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The Atlas is proud to be partnering with the Hay Festival's Beirut39 contest, celebrating Beirut's year as UNESCO World Book Capital, to find the hottest authors under 40 of Arabic origin. Nominations are open until August 24th, 2009.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

August Issue of WWB: Andre Naffis on literary competition in the UAE

Who can resist an article entitled Poets, Eunuchs and Pricks? A mordant commentary on the biggerbetterfastermore ethos of the Emirates, Andre Naffis' essay looks at the way in which literary prestige has got mixed up in the rapidly developing skyline, with a planned statue celebrating al-Hakawati (the storyteller).
In a characteristically outlandish twist, the Sheikhs have now decided to set their mores on sexuality down in stone by commissioning a gargantuan eunuch—which is to lord over Dubai’s Zabeel Park, fifty hectares smack in the middle of what is now some of the world’s most valuable real estate. At over one hundred and fifty feet, the statue of Al-Hakawati “the storyteller” would relegate Rhodes’ Colossus to an also-ran.

In Abu Dhabi on the other hand, it's all about live entertainment,
in what is arguably a ploy by Abu Dhabi’s reigning Nahyan clan to style themselves after the Medicis and establish their city as the artistic counterweight to Dubai’s financial hub. The audiovisual jewel in their tiara is “The Prince of Poets”—a contest held at the Al Raha Beach Theatre on the outskirts of the island emirate. Run along the lines of “American Idol,” thousands of applications are processed until a select thirty-five poets compete in the broadcasts which unfold over the course of ten weeks.
As for the Medicis, this patronage of art has inspired some heated exchanges in Arab literary community and blogosphere, and casts a revealing light on the sociocultural makeup of the Emirates.
Take the first season when there were claims that the judges, hoping to foster a sense of national pride, awarded first prize to the Emarati Maatouk, while the far more popular Palestinian Barghouti came in fifth. Barghouti, whose father, Mourid is the author of I Saw Ramallah, could no doubt take solace in the not inconsiderable cheque ($27,000) and in that he walked away with that much sought-after accolade, the modern poet’s wreath, which he was accorded when his poem “Jerusalem” was immortalized with a cell-phone ring-tone. Nevertheless, the mini-scandal drew attention to the deep seated divisions between local and foreign Arabs. Palestinians and other Arabs constitute a second tier to privileged Emaratis.

What does this all amount to for poetry? Naffis links the ambitious scale and political capital of both projects to
the deep-seated ambivalence the Arab world displays when the ‘word’ intermingles with Islam’s current conservatism. Poetry is often dubbed sihr halal, “legal magic,” which, aside from the peculiar phrasing—one that would be unthinkable in other contexts as the average Arab has an understanding of magic not too dissimilar from that of Salem’s witch-hunters circa1692—points to a marked difference between East and West.
Mahmoud Darwish, Nizar Qabbani and Adonis, that perennial Nobel contender, were and have been known to fill stadiums with record audiences.
What Naffis doesn't add is that all three poets have also been thorns in the side of governments as well as popular figures. When state-sanctioned, can poetry continue to be the Arab world's rock and roll?

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