldeen and Alwan hope to keep writing, addressing the issues close to their hearts; so, here is to more successful nadwas’s.

Note: This article was first published by Arab Comment in 2009

Images are courtesy of Authors

Mansoura Ezz Elden

Mohammed Hassan Alwan

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2 Responses to “Arab Writing Is Alive And Flourishing”

  1. Rebecca says:

    This was a very interesting post! I have a sudden urge to pick up and read an Arab author again. 🙂

  2. Belinda Otas says:

    Thank you. Hope you find yourself some great reads

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