A giant of Emirati literature is no longer with us.
Dubai author and literary scholar, Mohammad Saleh Al Gurg passed away and was buried on Sunday, November 8. He was 84.
News of his death reverberated around the UAE, with government ministers, authors and book lovers paying tribute to a pioneer who helped shaped the cultural landscape during the Trucial states era and in post-1971 UAE.
Leading the tributes was Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth, who hailed Al Gurg's contributions to the country.
"Today we lost the writer Mohammad Saleh Al Gurg," Al Kaabi said. "He was an active presence in the cultural scene and a contributor to the enrichment of the National Library."
Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, chair of the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, praised Al Gurg as a symbol of UAE literature. "He was a national treasure and we shall cherish his history and cultural contributions," she said.
While Sultan Al Qassemi, a leading cultural figure from Sharjah who runs the Barjeel Art Foundation, mourned the country's loss of "one of its leading intellectuals, writers and poets."
Inspired by his father
From a young age, Al Gurg exhibited the grit, determination and big vision characterising of the early communities of pre-independence UAE.
Born in 1936 in a traditional household, his father was distinguished among the community by his love for literature.
In interviews with the Arab press, Al Gurg fondly recalled how his father amassed a huge library of 8,000 books.
Among the dictionaries and novels in Arabic, Persian and Urdu were a bevy of seminal texts that triggered Al Gurg's love for classic literature from the region.
One of which is Al-Mustatraf fi Kul Fan Mustazraf (The Extremist in Every Extreme Art), a collection of essays on language, ethics and humanities by 9th-century critic, Bahaa Al Din Al Abshihi.
Another influential text was Kalila wa-Dimna, a compilation of stories stretching back to 4th-century India and eventually translated into Arabic by 8th-century Abbasid-era scholar, Abdullah Ibn Al-Muqaffa.
These two works, among many found in his rustic home library, helped set Al Gurg on his path. For him, the written word was not an academic pursuit, but rather an exploration into cultures both familiar and foreign.
Such was his zest for his journey of learning, that Al Gurg made a number of literary trips. Many were to Egypt, where he attended book festivals and cultural discussions in the 1960s featuring authors Naguib Mahfouz, Anwar Al Jundi and Mustafa Mahmoud.
Inspired by his findings, both on the page and on the road, Al Gurg began sharing his insights in articles and columns published in pre-unification UAE magazines.
One of his most famous collections was found in 1970 in Al Shourouk, a now defunct magazine in which he contributed a 30-part series that broke down some of the linguistic flourishes and quirks of 12th-century Persian poet and mathematician, Omar Khayyam.
Championing Emirati culture
The fact the magazine lasted only 12 months is evidence of the economic challenges of the time. While Al Gurg wanted to dedicate his life to the arts, he managed to maintain his literary passions while working in the British Bank of the Middle East in Dubai throughout the 1970s, before taking on a number of other business roles for the next two decades.
It wasn't time wasted. By night, Al Gurg would continue writing his literary columns, poetry and critiques for newspapers, and during the day he would work in finance while regaling colleagues with stories about Arabic history.
Al Gurg was also a frequent participant in and supporter of the UAE’s burgeoning cultural events sector, either by his presence or providing advice when needed.
One of those seeking his expertise was Jamal Bin Huwaireb, the secretary general of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Award.
"If you did not contact him, he would call me," he said in his Twitter tribute. "He would tell me about his cultural projects and books that he was preparing for printing. We lost today a traveling encyclopaedia.”
His biggest project of all
In the last decade of his life, Al Gurg retired from the business world to return to his first love. This time around, he was less concerned with churning out a constant stream of articles, wanting to leave a bigger legacy.
Perhaps inspired by all those imposing and important books in his father's library, Al Gurg embarked on his final project called Ghaid Min Feid. Translated as Tip of the Iceberg, it was a planned set of 10 encyclopaedias spanning centuries of Arabic literature.
The opening instalment was published in 2018 at the Jamal Bin Huwaireb Studies Centre, in which a proud Al Gurg attended and signed copies.
While the fate of the remaining volumes are unknown, Al Gurg's work will live on in the inspiration he provided to generations of Emirati colleagues, writers and intellectuals.
The Abu Dhabi Poetry Academy director and writer, Sultan Al Amimi may have summed up Al Gurg's life best when he said: "My sincere condolences to the family of the intellectual Mohammed Al Gurg, who has gone from our world after his journey of giving."