The Western world has yet to fully grasp the number of excellent Arab fiction writers due to the language barrier. However, it seems that things may are about to change for those Arab writers the rest of the world needs to hear about.
Abu Dhabi is a cosmopolitan metropolis. With its burgeoning economy that has made it a popular destination for expats, as well as its cultural initiatives, it is no surprise that it recently played host to the first international nadwa (workshop) for Arab fiction.
The initiative was launched by The International Prize For Arabic Fiction (equivalent to the Man Booker Prize for the Arab world). The IPAF aims to champion excellence in contemporary Arabic literature and works in association with the Booker Prize Foundation.
The nadwa is modelled on other international writing workshops. One must wonder as to why it has taken such a long time to recognise one is needed on the international literary landscape. However, it is also fair to acknowledge the efforts being made to redress the gulf between the Arab world’s efforts and such institutions as the ‘Caine Prize’ writing workshop for African Writers, as well as the numerous writing workshops in the UK and US. These workshops, including the likes of the ‘Asian American Writers’ Workshop,’ help emerging writers develop their skills and give them a visible platform to be seen, heard and get better.
Peter Clark is an IPAF trustee and the nadwa’s coordinator. He explains, “The workshop brings together promising writers, from different Arab countries to discuss their work and creativity with experienced writers and the ultimate aim is to encourage good writing and bring it to the attention of the rest of the world.”
The eight writers picked for this inaugural workshop are described by the judges who chose them as ‘some of the most gifted and promising writers of the emerging generation.’ Five of them have also been selected to be part of Beirut 39, an elite group of Arab writers under the age of 40.
The workshop, which took place over a nine day period, was conducted in Arabic and the writers wrote in Arabic. However, there are plans for the final work of each writer to be part of an anthology, which will be translated and published in both Arabic and English. The opportunity also gave writers access to established authors who served as mentors and worked closely with them in one-to-one sessions.
Mansoura Ezz Eldin, who has been shortlisted for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and Mohammed Hassan Alwan, were two of the nine participants. They admit this is the first time they have participated in a workshop of this sort and agree that these kinds of gatherings are not common in the Arab world. Alwan said:
“A lot of money has been spent to fund art and literature events in the Arab World. However, most of this money goes to prizes and festivals. If you agree with me, both types of events have a public relations element that encourages funders to buy some good publicity which writers’ retreats, apparently, don’t generate enough of it. Find a funder who recognizes the real essence of non-for-profit projects and you’ll see more workshops as this one in the Arab world.”
While Eldin says the trend is changing with the inception of writing workshops like the nadwa and others in Lebanon and Cairo, but that this “Workshop is totally different, because the participants are well known young writers, not beginners.”
Alwan has published two novels and a collection of short stories, while Eldin has a novel and a collection of short stories under her belt. Eldin runs the review section of the renowned Egyptian literary magazine, Akhbar al-Adab (Literature News.) Both say the workshop has helped them, though in different ways.
Alwan said, “Joining eight accomplished writers in a quest for refining our in-progress short stories and novels was as valuable as taking eight consecutive classes of creative writing.” Eldin admits to doing something she is not familiar by treading in new territory with her work. “It was a fruitful experience, it was also an adventure because as a writer, I was not used to letting anyone read my work while writing but this workshop helped to change that habit,” she says. Hence, she says the most important gain from the workshop was being able to “See her work through the eyes of other writers and to be more flexible.”
So, what does a writing workshop of this nature do for a body of work or literature from a different part of the world? Surely the aim is to open the minds of people to the fact that Arab writing is alive and flourishing and that the literary world and readers alike need to embrace it and stay open minded, in spite of the grim picture often painted of the region. Clark says he hopes “It gives recognition to emerging talented writers, encourages readers and instils awareness that the future of Arab literary creativity looks good.”
For the writers involved, Alwan says he would like to believe that the workshop will help Arab fiction and writers “Overcome the shortcomings of their writings that the after-publishing critique often fails to do since it is either usually too late or too harsh.” He adds that this triggers a level of defensiveness from the writer and prevents him or her from understanding why his or her work is being criticised by the critics. So, “providing such critique while the text is in development is much more acceptable and is received as an opportunity to improve the text rather than undermine it,” he adds.
Both authors are adamant about the biggest challenge faced by Arab writers which they say is the issue of translation. The lack of translation has meant some of best works from Arab writers, fiction and non-fiction, are yet to cross over into the mainstream literary scene despite the fact that Arab writing keeps evolving. Eldin believes that translating the work which comes out of the workshop into English would be one of the most important and positive results of it all. Alwan says he would like to see a change in the number of works translated across the Arab literary landscape. “There is still not enough funding for massive translation projects. Only a little fraction of what’s being produced in the Arab world gets translated to other languages,” he says. This could be an opportunity for Western publishers, if they are bold enough to take a chance.
Clark points out there are plans to develop the workshop further, while Eldin and Alwan express their hope of it becoming a more frequent event with broader scope and more diverse participants. They also would not mind being involved in future workshops. Eldin says she actually fancies the opportunity of being a mentor, while Alwan is quick to point out the fact that having mentors for this year’s workshop was a blessing. It is important to keep that aspect of the project because “At the end, Arab mentors can be more effective in communicating with the participants. It’s not only because of the shared spoken language but also the cultural backgrounds that play significant roles in shaping the ideas behind the stories and novels being developed.”
On the subject of censorship within the Arab world, both writers have different points of view. Alwan said,
“Since the participants are from different countries in the Arab world and experience different levels and types of censorship; they share the condemnation of it but not the extents of which they can challenge it, the experiences they had with it, nor the techniques they use to minimize its negative effect on their writings. Hence by mixing them together, they inspire each other and share their experiences in regards to dealing with censorship.”
However, Eldin said, “Any workshop cannot help writers to express themselves freely. The writer should express himself freely whatever the price is. Freedom is the most important thing for a writer.”