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Shifting Gulfward

The apparent demise of the millennia-old Arab cultural centres and the rapid growth, in their place and across all genres, of Emirates-based investment are raising some questions. Is oil money alone fuelling the contemporary art boom, and in whose interests is the cash being flashed in the name of Arab cultural renaissance? Marcia Lynx Qualey explores the possible motives and consequences of moves to the Gulf.

In late 2013, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, a commentator on Arab affairs, sparked a firestorm of debate when he declared, in an article published online in Al-Monitor, that Arab cultural life and production – for centuries the preserve of Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad – have shifted to Doha, Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and that these Gulf cities are now the new centres of the Arab world.

The vocal and liberal Al-Qassemi, himself a member of an Emirati ruling family, received a number of withering responses to this claim. Some of these amounted to Gulf-bashing, while others attacked the idea that money alone, without artistic freedoms and shared cultural spaces, could shift centres of cultural development. They also raised the question: what other motives lurk behind this cultural push? 

Certainly, Al-Qassemi is right that, in the last decade, the Gulf’s presence has been powerfully felt in the art world. Most popular commentary has focused on visual art, and particularly on Qatari art buyers. But in the last few years, nearly a dozen publishing houses have been launched in the Emirates. With the exception of the children’s publisher Kalimat, their effects have been largely local, but the sea change is certainly affecting literature in the region.

Bodour Al Qasimi, the force behind Kalimat, has helped create a 1 million Dirham (US$270 000) prize for Arabic children’s literature. The Sharjah-based prize has resulted in a surge in children’s books, including Arabic young-adult literature. The influence of the Abu Dhabi-sponsored International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) is less clear, but it’s certainly got the book world’s attention. The same can be said of the well-funded Abu Dhabi and Sharjah book fairs, and the Emirates Literature Festival in Dubai.

All this has caused a steady drift of power toward the Gulf. This has been met with resistance from many authors from other Arab-speaking countries, because it comes at a time when Gulf powers are seeking and establishing wider political influence throughout the region. But artists’ concerns aren’t simply about the shifting geographies; there are questions about how the infusion of Gulf money will reinscribe the pathways of Arabic literature, its interests, its allegiances and its red lines. What sort of cultural future is being built in these Gulf cities, and in whose interests?

The current centres of Arab culture have deep roots, but they are neither static nor eternal. Indeed, Arab culture has changed centres many times over the past 1, 500 years. The poets of pre-Islamic times hailed from the Arabian Peninsula, where the language was born. The most famous, the 6th-century poet Imru al-Qays, is reputed to have been a prince from the Najf region, in what’s now Saudi Arabia. In the centuries following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Arabic literary movements drifted away from the Peninsula and clustered around wealthy kingdoms. It is unclear where the great Abu Nuwas (756–814 CE) was born, but he soon migrated to Baghdad, and there became famous for his humorous poetry. One of the most celebrated of the ancient Arab poets, Al-Mutanabbi (915–965 CE), was born in a small town in Iraq, but migrated to centre of power in Damascus and later Aleppo. There he joined the court of Sayf al-Dawla and wrote poems for the Emir.

As the Arab and Islamic lands spread, so too did Arabic language and culture. Ibn Tufail (1105–1185), the author of what is thought to be the first Arabic novel, was attached to the powerful court in Granada, where he also helped cultivate the philosopher Ibn Rushd, or Averroes. These seats of power shifted as Arabs were driven out of Iberia. In the 19th century, European colonial influence shifted the balance of cultural relations again, and Beirut became a key cultural centre. But through most of the 20th century, Cairo wielded the biggest literary stick. After all, Cairo didn’t just have important authors, such as Taha Hussein and Naguib Mahfouz, but also the weight of the film industry.

The massive Cairo International Book Fair was launched in 1969, and it became a focal point for publishers and authors. These were the years, before the disruptions of Lebanon’s protracted civil war (1975–1990), when one could really say, “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads.” Yet by that time, other shifts were already happening. The 20th century was a time of enormous movement in Arabic literature. Arabic poetry underwent earthshaking change, as did short stories, theatre and novels. Some of the pioneering authors, such as Naguib Mahfouz, rarely left their homelands, while many others experienced both personal and collective exile.

Exile and its opposite – an allegiance to state power – had a massive impact on modern Arabic literature. In the late colonial and early dictatorship years, many authors were exiled, or fled their countries for political reasons: the pioneering poets, Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab and Abd al-Wahhab Al-Bayati, for example, were forced out of Iraq, as was Adonis from Syria; the great novelist Abdelrahman Munif was stripped of his Saudi nationality; and many Lebanese authors fled their country during that nation’s 15-year civil war. Arabic literature was also affected by the mass exile of more than 700 000 Palestinians, many of whom moved to other Arab capitals. In their many exiles, Arab authors often met up in Beirut, but when the civil war there made that difficult they met in Paris and London, where they exchanged ideas, and established newspapers and cultural magazines.

