Arab culture is taking the world by storm

From novelists to filmmakers, this week is one to celebrate a new generation of artists in the region

Abu Dhabi Book Fair. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Visitors to Alexandria's Corniche, a road that stretches along the Egyptian city's coast, experience one of the busiest thoroughfares in the modern Middle East. Less obvious is that at points they are mere feet away from underwater stone ruins that for thousands of years have been submerged reminders of the pivotal role that the region has played in world culture.

The stones are remnants of ancient Alexandria, which for centuries guarded and produced some of the most important works from the classical world, while also serving as a centre of study and a gathering place for intellectuals across the region. Its ultimate symbol was the Library of Alexandria, a vast institution the destruction of which remains a mystery.

Since then the Middle East has seen many intellectual high points, as well as periods of devastation. The most striking example recently was the actions of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. In the background, instability, oppression, migration and poverty have also taken their toll.

But across the region, even in its toughest corners, people are still making their mark. On Sunday, novelist Mohammed Alnaas became the first Libyan and the youngest author to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel Bread on Uncle Milad's Table, which will soon be translated into English. This year's shortlist also included the first Emirati book to be nominated, Rose's Diary by Reem Alkamali, which is set in 1960s Dubai. From the other end of the region, The National has reported on Moroccan novelist Mohsine Loukili, whose shortlisted book, The Prisoner of the Portuguese, was inspired by a Bedouin storyteller he met on the streets of Essaouira.

Yesterday, all these authors attended a session at the annual Abu Dhabi International Book Fair 2022. The event, which began on Monday, is being held at Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, and will include big-ticket names such as Syrian poet Adonis and Nobel Prize for Economics winner Guido Imbens, among many others.

The evening before the event began, global publishers and authors gathered for discussions on the challenges facing the Arabic publishing industry. The first International Congress of Arabic Publishing, which was organised by the Arabic Language Centre, looked at ways Arabic content can be supported and promoted in the digital age. Topics included the promise of audiobooks and the ongoing struggle of creating accurate but engaging translations.

In November, Sharjah will host its annual Sharjah International Book Fair, the largest event of its kind in the world.

Further afield, Arabic filmmakers have been doing well at the Cannes Film Festival. Boy From Heaven by Swedish-Egyptian director Tarik Saleh just had its premiere at the festival. Other works on show include Tunisian-French filmmaker Erige Sehiri's Under the Fig Trees, The Dam by the Lebanese director Ali Cherri, with other works coming from Morocco to Egypt.

And when these events pass, the region is also getting yet more permanent bastions of its modern culture and creativity. Dubai is about to open the vast new 54,000-square metre Mohammed bin Rashid Library, an institution to match similar ones in the UAE, from Abu Dhabi to Sharjah. An opening date is expected soon.

The mystery at the heart of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria might never be paralleled, but with so much going in the region's cultural scene, the intellectual chain running from thousands of years ago to today is still intact. No matter how great the challenges the region faces, its intellect will never be extinguished.

Published: May 25, 2022, 4:15 AM
EDITORIAL