Ben Okri: novelist as dream weaver



Dreams weave their way through all of Ben Okri's richly evocative work. His career, too, has been something of a dream, as winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction for The Famished Road, a Commonwealth Writer's Prize and a Premio Palmi award, among others.

It is the 20th anniversary this year of that groundbreaking novel, which traces the haunting journey of the spirit child Azaro to the land of the living. And in stylistic contrast to that epic, his latest release, A Time for New Dreams, is written as a poetic essay, yet manages to fit in many weighty themes.

"The form of the essay has the brevity of poetry and it is necessary for our times that we incline towards brevity...The feeling behind the book is a profound sense that we are entering into changing times and that old dreams have proved exhausted and have betrayed us and are no longer adequate," he says. "There is a desire for a new way of being, political freedom, social independence and intellectual freedom. Everything has been shaken up."

Born in 1959, Okri grew up in London but returned to Nigeria with his family in 1968. Witnessing the effects of civil war in Nigeria had a lifelong effect on him. "The extraordinary impact of seeing dead bodies made me never stop asking why so much evil is possible. How can we become people we don't recognise overnight? How can we become monsters to ourselves?"

He left Nigeria on a government grant to study literature at Essex University, and, many award-winning books later, was awarded an OBE in 2001.

His literary influences were first formed by the books in his father's library, including Aesop's Fables, Arabian Nights and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Yet it was his mother's own storytelling that had the most influence.

"If my mother wanted to make a point, she wouldn't correct me, she'd tell me a story," he says. "What my mother was doing was playing on my natural curiosity to figure things out. I learnt the art of telling a story that's difficult to figure out."

When it came to telling his own stories, Okri found realism inadequate.

"I grew up in a tradition where there are simply more dimensions to reality: legends and myths and ancestors and spirits and death," he says. "You can't use Jane Austen to speak about African reality.

"Which brings the question: what is reality? Everyone's reality is different. For different perceptions of reality we need a different language."

Hence the "dream-logic" narrative, which he believes works better.

"We like to think that the world is rational and precise and exactly how we see it, but something erupts in our reality which makes us sense that there's more to the fabric of life," he says. "I'm fascinated by the mysterious element that runs through our lives. Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and history. Nobody has an absolute reality."

Okri is working on a new novel that continues his explorations of liberty, the overt theme of his previous book, Tales of Freedom.

"The fundamental freedom is the freedom to be exactly what we're capable of being, and as a writer that's a very huge problem because every writer comes into the world with a geographical label on them," he says. "My ambition is to be a true, living, clear-seeing writer, and it's the most difficult freedom, as first you've got all your own internalised negativities, your mind, to get over. On top of that you've got the rest of the world saying you should write in the way your tradition has laid down. The challenge is constantly trying to escape straitjackets and see clearly without any labels."

Okri has certainly triumphed in escaping labels, stylistically speaking.

"Sometimes poetry and prose merge, and do one another's work," he says. "Pushkin wanted his poetry to have the clarity of prose. I'm fascinated by this interchange".

For all the profound themes in A Time for New Dreams, there is throughout a playfulness and lightness; after all, he celebrates the purity of childhood in several powerful pieces plaited throughout the collection, and the child's ability to "look with eyes of wonder".

"Childhood," he says, "is a time when we dream. Let's bring back this pure way of seeing".

A Time for New Dreams is published by Rider and is in stores now

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Almouneer
Started: 2017
Founders: Dr Noha Khater and Rania Kadry
Based: Egypt
Number of staff: 120
Investment: Bootstrapped, with support from Insead and Egyptian government, seed round of
$3.6 million led by Global Ventures

Need to know

Unlike other mobile wallets and payment apps, a unique feature of eWallet is that there is no need to have a bank account, credit or debit card to do digital payments.

Customers only need a valid Emirates ID and a working UAE mobile number to register for eWallet account.

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Revibe
Started: 2022
Founders: Hamza Iraqui and Abdessamad Ben Zakour
Based: UAE
Industry: Refurbished electronics
Funds raised so far: $10m
Investors: Flat6Labs, Resonance and various others

Indika

Developer: 11 Bit Studios
Publisher: Odd Meter
Console: PlayStation 5, PC and Xbox series X/S
Rating: 4/5

Match info

What: Fifa Club World Cup play-off
Who: Al Ain v Team Wellington
Where: Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, Al Ain
When: Wednesday, kick off 7.30pm

Company Profile

Company name: Yeepeey

Started: Soft launch in November, 2020

Founders: Sagar Chandiramani, Jatin Sharma and Monish Chandiramani

Based: Dubai

Industry: E-grocery

Initial investment: $150,000

Future plan: Raise $1.5m and enter Saudi Arabia next year

Navdeep Suri, India's Ambassador to the UAE

There has been a longstanding need from the Indian community to have a religious premises where they can practise their beliefs. Currently there is a very, very small temple in Bur Dubai and the community has outgrown this. So this will be a major temple and open to all denominations and a place should reflect India’s diversity.

It fits so well into the UAE’s own commitment to tolerance and pluralism and coming in the year of tolerance gives it that extra dimension.

What we will see on April 20 is the foundation ceremony and we expect a pretty broad cross section of the Indian community to be present, both from the UAE and abroad. The Hindu group that is building the temple will have their holiest leader attending – and we expect very senior representation from the leadership of the UAE.

When the designs were taken to the leadership, there were two clear options. There was a New Jersey model with a rectangular structure with the temple recessed inside so it was not too visible from the outside and another was the Neasden temple in London with the spires in its classical shape. And they said: look we said we wanted a temple so it should look like a temple. So this should be a classical style temple in all its glory.

It is beautifully located - 30 minutes outside of Abu Dhabi and barely 45 minutes to Dubai so it serves the needs of both communities.

This is going to be the big temple where I expect people to come from across the country at major festivals and occasions.

It is hugely important – it will take a couple of years to complete given the scale. It is going to be remarkable and will contribute something not just to the landscape in terms of visual architecture but also to the ethos. Here will be a real representation of UAE’s pluralism.

Non-oil trade

Non-oil trade between the UAE and Japan grew by 34 per cent over the past two years, according to data from the Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Centre. 

In 10 years, it has reached a total of Dh524.4 billion. 

Cars topped the list of the top five commodities re-exported to Japan in 2022, with a value of Dh1.3 billion. 

Jewellery and ornaments amounted to Dh150 million while precious metal scraps amounted to Dh105 million. 

Raw aluminium was ranked first among the top five commodities exported to Japan. 

Top of the list of commodities imported from Japan in 2022 was cars, with a value of Dh20.08 billion.

Fight card
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COMPANY PROFILE

Name: Haltia.ai
Started: 2023
Co-founders: Arto Bendiken and Talal Thabet
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: AI
Number of employees: 41
Funding: About $1.7 million
Investors: Self, family and friends


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