Monika Krauss was adamant there was an appetite for literature, poetry and art in the UAE, but even she had no idea just how voracious it was.
The former general manager of Kitab – the joint venture between Abu Dhabi's Authority for Culture and Heritage and the Frankfurt Book Fair – Krauss is the curator of Literaturhaus at Nadi, a Dubai incarnation of the literary salons once prominent across Europe.
Having just completed its first summer season, the event – held every Saturday afternoon in Alserkal's Nadi Al Quoz – brought together an impressive group of authors, poets, critics, translators, publishers and historians to present free readings and performances for whoever wanted to stop by, as a starting point for discussion. Every Saturday the Literaturhaus was packed.
After the series officially wrapped up last weekend, Krauss decided to extend. "I didn't want to stop it now that everyone can rely on it happening every Saturday," she tells me from her home in Germany. "I'm so very happy about how it went. It was something new and a challenge but put together on very short notice for the summer – we were convinced it would be something that would find interest in the UAE.
"We were really overwhelmed by the response. We thought it would be too hot and not enough people would bother coming to Al Quoz on a Saturday ... but the opposite was the case. We had a full-house every single week.
"There were a lot of young Emirati men and women attending the talks and the readings and the discussions. It shows what a needed platform something like this is, how much a cultural discussion is appreciated."
What Literaturhaus at Nadi was able to prove, reiterates Krauss, is that the appetite for the arts is "absolutely there". "I always knew it," she says. "I managed the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair for three years so had a feeling for that. Alserkal, as an art district, seemed the perfect place to launch the salon, because books and literature are an integral part of art. You have art books, people who write about art, biographies on artists; so much upcoming in our programme that will focus more on art."
The first season, however, focused more on poetry and literature. Poetry slams by spoken-word artists like Palestinian Farah Chamma and Emirati Afra Atiq were especially popular, as was a discussion by Emirati author Hussain Ali Lootah, who read excerpts from his book Between Two Wives, the first novel about polygamy published in the UAE written by an Emirati.
"I wanted Literaturhaus to present poetry and literature from the UAE and the region, to show just how much there is on offer," says Krauss.
"People can't believe that there are young women like Afra who perform poetry slams in the UAE. This was an opportunity to showcase these talents and show literature in its many forms." Krauss says discussions about the region and youth-centric events were instant hits.
"The poetry slams were tremendous, and people loved the sessions where they got to hear about the history of the country and learn about its development since the early 1960s."
One such session was led by Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, official interpreter to Sheikh Zayed, Founding Father of the Nation, and cultural advisor for the presidential court. "People don't get to meet a personality like Zaki often, so having access to him hearing what he has to say about the changes in the country is so nice," she says.
It is particularly interesting for the younger generation to hear stories from someone like Nusseibeh or Dr Frauke Heard-Bey and David Heard, both of whom have lived in the UAE since before 1971 and who have published histories of the Emirates, Krauss adds. "There's that rich history on the one side, but there's also the incredible development the country has made and how this could happen and why it happened, and how it developed; this is what comes out in the discussions. The list of people happy to come by on a Saturday afternoon just keeps growing, so we simply had to extend the sessions and keep going until December."
Future plans include more poetry and art-centric talks, and perhaps even a session for children with a children's book author or illustrator. "We will continue to focus on writers from the UAE and from the region, because I think it's very important to show the huge variety that exists. After all, the idea behind the Literaturhaus was to give all these people a platform other than book fairs and festivals."
On Saturday, the salon hosts Egyptian author Mai Khaled. Isobel Abulhoul, director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and CEO of Emirates Literature Foundation, is also set to talk. And based on the success of Chamma's and Atiq's poetry slams, Krauss wants to ensure the next season features more young women. "I definitely want to make sure that our coming programme will show how many young, brilliant, talented, creative, funny women there are in the UAE, all of them so impressive, so fun," she says. "They will be part of the programming."
Literaturhaus is held at Nadi in Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, every Saturday from 4pm. Events are free, register at email@example.com