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We have dedicated the past few weeks to storytelling in the United Arab Emirates, featuring interviews with author Deepak Unnikrishnan and art curators Banat Collective. As a final installment in this mini series, following the interviews with author Deepak Unnikrishnan and art curators Banat Collective, we’re sharing this list of people and initiatives across the UAE. They are all great and interesting in terms of how they tell stories using a range of means including film, illustrations, audio, performance and writing.
Al Taghrooda poetry
The traditional chanted poetry Al Taghrooda was put on the UNESCO intangible heritage list in 2012. The art has its origins in the peninsula’s Bedouin traditions; in nomadic times, Al Taghrooda was sung – improvised and then repeated over and over – as a way to encourage both animals and people when traveling together. It is unique to the UAE and Oman, unlike other forms of Bedouin poetry, and while the poetry unmistakably is less practiced and spread today, there are still poets who maintain the tradition. One example is the heritage researcher Khalfan Abdullah Bin Noaman Al Kaabi, who is behind the ongoing restoration of the Hili Heritage Village in Al Ain.
Dubai-born Afra Atiq is a poet and spoken word artist who writes and performs in Arabic and English (often code-switching, moving from one to the other). She continues to perform at many slam poetry, poetry and spoken word sessions across the UAE, as well as events and talks on literature and the narration of stories. Her poetry is inspired both by her mixed heritage (Emirati-Japanese-American) and that which essentially keeps us all going: food.
Yasser Elsheshtawy’s blog dubaization, even though not updated as often these days, is a veritable treasure for anyone interested in the urban and socio-cultural development of Dubai. His blog is a great archive of writing on urbanisation and Dubai as a concept, and how it bears a strong influence on how cities both in and outside of the region grow and develop today. Elsheshtawy, who continues to share great links and resources on Twitter, introduced the assumed adjective ‘dubaization’ as a name for his blog, to capture the sense of how the image of Dubai has become a phenomena, widely impacting on urban transformations in many places.
Kalimat is a publishing house in Sharjah publishing children’s literature in Arabic. Their authors are Emirati, Lebanese and Syrian, and several illustrators collaborate in doing the illustrations. Many books present new takes on traditional tales and kids’ stories, such as those of the great Kalila wa Dimna, originally written in Sanskrit in the 4th century CE and later translated into Arabic.
Nujoom Alghanem is a poet, scriptwriter and film director with many short films and poetry collections under her belt. She recently won the award for best film at Egypt’s Ismailia Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts for her film Sharp Tools about late artist Hassan Sharif, who founded the UAE’s conceptual art movement and inspired many artists.
The tradition of hakawati nights, live and captivating storytelling, may be long gone from the UAE and much of the region as a whole, but Ahmad Yousuf, a theatrical current-day hakawati, maintains it in a contemporary form through making appearances and performances with his troupe.
On a side street in Karama, a residential area in the older parts of Dubai, is the combined bookstore and library Archie’s. With over 13,000 members, many coming as far as Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, Archie’s both sell and lend the books on its shelves. The all-English bookstore, opened in 1987 by a former bank employee who used her own money and private collection of books to set it up, has an interesting collection of popular literature, including a shelf dedicated to only Indian authors and a big section of popular kids’ and youth literature.
DC Books, also in Karama, just near the ADCB metro stop, is the only branch outside of India of this major Malayalam publisher. Serving as a testament of the UAE’s large and deep-rooted Keralan population, the Dubai branch keeps a good selection of Malayalam and English books, including works by authors like Arundhati Roy and classics such as Kafka or Pamuk, translated from their original language. Among the neatly organised shelves, one book symbolically stands out: Duniya, which means ‘world’ in both Arabic and Malayalam (and several other global languages).
The tireless street artist Arcadia Blank was featured in a story we published back in 2015, where our contributor Rana Jarbou called him “Dubai’s most authentic street artist”. His works, often found half-hidden on walls and facades in the city, comment brilliantly on things like equality, rights, existentialism and belonging, in a city where much of everyday life is intimately linked to these things. His work ‘We are the dream makers’, commenting on the contribution of the large migrant community residing in the city, is a modern classic.
A quite recent addition to Dubai’s culture and gallery district Alserkal Avenue is Cinema Akil, a cinematic initiative aiming to bring quality films and cinema culture to a wider audience in the UAE. They do open-air and pop-up screenings in different cities and parts of the country.
Tea with culture
An art and culture podcast courtesy of Hind Mezaina, of the excellent and long-standing blog The Culturist, and Dubai-based artists Wael Hattar, with stories and updates about cultural life and creativity in Dubai and other parts of the UAE, as well as interesting conversations and interviews with people from across the artistic spectrum.
Dubai Writers Group
The Dubai Writers Group has organised events and meetups for writers since 2005, and currently host two regular gatherings: one critique group and one sit-and-write group. The idea is that writers – both professional and amateur/emerging – get a chance to meet and connect with others over writing. Their events are announced on their their meetup.com site and Facebook page.
The Middle East Film and Comics Con
This festival is organised yearly to bring together exhibitors and creators of a wide range of graphic art forms: cartoons and comics, games, anime, manga and pop culture movies. The idea behind, they say, is to let people express their “inner geek in an electric atmosphere”.
The Dubai chapter of Afikra, a monthly city based get-together with the aim to explore “the diversity and richness of Arab culture and history”, is one of the more active: the group in Dubai has organised 13 events in the city so far (with the 14th coming up tomorrow, as of when this is published). Anyone is invited to come, and to reach out to the organisers with ideas for topics. The archives of past Afikra events – not only in Dubai but also in Beirut, Bahrain, London and cities in North America – are available online. Disclaimer: our Micha Tobia is also part of the Afikra team, which should only serve as yet another guarantee!
Dubai’s mini beach libraries
As of last year, there are small boots put up in different spots along some of Dubai’s beaches. They have a see-through doors, allowing you to see the content of the box: a miniature library, where you can borrow or exchange a book for free. “Reading is a discount ticket to everywhere”, says the side of the library boot; Dubai Municipality, who is behind the libraries, thinks of them as a way to promote reading in the city.
Finally, we also want to point towards the issue literary magazine Banipal did in 2011, devoted entirely to literature from the UAE. It serves as a great introduction to the country’s rather young novel and short story tradition (as compared to its poetry and oral storytelling which, as shown above, is rich and dates back long in time). The issue focuses on poetry and short stories, and is possible to find and order through Banipal’s website.