My UAE: ­Shamma Al Bastaki is a triple-threat with plenty of ambitions

The 20-year-old's academic interests have moved into social research and public policy and literature, all of which she’s majoring in at NYUAD but she also performs regularly at events such as Rooftop Rhythms and Abu Dhabi International Poetry Festival.

Shamma Al Bastaki, who is a student ambassador for Louvre Abu Dhabi. Christopher Pike / The National
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Perhaps it’s because she’s a poet and an artist – as well as a scientist – that ­Shamma Al Bastaki felt an urge to explore the magic in sand.

At the age of 18, she began delving into the potential environmental benefits of the children’s toy magic sand, also known as hydrophobic sand. She has also been writing poetry since she was 7 on subjects ranging from marshmallows and hugging pillows to the wonders of modern science.

What gives this sand its name is that it has been coated with a hydrophobic substance that makes it resistant to water.

“You can pour magic sand into water and form different shapes,” explains Al Bastaki, who’s from Dubai. “But no one has yet come up with substantial uses for it.”

During her summer break between school and starting university at NYUAD, Al Bastaki and her friend Hayat Al Hassan decided to find out whether they could solve some of the world’s biggest environmental ­challenges with magic sand. They entered their ideas into the Intel Science Fair in Los Angeles, and came second in the environment category.

“The UAE has a wealth of sand, so why not put it to good use?” Al Bastaki says. “We decided this sand could be valuable in alleviating groundwater contamination, water scarcity, soil erosion and also in cleaning up oil spills. Perhaps it could be a valuable resource for the future.”

Now 20, Al Bastaki’s academic interests have moved into social research and public policy and literature, all of which she’s majoring in at NYUAD.

Al Bastaki admits that it’s unusual for a poet to also have a love for science.

“I find that the two complement each other,” she says. “This idea of narrowing and specialising has become so prevalent, but in the past, scientists were artists – Einstein was a violinist, and many writers had a love of science.”

Al Bastaki performs regularly at events such as Rooftop Rhythms and Abu Dhabi International Poetry Festival. She is also an accomplished artist, who placed second in last year's Abu Dhabi Festival Visual Arts Award for a calligraphic engraving on canvas entitled Writes with a Knife. The artwork was inspired by The Old World is Dead, a 1970 poem by Nizar Qabbani, in which he reflects upon the dire state the of Arab world.

Al Bastaki is also a student ambassador for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and is one of a select few who have visited the highly anticipated museum on ­Saadiyat Island. “I can’t wait until it opens,” she says.

Al Bastaki also has an interest in studying the UAE’s society from an anthropological perspective.

“I’d really like to study anthropology in graduate school, because I think there’s a gap in our knowledge,” she says. “I feel like anthropology is not taken as seriously as it should be in the UAE. A lot of the content that has come out of social research is through quantitative analysis, and not enough through quantitative and theoretical. We are more than mere dots on a plot.”

And what of the magic sand? Al Bastaki still hopes to pick the project up again once she graduates and has more time on her hands.

“But I’d be much more focused now on what this sand could do for society, rather than the scientific side,” she adds.

If you could be any animal in the world, what would you be and why?

I’d be an octopus, because it would allow me to multitask much more effectively. I read somewhere that octopus tentacles have brains of their own. I could camouflage if I was feeling extra introverted. And I’d still leave traces of ink everywhere, as poets normally do.

What do you think is the world’s most important scientific invention?

The lens. Without the lens we wouldn’t have telescopes, TVs or eyeglasses. I also like the symbolic idea of the lens – looking at life through a different perspective.

What’s your go-to student snack?

Oreos. There’s a really cool Oreos milkshake I have all the time at NYUAD called Double Trouble. It’s my guilty pleasure.

What's the most insightful thing you have learnt so far during your time at NYUAD?

That being sceptical is just as important as being certain. After taking so many courses that demand questioning, I’ve learnt not to accept the facts as they are presented to me.

What's the most transformational travel journey that you have taken?

Last term, I was in London for four months. The independence that I had there was a whole journey on its own. I got to know myself as a human being. I got the distance I needed, not only from where I’m from, but also from who I thought I was. When you travel to a new place, you discover a new version of yourself that you didn’t really know existed.

What items could you not live without?

My laptop and my poetry notebook. When I'm done scribbling down a poem, I store it in this notebook. Also the books The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and the children's fantasy novel Graceling by Kristin Cashore.

Where do you like to go for a winter walk?

Al Barsha Park – it’s quite simple, but really close to my home, and I normally join my dad on his jogs around there. I love walking on the beach, too.

What’s your favourite piece of artwork?

This might be a clichéd answer, but The Girl with a Pearl Earring. It's just beautiful and the book of the same name is also a favourite.

What do you think are the main differences between Arabic and English poetry?

Arabic poetry is hyper-sensory and there is so much depth of imagery. Just one word can mean so many different things, and that word can carry a lot of the poem’s weight. When you translate it to English, it can have just one or two meanings, so the complexity and depth of meaning get lost in translation.