I’ve been back from Sharjah three days, and still haven’t updated my blog. There’s no good excuse. I caught myself up on missed episodes of The Walking Dead (I knew he was a fake) and Doctor Who (I didn’t understand any of that last episode), so now my evening schedule is clear for this. (Links to day One and day Two posts)
So, where did I leave off…
The evening of day two of my visit to Sharjah (UAE) I sent emails to several Emirati poets who were attending the book fair, and asked if they’d grant me interviews. I came to the country with an idea to write about poetry from this region, but “this region” is a big vague chunk. Narrowing the goal down to Emirati (go here to learn what being an Emirati means) poets made the most sense since their poetry culture seemed so rich here (one of the most popular TV shows in the country is a poetry contest show called Millions Poet). Within two hours after sending the emails, three of the poets had replied, and the fourth replied by morning.
The next day, after breakfast in the hotel (they serve beef bacon, which looks like pastrami, instead of pork bacon, and tastes nothing like bacon) I asked my driver (each of the guest writers was assigned a driver) to take me back to the book fair so I could track down those poets. I felt like a bit of a stalker, walking around the convention center to blindly interrogate writers, but this is one of the main reasons I was here.
First I met with Ali Al Shaali. Al Shaali studied engineering and is also a publisher himself, mostly of books for young adults. We spoke about poetry’s place in the Arabic world in general, and in the Emirates specifically. While explaining that poetry is very deeply rooted in the culture “we decorate our homes with it,” he said, he also noted that novels, TV and other media have replaced poetry for a lot of people. “This has been the case for poetry since the dawn of history, and I’m not worried about it.” However, he pointed out that poetry has a particularly strong supporter in the country—the ruler of Dubai and vice president of the UAE is a poet and has published books (I bought one while at the fair).
Next I was lucky enough to meet with Shihab Ghanem, who happens to also be an engineer with degrees from the UK. Ghanem is a well-known poet in the UAE, and knows most of the other significant poets. In addition to his own poems, he’s translated several English language poets (Frost and Auden are two he mentioned to me) into Arabic. He’s also a key person in an annual poetry festival held in Dubai called The Poetic Heart.
My third poet/engineer of the day was Talal Salim. That pattern is actually pretty common. In the UAE, and in the rest of the Arab world, the path to being a writer doesn’t involve creative writing classes and MFAs. That’s mostly an American phenomenon. People come to poetry writing more organically here. Sometimes through university study of Arabic literature, but mostly by just its infusion in life. All of the writers I spoke to that week became hooked on poetry as school children, and continued to immerse themselves in it alongside their other careers and studies. Why don’t we have more poet-engineers in the US?
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The next day I had two women Emirati poets on my list. Back to the book fair I went. The first was Sheikha Al-Mutairi (photo on the right). Unlike the previous day’s interviewees, Al-Mutairi specialized in Arabic literature in college.
Next was a meeting with Salha Ghabish, who in addition to being a poet, has been a magazine editor, has published plays, a novel and done radio and TV. Ghabish’s English was a little rusty, so Noura Al Noman, an Arabic sci-fi novelist, helped with translation.
These interviews, in case you’re wondering, are all for an article that will be published later in a US poetry magazine. I’m not including details from the interviews here, because I want to save them for the article.
The next day, Thursday, was my last full day in Sharjah, and a free day. I spent the afternoon visiting museums, walking around the city and being a tourist. In the evening, Hamza Qenawy, a journalist for the arts and culture magazine Dubai Al Thakafiya, met me in the hotel lobby for an interview about my own poetry. Unfortunately for me, the magazine is published only in Arabic, so I won’t be able to read the piece when it comes out.
In addition to the local writers already mentioned, the book fair introduced me to other guest writers from around the world. Altogether, it was a pretty amazing week.
I’m very grateful to the Sharjah Book Fair for inviting and hosting me for this event, and for the time and attention the writers I met there granted me.
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