No such thing as culture in Dubai? Pick up Proust

Reading groups are emerging as hotspots for the exchange of ideas

Alserkal Avenue’s Sensing Memory includes a book group focusing on the inimitable Proust. Courtesy Carson Kahoe
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Years ago, in a posh hotel in Tanzania, I wrapped myself in a bath towel that was twice as big as regular towels. The sensations it provoked were immediate: I felt protected, cared for, and deeply, crazily joyful. I felt, I realised, like a child, transported back to a time when all bath towels would have been enormous, and everything was simpler.

It was a perfectly Proustian experience. Marcel Proust, in his six-volume Remembrance of Things Past, famously recounts an episode when the narrator soaks a madeleine in a cup of tea, and is whisked back to his childhood, when he used to dunk the cakes in tea on a ­Sunday morning. This mix of mind and body, thoughts and senses is the subject of Alserkal Avenue's summer programme, Sensing ­Memory, which it is exploring in a ­variety of lectures, performances, and workshops. It's also going back to the master ­himself, good old Proust, in one of a number of critical discussion groups that are emerging in Dubai.

On behalf of Alserkal Avenue, Kevin Jones is leading a book group that aims to make it through the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past by the end of September. The inaugural session met two weeks ago, when around 20 young women gathered for an introduction to the inimitable work of literature. Jones's lecture, delivered with PowerPoint slides, YouTube videos, and conversational asides, addressed the work's literary context, as well as its place in pop culture, in clips ranging from absurdist Monty Python to a surprisingly fastidious explanation in The Sopranos.

“You can ricochet off of Proust into a lot of other things,” notes Jones, a brand strategist by day and one of the UAE’s leading art critics by night. “The whole question of memory is interesting in a place like Dubai where we don’t hold memory that much or, if we do, it is a very instrumentalised kind of memory.”

An appetite for discussion and exchange 

Few had read Proust before; almost all had it as a life goal and thought that the hot summer in Dubai was as good a time as any to start. One was there as a support for her friend. Everyone was shocked by the homework load: 40 pages a day. Jones paused; reflected; said he was going to set up a WhatsApp group for support. This is the third such discussion group – part workshop, part book club, part mobile community – that the ­American-born critic is running at the moment. For the past three years, he has led the Critical Dialogues discussion group at Tashkeel, the Dubai exhibition space and network of studio spaces, where it began as a reading seminar within Tashkeel’s informal masters’ programme for artists in the UAE.

“There’s an appetite and even a hunger for these forums of discussion and exchange,” Jones says. “My experience at Tashkeel opened my eyes to that. This group of women really benefitted from each other’s experience above and beyond what the subject ­matter was.”

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“We’re somehow lucky that the infrastructure is not entirely mature yet and institutionally that we can navigate this gap in between,” he continues. “The fact that there isn’t really an art school enables artists to have this space where they can do interesting and new things.”

Jones’s Critical Dialogues cohort from this past year bonded so closely that they are working together for a second year, when, over the course of 12 sessions, they will collectively write a manifesto. They are addressing “what they’re not satisfied with or want to change in the UAE art world,” he says, including issues like class, privilege and gender (like the Proust group, this Critical Dialogues seminar is all women). “It’s going to be a huge experiment – 11 voices writing as one.”

The community aspect will figure into the Alserkal Avenue programme as well, especially when faced with the daunting task of reading the famously verbose and introspective French author. It took me a year to read the Remembrance of the Things Past, and became – even though I wasn't in a reading group – an unexpectedly social experience. People who have read Proust like to talk about Proust.

Jones himself has completed the Mt Everest of Proust quests: finishing it in the original French. (He partly grew up in Paris, and studied semiotics at the Sorbonne.) “Proust is a challenge for anyone who reads it,” he says charitably. “I suspect the reading group will also become about exchanging aesthetic and literary points of view. I like being a catalyst for those discussions.”

Sensing Memory at Alserkal Avenue runs until September 15