Searching for the Orwell of the Arab world

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is in its seventh year and bursting with culture, highlighting Dubai’s attempt to become an intellectual hub in the Middle East.

A diverse crowd gathers to listen to a speaker at one of the panels of the Emirates Literature Festival. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
A diverse crowd gathers to listen to a speaker at one of the panels of the Emirates Literature Festival.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
‘You don’t realize how much Arabic there is in English. Look at the word ‘admiral,’ it is derived from amir al-bahr, the commander of the seas; if I were an admiral I’d be pleased to be called that.”
Leslie McLoughlin, author of 2010’s Confessions of an Arabic Interpreter, was speaking to an excited audience of around 100 people in a well-appointed room in the Intercontinental Hotel in Dubai. A diminutive man with an air of old British manners born in 1935, McLoughlin was trying to share with the diverse audience of European expats and local Emiratis his love of Arabic.
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is in its seventh year, and this one has topped the others.
Opened by Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Ahmed bin Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the five-day conference was a celebration of all things literary, from cooking to children’s books. Locals flocked to vote for their favorite Arabic tome, choosing Ali al-Wardi’s Parapsychology and Personal Secrets of Success. Opening ceremonies included giant puppets and music under the stars.
Over 200 sessions were held over the following days, with an entire day devoted to women authors. Major writers included Egyptian feminist Nawal el-Sa’adawi, Scott Anderson, Anita Anand and Naif al-Mutawa, a creator of the Arabic superheroes comic The 99. Organizers estimated over 30,000 visitors attended, most of them paying for tickets to the various panels.
The Emirates Festival is still trying to spread its wings in a crowded field. Although it is one of the largest in the Middle East, it is surpassed in spades by the 200,000 who attended the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, the 300,000 who attended the Frankfurt Book Fair this past October and the 220,000 who went to the Edinburgh International Book Festival last July. But in a region where headlines show Islamic State destroying the rich cultural history of Iraq, it is a welcome rejoinder: Here is an Arab country trying to create a new renaissance in culture.
The effusive Suzanne Husseini has been attending the festival for six years. A Canadian by birth, her family is Palestinian from Nablus and she is proud of her background. Fort the past 20 years, the Middle East has been her home – first Saudi Arabia, then Dubai. “I am a teacher and I went to school to educate,” she recounted.
“I’ve always known I would be a teacher but I fell in love with cooking in my mother’s kitchen, by watching her.”
Six years ago, at the encouragement of her friends, she began to give cooking classes at home. Eventually, she became the host of a local television cooking show that revolved around her cooking and eating with friends, a Dubai version of The View with food, as she described it. “People fell in love, and it clicked.”
She wrote two cookbooks, one in Arabic and the other in English, Modern Flavors of Arabia: Recipes and Memories from My Middle Eastern Kitchen, published by Random House in 2012. Husseini is a sort of local celebrity; the woman’s luncheon featuring her creations on March 7 was sold out.
She was also in awe of the festival. “It is one of my favorite events, this festival. There are a lot festivals that are consumer-oriented here, like the food festival, shopping festival and global village, but this festival is about the celebration of the word and making reading accessible to everyone.” She beamed as she described seeing younger people enthusiastic about mingling with authors.
Husseini was right: Hundreds of youth from Dubai had volunteered to work the festival. They were a massively diverse crowd which reminded visitors that the United Arab Emirates’ two million residents come from all over the world. One volunteer had parents who had come from Nigeria, another from Pakistan and others from South Africa and the UK. Local Emiratis wearing the traditional white kandura and women wearing the black abaya mixed with expats. During the lunch hours when author signings were held, lines stretched across the lobby.
At McLoughlin’s lecture on the Arabic language, he tried to present a picture of a rich language that is neglected.
The organizers had asked him to answer the question, “What is Arabic for ‘selfie?’” as a prompt for his discussion. “There is a term, al-zura al-satiya,” we learned.
McLoughlin switched from topic to topic, reminding listeners that people who do crossword puzzles tend to have energetic brains and reminiscing about the greatness of the New Oxford Arabic Dictionary. “It has 330,000 Arabic elements, by far the best ever produced.”
He detailed a literary tradition of the study of Arabic dating back to Jesuit priests on Mount Lebanon.
It was clear from McLoughlin’s point of view that Arabic is under siege, much as Arabic civilization seemed to be under siege from sectarian forces in Iraq and Syria. He had come out to the region in the 1960s and worked with the British military-trained local forces (in those days, the UAE was a protectorate of the UK), and he spoke about preserving Arabic from foreign words. For instance, when helicopters were first seen in the Gulf, the locals argued over what to call them and settled on the term “father of two fans,” or abu banktim.
“The rising generation does not always know the true meanings of Arabic words. I hope this conference will stimulate that,” he said.
The most packed session was the lecture by Sa’adawi, the Egyptian feminist who was once imprisoned by president Anwar Sadat and even considered running in the 2005 presidential election in her country. With a cherub-like voice, she roused the crowd to applause as she discussed the role of George Orwell.
“Maybe my life was like Orwell’s,” she said, describing modern states in the Middle East as abusing their powers and encouraging creative people to speak out against government abuses and overuse of power.
“This woman is very controversial, a huge influence in the Arab world, and one hopes there are many like her in the next generation,” noted a local Emirati woman attending the lecture.