Culture and vision: Sara Al Jarwan and Khulood Al Mualla
The Emirati novelist Sara Al Jarwan is used to being invited to speak, but primarily at local literary salons and book clubs. So appearing before a sizeable and well-read audience at the International Berlin Literature Festival last month could have been daunting.
Yet she took in stride what was a major step in her desire to break out beyond UAE borders, during the appearance in the upper foyer of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele.
“It was my first time in Europe,” said Al Jarwan, who is 42 and from Ajman. “It made a big impression on me. Now I want all my writing to be translated into different languages because literature should be shared by people around the globe.”
She was joined on the panel by Khulood Al Mualla, a poet of the same generation born in Umm Al Qaiwain. “It’s a beautiful city,” said Al Mualla, referring to Berlin. “And when poetry is the reason for visiting such a city then it becomes even more beautiful.”
The two women are among 27 Emirati writers featured in the new issue of Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature, published in London. Banipal 42: New Writing from the Emirates features essays, poems and book excerpts, marking one of the most comprehensive and ambitious reviews of what is emerging from the UAE. They travelled to Berlin on a grant from the Emirates Foundation, on a trip coordinated by Banipal.
Al Jarwan and Al Mualla were chosen for their original use of classical Arabic but also for deploying localisms, often bringing in obscure dialect to describe implements, customs and topography, which has attracted comment on the Emirati literary scene. Al Mualla describes it as a way “to give a flavour of the place and the people” while telling the story “of a nation amongst nations, a state amongst states, and of one people amongst many”.
Al Jarwan has just published a collection of Emirati folk tales, where each tale is told separately in classical Arabic and Emirati dialect, and a novel, published this year, titled A Virgin, a Saint and a Magician.
In 2008 Al Mualla won the Bulan Al Haidari Award for Young Arab Poets, the first for a poet from the Gulf. Her family moved to Ras Al Khaimah when she was a child. She has also participated in the UK Ledbury Poetry Festival and the London Literature Festival. As well as attending UAE University to gain her Bachelor’s degree in architecture, she went on to obtain a Master’s degree in project management from Reading University in the UK, and a Bachelor’s degree in Arabic language from Beirut University.
Al Mualla to date has published four volumes of poetry. Her first, Here, I Lost the Time, was written while she was living in the UK and was released in 1997. While living in Sharjah she wrote her second, You, Alone in 1999; her third and fourth, Ha’ of the Absent in 2003 and Perhaps Here in 2008, were written while she was living in Abu Dhabi. Her poems are founded on a desire to change the world through Sufism. Her work has been translated into Spanish and Turkish.
Her poetry is based on the desire to conquer the world, which may be why she makes sure to seek exposure to a variety of different cultures. She also draws on childhood memories and the experiences of her friends. “It could be something like a chance encounter on a plane,” she says. Both women have relatives who are writers – Al Jarwan’s late father was a poet, and “a wise man by his nature”, she adds. As a child Al Jarwan loved to read and had a great imagination. “I’d trace little things to know their truth,” she explains. “All these things are still alive within me now. If I hadn’t written them down I would suffocate.”
Al Jarwan joined the UAE Armed Forces just before the 1991 Gulf War. Her literary career took off in 1991 when her story The Diary of a Female Recruit was published in Dara‘ Al Watan, the official magazine of the UAE Armed Forces. This led to television appearances, which she used to encourage local women to enlist.
Her first novel, The Melancholy of the Daughter of a Sad Destiny, was actually written in 1984, although it was not published until 1992. It took more than a decade to publish her next work, a collection of short stories called The Dreams Icon. A novel, Letters to the Sultan, followed in 2003. Next up: a possible stab at writing scripts for television and film.
Although Al Jarwan is divorced and prefers her own company, the dominant theme of her work is relationships – those between women and men and how social customs can provoke discord and yet at the same time encourage a relationship to endure. Her work reflects the issue of identity as it impacts on marriage, traditions and customs in the contemporary UAE. Marriage and its attendant obligations and sacrifices on the part of women preoccupy her.
“I don’t like talking too much,” she confides. “I have to grab the chance to be alone – writing is a solitary pursuit.” Weeks after the appearance in Berlin, Al Mualla is still receiving emails from new fans; some asking for the written German translations of the five poems that were read aloud. “I was there to convey my feeling, ideas, thoughts and to reflect my intellectual and writing style to the German audience,” she explains. “It was a sort of introduction to myself and my culture through my poems.” "
Updated: October 9, 2011 04:00 AM