The movement of Arab authors to European capitals was influential on Arab literature. But perhaps even more so was the simultaneous attraction of publication in foreign languages. For Arab authors who had never left the country of their birth, the pull of the European metropolis was strong. In the last decades of the 20th century, it became an important mark of accomplishment and prestige to be translated into European languages and invited to European festivals. The money wasn’t negligible, either. The power of the European literary establishment thus produced a strong magnetic pull, shaping narratives and creating new stars. In his memoir I Saw Ramallah (1997), Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti complained that many authors were now “writing for translation”, and for approval in Western centres. Authors who wrote about “terrorism” or “coexistence”, for instance, found a wider reception in translation than those who wrote about the everyday. This pull was also felt strongly, although differently, in Algeria and Morocco, where many authors could write in French and thus directly access French readers. Publishing in French also meant they didn’t have to deal with local red lines. Al-Qassemi’s article neglects to mention the Maghrebi cultural centres, such as Marrakesh and Algiers. Although Maghrebi authors have been drawn to the Gulf, the cities of western North Africa have also been building their own distinct structures.

In the last decade, Gulf power has risen as an apparent counter-balance to both Western and local regime influence. In some cases, Gulf influence has taken things in a new direction, such as with the Emirates-based Prince of Poets and Million’s Poet reality TV programmes. The Prince of Poets competition is a heavyweight, drawing viewers from across the region. It is structured on the lines of Britain’s Pop Idol, and has featured a number of popular spoken-word poets. The programme has promoted popular poetic forms in a time when many authors have been attracted to the novel. But it also appears to favour less controversial and Gulf-nation contestants over audience favourites such as Palestinian poet Tamim al-Barghouti and Egyptian Hesham al-Gakh. The Million’s Poet programme, meanwhile, promotes traditional nabati poetry and winners more often than not address soft topics, such as familial love, although the Saudi poet Hissa Hilal, the first woman to advance to the finals of the competition, did so with a political poem criticising fatwas.

Gulf influence in the marketing and distribution of literature has been strongly tied to the West. The large, upmarket Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF), for instance, was founded in partnership with the Frankfurt Book Fair, which managed the ADIBF for the first few years of its operation and helped to hire staff and establish its general outlines. As Cairo’s book fair crumbles, the ADIBF has taken over as a major event in the region. Yet it’s unclear what the ADIBF wants to be. The book fair serves to promote Abu Dhabi as a place of free speech yet, at the 2013 event, a visiting German author was arrested on suspicion of spying after taking snapshots that included the Iraqi and Iranian embassies. Meanwhile, at Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, a joint British-Qatari project, some excellent literature has been published in translation, but only after it has passed through a local censorship committee.

Another big initiative coming out of Abu Dhabi has been the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, popularly called the “Arabic Booker”. This Emirati-English hybrid has quickly become the most influential Arab literary prize, overshadowing the more lucrative Sheikh Zayed Book Award and Al Owais Award. Founded in partnership with the UK Man-Booker Prize, and administered out of London, the “Arabic Booker” draws international attention. The judging criteria appear to change wildly from year to year, but the prize has already shifted attention away from the most established Lebanese and Egyptian publishers. Since each publisher can submit only three books for consideration, authors shift to smaller publishing houses for a guarantee that their book will be entered. The prize has been so successful in getting publishers’ attention that Qatar is in the process of launching its own USD$200 000 prize, giving a nod to the West by promising the winning title translation into English, Spanish and French.

The Gulf cities promote themselves as stable locales in comparison to their strife-torn neighbours, whose cultural institutions have been badly undermined or almost destroyed. Although Iraqis continue to produce brilliant literature, Baghdad’s book culture has been dealt a series of blows, including an explosion that targeted Al-Mutanabbi Street, its bookselling centre. Damascus’s publishing infrastructure has been largely destroyed, and most of its authors are in exile. In Cairo, the publishing industry has been affected by a new regime intent on making its position clear, including a recent book-burning – targeting texts allegedly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood – at a public library.

Al-Qassemi’s article notes that when the traditional Arab capitals “begin the process of turning their fortunes around, they will encounter an Arab-world landscape dominated by the new, formidable Gulf cities that have set a standard that is hard to match not only regionally, but on a global scale.” Indeed, the ADIBF, the Etisalat Prize, and Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing are increasing their reach and expanding their influence, yet these institutions lack a creative, organic centre such as the booksellers and cultural salons of the previous generations.

In her critique of Al-Qassemi’s article, Ursula Lindsay notes that Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dubai and Sharjah have majority foreign populations and argues that “physically and socially, they are cities with no public, shared spaces, because they are designed to keep their residents segregated, to prevent them from mingling, gathering, and participating in free and open debate… how can cities without centres of their own become the centres of something bigger?”

Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dubai and Sharjah certainly have had an impact on contemporary reimagining and production of Arabic literature. But, in the long run, if they are to be real centres of cultural life – as Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad have been – the Gulf cities will have to be more than regional tinkerers.[/ppw]

covers togetherThis story features in the new edition of Chronic Books, the supplement to the Chronic. Through dispatches, features, interviews and reviews, we explore the reach of public relations and petrodollars.

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