The Story of Language

A sometimes mesmerising combination of lyricism, wisdom and the timeless art of storytelling, both forms are characterised by their use of colloquial dialects and, in the case of Taghrouda, poetic duels between two people.

One of the most famous Nabati practitioners was Al Majidi Bin Dhaher. A folk poet, Bin Dhaher lived in 17th century Ras Al Khaimah and captured both the hardship of the desert and the beauty of the sea. Through his words he immortalised prominent Bedu tribes and recorded their stories. Over time his poetry would transform into folklore.

That poetic tradition has survived through a love of the spoken word, with Ousha bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi, better known as Ousha the Poet, regarded as one of the finest modern Nabati poets until her death at the age of 98 in 2018.

“We have a very proud and long legacy of literature and poetry,” says Afra Atiq, an Emirati poet and spoken word artist. “We’ve always been poets and writers and storytellers and it’s a responsibility that I personally take very seriously. To carry that legacy forward and to help others use their voices and utilise them to the best of their abilities

“I always say, ‘if we do not tell our stories, then at some point someone else will tell them and they won’t be accurate and they won’t be the same’. That is why it’s incredibly important for us to tell these stories and to tell them through different means, but particularly through literature.”

No one needs reminding of the importance of language. It enables us to communicate, to express ourselves, to share our emotions. It allows us to tell our own stories and to contribute to collective narratives. Nowhere is this more important than in the UAE, a country of over 200 nationalities.

Language in all its forms, dialects and accents – be they universal or endangered – gives us the freedom to bridge gaps in our knowledge of one another. Through conversations, anecdotes, book clubs, literature festivals, or the simple act of reading, we open up new dialogues and discover new worlds.

“It’s a way to find yourself, to experience different cultures, to experience different stories, to learn,” says Atiq, who is fired by a love of language. “Poetry and spoken word in particular have allowed me to tell my story and to bring those stories to life on a global scale.

“Literature has always been a big part of my life and I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t. It’s been instrumental in shaping me and moulding me into the person that I am. And whether that is because of being read bedtime stories while I was a child or always being around books, it is fundamental to who I am.”

That same love for language, storytelling and the human experience has guided the work of Iraqi writer Shahad Al Rawi, whose debut novel, The Baghdad Clock, was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and won the First Book Award at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2018.

A Dubai resident, Al Rawi once said that she writes to “express all that cannot be expressed in everyday language, all that cannot be said clearly in regular dialogue”. She writes, therefore, to “defend my memory against oblivion”.

Both Al Rawi and Atiq have graced the stage at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on several occasions. First launched in 2009 and organised by the Emirates Literature Foundation, the festival is one of a number of events held across the seven emirates that support and nurture a love of literature.

“I have this relationship with the written word,” says Isobel Abulhoul, chief executive of the Emirates Literature Foundation. “I can see every single character in the book. I can see every single landscape and I don’t want anyone else interfering between me and the writer. That writer is writing for me only and is colouring my memory, my brain, with those words. The book is your opportunity to colour that landscape, colour those characters, to add your own bit to it. A writer is not a writer without a reader.”

Those readers can not only find the books and the writers they are looking for at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, but at Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which was launched in 1981, and the Sharjah International Book Fair, which followed a year later.

There’s also the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, which was founded in 2007, and this year Sharjah’s Barjeel Art Foundation launched its first international poetry competition. In doing so, the foundation invited poets from around the world to respond to 20 works of Arab art from the 20th century.

“First and foremost literature is an exploration of the human condition and it is a reflection of the human experience, and that in and of itself is hugely important,” says Atiq. “There is a piece of literature for everybody and literature weaves different parts of our experiences into a story and weaves together narratives.”

Atiq spends much of her time working with schools and educational institutions, bringing poetry and the spoken word to the nation’s classrooms. The reasons why are simple. Reading improves critical thinking, develops empathy, and heightens imagination. It also improves academic ability and enhances a child’s chances of success in life.

The opposite is also true. According to the World Literacy Foundation, illiteracy not only costs the global economy an estimated $1.19 trillion a year, it leads to unemployment, low income, low self-esteem, and reduces access to lifelong learning and professional development.

“I would hope that my work encourages people to read more poetry, to get excited about the spoken word, and I really hope that I’ve at least been able to open doors for people who want to explore the spoken word or explore poetry,” she says. “And I would hope that I have not only opened doors, but that my work has been able to hold those doors open for other writers and other poets.”