On Emirati Literature: What is Political?

Ruben Sanchez- Bicycamel. Dubai, 2013

Ruben Sanchez- Bicycamel. Dubai, 2013

writes in The National about the shift in Emirati literature, from subjects such as “political Islam, pan-Arabism and colonialism” to “modern stories of wedding hall romances and shopping mall dramas.”

The title of the article is somewhat misleading however, since  goes on to note:

Nationalism is still discussed, often framed in terms of development and unity. Yet gender roles and conservative societal expectations have become defining subjects of contemporary Emirati literature since the country’s formation in 1971.

 

Even though the terms are used together, there are some interesting blurrings of the lines as to whether gender politics are actually politics sprinkled throughout the article:
 

Gender politics have replaced state politics, argues Tijani.“Writers now will focus on the issue of national development, supporting government ideas,” he says. “They avoid politics almost altogether.”

Zacharias cites Aisha Al Kaabi’s short story, The Women’s Fitting Room, where “women look in the mirror, reflecting on personal problems – ageing, adultery, spinsterhood, motherhood” as an example of reflections in contemporary Emirati literature on women’s roles in a fast-changing society. Also mentioned is that most famous female Emirati writer, Osha bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi, known as fatat al-arab (translated in the article and Wikipedia as “girl of the Arabs” which sounds just a little strange to me).

The article is based on the findings of a survey of Emirati literature by a professor at the American University of Sharjah, Olatunbosun Ishaq Tijani who argues that:

“In the early 20th century, writers and particularly the poets were very free in addressing issues of political importance to them, particularly the way the British colonialists isolated the Gulf countries from the rest of the Arab world,” says Tijani.

“But nowadays there is no longer a need for it. Politics is no longer a major thing in Emirati literature. What they are focusing on is the UAE as an open country, where everybody can come and enjoy and … presenting an image of a liberal society.”

 
Reading this article at a time when the UAE is in the news for very “political” reasons in relation to my own home country, it’s interesting to think about the timeline of constructing national identities in literature, how people are able see “their nation’s history and literary tradition reflected in the mirror the writer’s labour”, to quote Jamal Mahjoub’s novelist alter-ego Yasin in Travelling with Djinns.

Something to look out for: “Tijani plans to publish two volumes within the next year: a comprehensive study of modern Emirati poetry, drama, the novel and short fiction and a book on women and gender in Gulf literature.”

ETA: In this article, M. Lynx Qualey writes about the UAE’s literature investments and the direction Emirati literature is taking, referencing Tijani’s work.

 

 

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