"What am I doing and does it even matter?"
It's the kind of rumination common to the many creatives who found their profession upended by the pandemic, and set the tone for the first session of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.
Running from Sunday, May 23 until Saturday, May 29 at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (Adnec), the fair kicked off with an online session discussing some of the challenges artists have faced over the last 15 months.
Providing personal and professional perspectives were Emirati filmmaker and poet Nujoom Al Ghanem, Egyptian actress Lamia Karam and Lebanese singer Abeer Nehme.
All recalled initials bouts of anxiety and disorientation as the pandemic shuttered cultural venues, events and festivals.
“It does take some time to fully grasp what is going on,” Karam said.
“What hit me first was all the things I took for granted. I also live with my mother, who is quite elderly, so the pandemic really made understand even further about my personal responsibilities.”
For accomplished soprano Nehme, swapping the theatre for a Zoom stage was a big adjustment.
“While this is never ideal, doing some of these shows helped me to get some clarity when it comes to what I do,” she said.
“It made me - and I would say most of us - understand that art is simply not for the sake of entertainment. It does have a value and a message and I am feeling there is newfound respect for it because of the current situation."
Al Ghanem said the pandemic provided ample opportunities for reflection.
“It brings you back into yourself and you discover what other abilities you have but have rarely shown,” she said.
“It all feels like a series of personal challenges that you have to overcome.”
Al Ghanem speaks from personal experience. When the pandemic arrived, she was recovering from an illness that left her housebound for around six months.
“So in a way, I was more ready for self-isolation than others,” she said. “But I realised, I had to keep working and creating to get through this.”
Connection through community
While Al Ghanem planned new film projects and finished an upcoming poetry collection, Karam returned to the stage.
The seasoned actress, who starred along Mohamed Ramadan in the 2019 hit television drama Zelzal and the 2018 film Rehlat Yusuf, did a number of experimental two-person shows in small halls across Cairo.
“It was a beautiful experience because the reception was so unexpected,” she recalled.
“We did these small shows as safe as we could and people came to show their support.
“It was the same experience my colleagues had when they did their shows in other parts of the country.
"There was this sense of happiness that we were out there and still working. That connection with live art is what the audience responded to and missed.”
For Nehme, it became more vital to foster a sense of community with her work. She explained that her song-writing, renowned for its poetry and operatic vocals, took on a more accessible and optimistic turn as a result of the pandemic.
Her new folk song and music video, Byeb'a Nas, is a case in point. Shot in the mountain village of Douma, 80 kilometres from Beirut, the video features the town's residents, families and children in an affecting ode to community.
“It’s a beautiful place because of the people,” she said.
“Even during these difficult times, they are grateful for what they have. Unlike other parts of Lebanon, they don’t leave their community to go to another place for a holiday.
"They live and enjoy themselves there, it was healthy to spend time with them.”
Just keep working
Karam is not biding her time until Egyptian theatres and film sets open in earnest.
The job of a creative is pandemic proof, she said, and there is always avenues to produce interesting and innovative work.
“Just look at TikTok,” she said. “I am telling you, some of the talent that I am seeing there is brilliant. They have the ability to tell a story in their own way. They don’t need to go to a theatre to put on a show, they have an audience everyday on their phone."
The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair will continue throughout the week with a hybrid programme of in-person and digital events.
Discussions will feature regional and international best-selling authors, including US writers Brent Weeks and Mitch Albom, alongside the winners of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction as well historian, poets and diplomats.
The topics covered compliment the eclectic guests, with discussions on international literature and expert insights on the coronavirus pandemic, to the UAE’s future in the world and in outer space.
The fair is also running under stringent safety measures, including only admitting fully vaccinated visitors. Prior registration is required on the fair’s website and mobile phone app, with a maximum of three hours per session.
More information on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is available at adbookfair.com