'I am very Arab ... but when I put English words together I see beauty'

Although Sarah Snowneil Ali is fiercely proud of her Arabic culture, she feels most comfortable expressing herself in English.

Sarah Snowneil Ali is focusing on publishing Arab authors who write in English.
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DUBAI // Her parents are Lebanese, she is fiercely proud of her Arabic culture, she grew up in the Arab world and she speaks Arabic with her family at home. Despite all this, Sarah Snowneil Ali feels most comfortable expressing herself in English. She is one member of a generation of Arabs born and bred in the UAE who communicate in foreign languages so often that they are more familiar with them than their native tongues.

Miss Ali, 23, has a full-time job in marketing, but she is a passionate poet who writes in English and dedicates her free time and money to giving herself, and others like her, a voice. In December, she launched a project called Atelier Poetica, and is focusing on publishing Arab authors who write in a foreign language. "There is a whole generation of people like me who are Arabs but who think, read and write in English or French and have nowhere to go to fulfil themselves creatively," she said.

"I am very Arab and I love my culture and my religion, but I don't know what it is about English words ... when I put them together I see beauty. An image appears in my mind and the combination of words becomes beautiful." Through Atelier Poetica she wants to bring about change in the industry by alerting publishers to the talents of her generation. Alongside a poetry group from Beirut called Poeticians, she has organised poetry readings in Dubai at the community art space The Shelter, and last month released her first anthology of poetry - The Flower Girl.

"I paid for it all myself and hand-painted the artwork on each cover," she said while holding the slim brown volume decorated with a purple flower on its cover. "It is a chapbook, the first completed by Atelier Poetica." Chapbooks are paperback booklets of poems, songs or religious doctrines that were first circulated in England before the publishing industry was fully established. Miss Ali said they are the perfect format for her art.

"It sounds old fashioned, but it is just a way of doing things independently, making things happen for yourself," she said. "In the Arab world there really isn't support for people like me. If you wait for an Arab publisher to pick you up you will be waiting forever. They do not scout out quality work, at least not in foreign languages, and I don't want to reach out to America or the UK for publishers because my poems are related to here; the language, the themes are all Arab and relevant to the Arab world."

Sultan al Amimi, the director of the Poetry Academy in Abu Dhabi, said he didn't think there was a strong market for non-Arabic poetry in the Gulf region. "In my opinion, even young people who can read and write in English prefer to read Arabic poems, because of the language and cultural connotations which can't be found in other languages. I don't think non-Arabic poetry will be very successful here."

Miss Ali has been writing poetry for as long as she has been able to write, and said it helped her deal with personal and political situations. "Emotions are easier to deal with once you write them down, and with poetry you can also give them beauty," she said. In The Flower Girl she writes about love, anger and resolve and describes the heat of the UAE and the atrocities of war, among other thoughts and images.

One poem, "Back to the Ground", opens with: Blood coated on a blanket. Wrapped is the child / in paleness / powder stillness / from a bed of rubble / he will not awake. It is about the conflict in Gaza that broke out in December 2008. "I have grown up with war in and around my home country," she said. "But poetry can make even that beautiful. I don't mean in the conventional way, but as soon as you write it down you can give justice to the event and so give it beauty."

Distribution of The Flower Girl is Miss Ali's largest challenge, but the book is being sold at The Shelter and in several outlets in Beirut. She has two or three poets lined up for the next Atelier Poetica publication, and encourages any other writers to follow in her footsteps. "I would say to anyone reading this to take action. Do it yourself. Do not wait for avenues to open up. Every writer wants to be published, so if you don't find an outlet, then why not create it yourself? It is hard work, but it is well worth it."