In the last century, the focus and inspiration for Emirati literature has shifted from political commentary to societal constraints, argues the Arabic literature professor Olatunbosun Ishaq Tijani in his continuing survey of Emirati literature.
Since his arrival in the Emirates in 2006, the American University of Sharjah professor has studied modern Emirati literature from its inception in the early 20th century to modern stories of wedding hall romances and shopping mall dramas.
His research on Gulf feminist writings began with his study of Kuwaiti women’s literature for a doctorate at Edinburgh University. Tijani plans to publish two volumes within the next year: a comprehensive study of modern Emirati poetry, drama, the novel and short fiction and a book on women and gender in Gulf literature.
When modern Emirati literature emerged, subjects included political Islam, pan-Arabism and colonialism. Gender politics have replaced state politics, argues Tijani.
“Writers now will focus on the issue of national development, supporting government ideas,” he says. “They avoid politics almost altogether.”
Nationalism is still discussed, often framed in terms of development and unity. Yet gender roles and conservative societal expectations have become defining subjects of contemporary Emirati literature since the country’s formation in 1971.
“In the early 20th century, writers and particularly the poets were very free in addressing issues of political importance to them, particularly the way the British colonialists isolated the Gulf countries from the rest of the Arab world,” says Tijani.
“But nowadays there is no longer a need for it. Politics is no longer a major thing in Emirati literature. What they are focusing on is the UAE as an open country, where everybody can come and enjoy and … presenting an image of a liberal society.”
Contemporary Emirati and Gulf writers frequently set stories in the pre-industrial Gulf. The status of women in both pre- and post-oil economies is a central theme.
Take Aisha Al Kaabi's short story, The Women's Fitting Room. In this story, women look in the mirror, reflecting on personal problems – ageing, adultery, spinsterhood, motherhood.
A woman in her 30s asks herself how her husband will see her in those jeans. Are they too tight and explicit, or not alluring enough? A beautiful woman with the first wisps of grey in her hair has found a perfect dress in the perfect size but has no husband.
Dissension is about gender roles and the strongest voices are often Emirati women based outside the country.
One of the earliest prominent female Emirati writers was Osha bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi who began to write in 1935, at age 15. Her command of classical qasidah and Bedouin nabati poetry saw her verses set to song and earned her the moniker the Girl of the Arabs.
Women’s pervasive participation in literature began in the 1980s. Female writers are now as numerous as men, but female characters continue to be portrayed as passive actors, says Tijani. The difference is that passivity is now seen as a symptom of societal restrictions rather than biological destiny.
Sexual references are nuanced. For example, who is coming home late and why, or a husband’s lack of interest.
“In Emirati literature, women’s sexuality is not depicted in an explicit way,” says Tijani. “They may refer to it allegorically or just say that the husband and wife they are meeting each other regularly or not. In Kuwaiti literature, and possibly Bahrain, women’s sexuality is discussed more explicitly, although not as explicitly as western culture. In Saudi, it’s more or less the same thing as the UAE.”
Emirati literature is underestimated because of its infancy in print. Yet Tijani argues that the country’s recent formation and its acute economic transitions are a source of rich inspiration.