Egyptian novelist extols the literary potential of Dubai

Saeed Saeed talks to Nasser Iraq, author of The Unemployed and a resident of Dubai, about the city's image and why it could become a literary centre.

The Egyptian author Nasser Iraq believes Dubai has much to offer writers because of the world's growing interest in the region. Sarah Dea / The National
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Dubai's glittering modernity is hailed as the driving force behind its standing as a global finance hub.

While this city has been the subject of dozens of business books and news programmes, does this new metropolis also have something to offer the world of literature?

It certainly appears to have a good chance, thanks to The Unemployed by the Dubai-based Egyptian author Nasser Iraq. Earlier this year, Iraq's book was shortlisted for the prestigious 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

The novel centres on the story of a young Egyptian man arriving in Dubai in search of opportunity, but instead falling foul of the law.

The Unemployed has all the characteristics of the city: a multicultural cast, a fast pace, some comic absurdities and a traditional moral outlook.

"I did want to give readers in the Arab world an idea of what Dubai is like," Iraq says from his office at the Foundation of Culture and Science Symposium in Al Mamzar, where he heads the media department.

"I found that people abroad are mostly ignorant of Dubai, as opposed to holding a negative view of it. They simply don't know and this is a chance to open that window to them." It was this reasoning that kept Iraq's literary feet firmly on the ground.

While the novel does describe the glamorous lifestyle that seduces some, Iraq shies away from focusing on the excesses and instead looks at the relationships among expats and the challenge of navigating the city's cultural melting pot.

The main character has trouble fitting in. His poor English and initial lack of enthusiasm for social integration cause him - through a series of events - to land in jail, accused of murder.

While the novel hints at a better future for the protagonist, Iraq says the book acts more as a cautionary tale for new Arab expats in the emirate.

"Dubai is a beautiful place, and it rewards the industrious and the talented," he says.

"But at the same time, it does not forgive or show mercy to those who are lazy and ignorant. The main character went through a lot of trouble because he was ignorant of the English language, he was shy and couldn't deal with people.

"But with work, help and the love of another, he was able to rebuild himself and have hope. This for me is not what just Dubai is about, it's a general rule. Life is toil." It was hard work for Iraq, bringing his family from Egypt to the emirate in 1999.

A former journalist, Iraq's move to the emirate was made possible by an editorial position opening up at the Dubai-based Dar Al Sada magazine.

Iraq clearly remembers his first days in Dubai, savouring the cool January breeze.

"As you know, it is a very hard life [in Cairo]," he explains. "It is always busy and people in Cairo are so worried about their own situation they don't bother to get to know anyone else.

"The UAE amazed me with its order, and especially its cleanliness. Cairo, under Hosni Mubarak, was dirty and becoming increasingly ugly."

As well as encountering Moroccans and Syrians for the first time, Iraq rubbed shoulders with many fellow Egyptians fleeing Cairo for a better future. "To see people from 200 different countries living in one place without big problems was a discovery for me," he says.

"These incidents and meeting this broad range of people really stirred in me the idea of writing a novel about this experience."

Born in Cairo in 1971, Iraq was one of seven children in a middle-class Cairo household filled with books.

"My father was a painter, and both he and my mother were against the English occupation in the 40s, so we had plenty of philosophical and intellectual discussions on many topics," he says.

"To describe it better, our house was like a library and a museum. We would eat and drink culture."

Encouraged by his parents, Iraq studied fine arts at university as well as dabbling in theatre as both an actor and a playwright.

Iraq enjoyed some minor success exhibiting art during his student years, but says he felt more comfortable with the written word.

"For me, it was the clearest and most direct way to express myself," he says.

"However, it is hard work, it requires discipline and patience."

The payoff came when he nabbed the inaugural Bahaa Al Din Prize in 2002 for his non-fiction work A History of Journalistic Art in Egypt.

He has published four novels, all in Arabic, with The Unemployed garnering the biggest regional attention.

Iraq sees no irony in penning his most successful novel far away from Cairo, which is known as a citadel of Arabic literature.

He says Dubai has much to offer writers, if they are prepared to open their eyes.

"When one writes, he is searching, whether it is for beauty, truth, order or freedom," he says.

"A human in any place in the world will not find this totally. I mean, are not authors in London, Paris and New York also searching, despite the freedoms and beauty of their countries?"

That said, Iraq admits it will take some time for the UAE to evolve into a major player on the Arabic literary scene.

"There are not many novels coming out of here because they normally come from countries with a long and deep history in this art," he says.

"But at the same time, there is a great opportunity for Gulf writers to showcase their work because there is an appetite from abroad to learn about this region." Perhaps this is why Iraq spent a lot of time on the road this year.

Iraq returned last month from the Algerian Book Fair.

Earlier this year he was invited to Paris for a cultural conference to discuss the underpinnings of his works.

"I remember people asked in both places about Dubai Mall and if it was in fact the biggest in the world," he recalls.

"One asked me to actually describe the structure of the building."

Iraq agrees he has unwittingly became an unofficial UAE cultural ambassador.

"And why not?" he laughs.

"I was born twice. The first in Egypt and once again when I came to Dubai."

Saeed Saeed is a staff writer for The National.