One of the most enriching things about literature is its ability to help us walk in another’s shoes. For a region as diverse as the Arab world, this fosters understanding of different experiences and ways of life. It can also be a way of seeing important issues in a new light. In this context, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which will run until Sunday, is providing an important platform for Arab voices, all the way from the shores of the Atlantic to the Sea of Oman.
Indeed, the Sultanate provided a strong example of the vibrancy and relevance of modern Arabic literature earlier this week when prolific writer Zahran Alqasmi became the first Omani to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. His fourth novel – The Water Diviner – follows the life of an enigmatic man hired by Omani villagers to track the ebb and flow of rivers and ravines.
Aside from its literary richness, the book explores themes with modern relevance such as water scarcity and environmental hardships. Alqasmi does this using Omani colloquialisms, something that was highlighted by the prize’s judges. When a language is as rich and varied as Arabic, writing novels or poetry in one’s own dialect can be as illuminating for other Arabic speakers as a translation into another language would be for a foreign readership.
On Tuesday, Iraqi poet Ali Jaafar Alallaq received the Sheikh Zayed Book Award’s Literature prize for his autobiography Ila Ayn Ayyathouha Al Kaseedah (Whereto, O Poem). Alallaq, a veteran author with decades of experience, used this autobiography to explore the profound changes undergone by the Iraqi and Arab cultural scene during his 50 years as a writer.
Of course, not everyone who puts pen to paper is rewarded with prizes and accolades. Self-expression and creativity are intrinsic elements of human nature. But the prominence given to award-winning works of prose, poetry and non-fiction opens a window on to the Arab world, not only entertaining readers but sharing, in an unmediated way, the thoughts, feelings, fears, hopes and aspirations of millions of people. For a region that has historically been a place of knowledge, the tradition of storytelling and reading is one to be built upon.
The value of events such as the Abu Dhabi Book Fair and the long-running Sharjah International Book Fair is not just in the presence of many skilled and insightful authors, it is also in the visibility it gives to literature in a world frequently caught in the grip of the digital. Last year, more than 152,000 people visited the Abu Dhabi event at which over 165,000 books were sold. Organisers of the Sharjah fair said more than 2.1 million people attended the 11-day festival in 2022. Book fairs and other literary events in the UAE, such as the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, connect literally millions of people with reading every year.
This complements the important work being done to foster a love of reading. The Arab Reading Challenge, launched in 2015 by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives to encourage a million young people to read at least 50 books in a year, attracted more than 24.8 million entrants from 46 countries in May, creating a new generation in love with the written word.
If this week in Abu Dhabi is anything to go by, then Arab literature is as dynamic, diverse, innovative and thought-provoking as ever. UAE book fairs are playing their part in fostering talent, recognising literary achievement and instilling the habit of reading. The next chapter in the story of Arabic literature promises to be as enthralling as what went before.