The cultural scene is undoubtedly flourishing in the UAE, even though the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about exceptional challenges. I truly believe that it will bounce back with renewed vigour, brought about by the passion and determination of some incredible individuals at the heart of its creative sector and whose art and resourcefulness make culture come alive.
On Emirati Women's Day, I would like to highlight the fact that much of the activity within the sector is driven by Emirati women. It is a credible achievement, not least because of the widespread misconception in some parts of the world that women in the region lack political or social power. Nothing could be further from the truth in the UAE, and with role models such as Noura Al Kaabi and Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi leading the way, we are showing the world that as Emirati women we are not only in charge of our personal destiny, but also shaping the cultural life of our country.
Ms Al Kaabi, in her position as Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, supports the cultural scene so generously with a strong vision, by guiding from behind the scenes and also leading by example. Sheikha Bodour, Vice President of the International Publishers Association, is an inspiring role model for Emirati women in the field of literature. Her appointment was a real game-changer and it is a great win for the region to have her in such a high-profile global position, giving us an important representation in the world of publishing.
Perhaps one reason for female dominance in the sector is that the UAE is a relatively young country, which has not had to fight against centuries of hierarchy, with men traditionally playing the leading role. Our festival, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, was launched 12 years ago by the visionary Isobel Abulhoul, who is often described as the catalyst for the creation of many arts events in the UAE. With ongoing support and guidance from Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum as the vice chair of the Emirates Literature Foundation Board and through her post as the chairperson of Dubai Culture & Arts Authority, the festival has gone from homegrown, to world-class, to world-leading. We are also fortunate to be able to call on the expertise of Hala Badri, the director general of Dubai Culture, and Dr Rafia Ghubash. The latter left a medical career to dedicate her time for preserving Emirati culture, in particular documenting the lives of women, establishing the women's museum, collating Ousha bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi's poetry, producing the Encyclopaedia of Emirati Women and more.
If we were to look at Emirati women who embody the art form and bring their multifarious talents to the world stage, Emirati award-winning poet Afra Atiq is the perfect example. Afra has had global recognition, winning many poetry slams and appearing at international events such as the Jaipur Literary Festival. She has often shared the stage with many male poets on the international circuit, sometimes as the only female seated amongst them.
Nujoom Alghanem has also had great international success as an Emirati poet, scriptwriter and award-winning film director. Maitha Al Khayat, meanwhile, is one of the UAE’s most prolific children’s illustrators and writers, publishing more than 160 books in less than 10 years.
Then we have a new generation of writers making rapid strides. Eman Al Yousuf, who knows how to use her voice to bring about change, has published two short story books and two novels, including Haris Al Shams (Guard of the Sun), which won first prize at the Emirates Novel Awards in 2016. Salha Obeid's love of literature is apparent in every word she speaks and writes; her work is a joy. She was awarded the Young Emirati's Prize, in the creative writing category, by the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2017, while Dubai Abulhoul preserves Emirati folklore by bringing characters to life in her modern creative writing style.
Iman ben Chaibah, Vice President of the Emirates Publishers Association and chief executive of Sail Publishing, is a champion of both digital publishing and Emirati writers. I also have so much respect for Butheina Kazim, founder of Cinema Akil, an independent cinema platform in Dubai. Single-handedly sustaining a long-term business in the arts is no easy task, and she has managed it with aplomb.
From the art world, I enjoy Fatma Lootah’s work. A pioneer, she developed her skill in Baghdad in the late 1970s before moving to the US and Italy. She often returns home to Al Fahidi, developing her figurative style and focusing on people from the UAE, real or imagined.
It is a privilege to be surrounded by all these talented women, and others, bringing contemporary culture and literature to the UAE. As festival director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, I am committed to making sure that writers from the region get a platform, as well as global recognition. We are working on several projects that will give Arabic writers more prominence. I am also acutely conscious of the importance of ensuring young women are aware of the paths that are open to them in life. We do that by bringing as many inspiring writers as possible to the festival, authors that can open their eyes to new possibilities.
I am proud to be part of an industry that recognises a woman’s abilities and talents. It is empowering to know that we can achieve all that we do without the need for tokenism or gender bias. I hope we will inspire the next generation of young women to go even further in seeing that the world is theirs for the taking and make their own mark in putting the Emirati woman on the world map.
Ahlam Bolooki is festival director for Emirates Airline Festival of Literature