"How do you write a story that begins again every two years?" asks Maryam Al Dabbagh in her text and audio installation Library Circles for the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai.
The writer and arts professional has hit upon an idea that is gorgeous in its juxtaposition: connecting the lives of the UAE's immigrant population, who reside in the country on visas that need regular renewal, to the story of Scheherazade, the heroine of Arabian Nights, who tells a new story every evening to trick the ruler into sparing her life.
Growing up in Sharjah, Al Dabbagh and her Iraqi family watched the Arabian Nights-inspired programmes that were on during Ramadan. "I was fascinated with the fact that the stories abruptly end and turn into another story," she says. "Scheherazade obviously had to save her life. For us, it's different; our stories never end."
Library Circles's eight chapters, narrated by Al Dabbagh in Arabic and English, appear on audio and in snippets of text across the Jameel building. They tell the fragmented story of a fictionalised Iraqi character who has grown up in Sharjah, shifting from school-era episodes to reflections on the logistics of organising visas. Depending on where one enters, the story opens on a twist of fate that Al Dabbagh has lifted from her own life: her parents' attempt to return to Iraq and subsequent relocation to Sharjah. Like for Scheherazade, time moved on, but they found themselves back in the same place.
Al Dabbagh's parents, she explains, moved to Sharjah in the late 1970s. Earlier this year, they decided to retire in Iraq. They sold their car, shipped their furniture and belongings, and moved to the home they had kept in Mosul. But within a week, they heard that international borders were closing because of the coronavirus, so they decided to go to Istanbul, where they had also bought a flat. They were meant to fly via Sharjah, but the next day, the UAE's lockdown began.
Her parents were back where they had started over four decades ago. They have now set up their lives again, exactly as they had 43 years ago. "They're acting like a newlywed couple, having arguments about what coffee tables to get," says Al Dabbagh with a laugh. "And still with the same idea: when will we return?"
Covid-19 becomes a new link in the chain of political events that have kept her parents in their state of permanent temporariness: much like the Iran-Iraq war, the US invasion, the sectarian conflict and ISIS.
“When we think about history, we often think about a flag, some sort of war for liberation, a key date or a national anthem," says Al Dabbagh. "You think about personal narratives.”
Al Dabbagh’s work over the past decade taps into an important theme among young artists and writers, who seek to give voice to their experience as permanent guests in the UAE. She speaks of the perception that cultural life in the UAE only began in the 2000s, when art professionals began moving here from the West. “I always think, what do you mean? My father was here in the 1970s, I was here in the 1980s, and there was a life and there were things happening in conversations and discourse.”
In its oscillation between Arabic and English – each telling different stories, rather than being translations – Library Circles also pays close attention to the subtleties of Arab immigrant identity. Most of the UAE's Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian and Iraqi migrants work as professionals and have integrated into the local Arabic-language culture – but not entirely. It is this lag that Library Circles explores, as it refracts Arabic into Emirati Arabic, local dialects, fusha and Arabic peppered with English.
Al Dabbagh's work is as much about the experience of displacement as about language's ability, with its dialects, accents and slang, to adapt to a new setting. The fictionalised protagonist of the text only speaks Emirati Arabic with her brother in private, as if their fluency in the language is a secret from their Iraqi-born parents. Growing up in Sharjah, she adapts her pronunciation of the Arabic letter qaf, so as not to stand out from other students.
The choice to set Library Circles in Arabic and English achieves a similar effect for a non-Arabic-speaking audience. Recognisable phrases – such as kan ya makan and alhamdulillah – are double-edged swords: their familiarity is proof of one's embeddedness in a so-called temporary place, but their foreignness never quite disappears.
Al Dabbagh is known among arts professionals as one of the UAE’s best Arabic translators. A few years ago, she was part of setting up Rouya PR, a bilingual communications company that aims to overcome what she sees as a gap between Arabic and English media relations: the idea that some content goes to Arabic outlets, while other stories – such as those to do with contemporary art – is targeted only towards English-language media. With Rouya, she pitches stories about art to Arabic newspapers, opening the subject to new Arab audiences.
In fact, Art Jameel is one of Rouya's clients, but Al Dabbagh is undertaking this project in a personal capacity. It forms part of the commissioned programme run by the centre's library, which is also titled Library Circles.
“They were so open to exploring ideas,” says Al Dabbagh. “I’m not an artist – I work with brilliant artists, but I am a writer who has always loved experimentation. Ironically, I write in fragments because my life is simply fragments. Now I’ve reconciled with that. So when the team came and recommended to make a project out of my idea, I said yes. It is brilliant to have someone who believes in you in that way.”
Library Circles: Maryam Al Dabbagh is on display at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai until January 7