A wonder city, Disneyland for adults, the unique emirate of Dubai is a legitimate cultural pioneer in the Middle East. Yes, it is the emirate that introduced a seven star hotel, indoor skiing and skydiving, and the biggest shopping malls, which even in difficult economic times attract thousands of filthy rich careless tourists. Yet, it is also the first emirate to hold a literary festival, celebrating the power of the written word.
Unlike the annual weeklong Dubai International Film Festival, the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature lasted only four days (Feb. 26 through March 1). It is still quite refreshing to see Dubai host such an event, for it allowed writers from different countries to engage in dialogues with each other and the quite diverse audience in Dubai. The four days were fully loaded with hour-long lectures and thematic sessions, followed by question and answer time.
To the credit of the organizers, the festival encompassed a wide range of truly interesting topics: raising awareness of Arabic writing; Arab literature through the translators’ eyes; women writing from the Arab world; the impact of literary prizes on writers and readers and so on.
More importantly, on the 4th day — Education Day — every participating author attended one institution where they spoke directly to students. This day is quite reassuring for a place that is usually seen as one of the most materialistic touristy destinations that makes money from anything that smells, moves and exists.
While the festival deserves a detailed day-to-day analysis, I’d like to focus on one particularly overlooked but mind-boggling issue. Namely, translation and raising awareness of Arabic writing.
On the third day of the festival, four critically acclaimed Arab authors discussed the role of translation and prizes in the development of Arabic literature. Their main point of discontent was the argument that Arabic literary works are being translated on a European agenda rather than on their merits.
As Palestinian-Jordanian author Ibrahim Nasrallah put it, “Those [books] chosen for translation talk about sensitive issues. The theme is of primary importance, and the artistic standards of writing are ignored.” It is a multi-layered problem, according to the participants: writers might deliberately choose controversial topics, translators fish out specific books that reveal such topics, and the rest of the world gets the wrong idea of the Arab world.
Indeed, thinking of some of the most popular books dealing with the Arabic world or Islam, I immediately remembered my two favorites: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and Yacoubian Building by Alaa el-Aswany. Both books are known globally and had been adapted to the screen. And yes, violence, sodomy, and extramarital relationships, among other issues, are present in both works. I can surely see Nasrallah’s discontent with the rest of the world being exposed to such sensitive material coming from this pious region. However, I would hate to think that any writer ever sat down with a commercial goal on her mind: “What is the violence-obsessed Western audience going to pick up?”
If I am ever to write a book it will certainly be on something quite controversial such as gay rights in the former Soviet Union. Ask any Turkmen, for example, if there are any gay people in Turkmenistan and I bet you will get a negative response. But the reason I would write such a book is not the sensation it would create in the region or in the West. It would be for my dear Central Asian friend Dima whose dream is to go to Europe, of which he knows very little but believes it is his only shot at happiness.
Nonetheless, this discussion and the like only demonstrate the timeliness of the festival.
*Z is from a country that made up the Soviet Union, and her writing on cultural and political matters could have a backlash when she returns home from the U.S., so she writes under a pseudonym.
(The photo taken in Dubai is by Z and is used with permission.)
Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature
The Kite Runner
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