"Writing is a necessity." It's a simple statement and one that Nujoom Al Ghanem has sought to live by, having published eight poetry anthologies in a career that began with the written word in the 1980s, and has encompassed the production of more than 10 films and documentaries. Her last five films – Sounds of the Sea (2015), Nearby Sky (2014), The Young Fighter (2014) and Amal and Hamama (2011) – have all won awards.
“I am indescribably critical,” Al Ghanem says about her own work. As a young woman and voracious reader, she experimented with different poetic styles and her work was published in local newspapers and magazines. Early on, she also dabbled in Nabati, vernacular poetry popular in the Arabian Peninsula from the 16th century and often referred to as Bedouin poetry. Traditionally, it was a very male-dominated scene, but that never phased Al Ghanem.
“I did try writing Nabati in the late seventies and early eighties because it was very popular. When you’re young, you also want to fit in and to be accepted,” she explains. Eventually though she found her own style: blank verse.
One of five children, Al Ghanem was mostly raised by her grandmother because, she says, her father was not ready to accept a girl after having four robust sons.
“When I was young, boredom lead me to reading,” Al Ghanem recalls. No subject was off limits; she read about mysticism and philosophy, theology and poetry, all thanks to the Sharjah International Book Fair that made a wide range of books easily accessible.
“Like others of my generation I consider literary resources – poetry, novels or drama – some of the most important foundations on which I built my experience.”
Arabic poetry was a major source of inspiration in her youth: “It presented an amazing window to another world ... I used to write diaries then short stories and finally poems,” she says, written in an imitative style. “It took me a while to realise that I had to have my own style and way of expressing myself.”
Following the publication of her first book of poetry Masa'a Al Jannah (The Night of Heaven) in 1989, Al Ghanem quickly began building a reputation.
“The majority of poets in our world are male, but quantity does not make quality,” she says. The country’s great female poets were hugely influential on her own literary output, from the “inspirational, extraordinary” but now-retired Ousha bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi, known as Fatat Al Arab or Girl of the Arabs; to the “grandmother of all poetesses in the UAE” Salma bint Almajidi bin Dhaher. “There is also Sheikha Sana’a bint Mana Al Maktoum who is known as ‘Lamia of Dubai’ and Mouza bint Juma Bin Hindi Al Muhair. These are the women who paved the way in poetry for the rest of us,” she says.
Al Ghanem’s success has been hard won, even more so because of her gender: “Opportunities are not free. You have always to work hard. You have to read, to teach yourself, to know about the world and to be very careful about what you publish.
“Opportunities don’t keep coming ... you will not survive long if your work doesn’t speak for itself.”
The Emirati poet addresses many themes in her work, from patriotism to homesickness to human weakness, to the struggles of the women. She is clearly drawn to strong female characters with her pen and even more so in her films. But it's not just because they are women that Al Ghanem, a feminist, wants to tell the story of her characters' lives; women like Fatima Ali Al Hameli, the first Emirati woman camel owner to attend Abu Dhabi's camel beauty pageants and auctions and the star of Nearby Sky. Al Ghanem is also a filmmaker recognising a wonderful story. "People greatly inspire me: their world, stories, frustrations, hesitation, confusion, sadness, happiness, pain, passion.
“I search for those characters, learn about them and from them; I live with them and always try to enter their unknown world, explore the unspoken and find out about their special moments.”
Al Ghanem is currently working on yet another film, Honey, Rain and Dust, which she hopes will be finished by December, as well as writing poetry.
As she says: “Filmmaking is a passion, and it is about bringing change in society. I feel both poetry and cinematography complete each other. I do both with all my senses.” And she might have added, with all of her heart.
Hala Khalaf is a regular contributor to The National.