I WENT to Dubai recently to attend the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature, a five-day offering of international and Arab writers, workshops, literary-related events, and entertainment that takes place at the Dubai Festival City each year.
I was interested to see how the festival compares to our own Karachi Literature Festival (KLF), and I was appropriately impressed by the organisation, scope of the festival and its programmes, its marketing and branding and the financial support it receives from Dubai companies and others.
We at the KLF could learn a lot from the way in which Dubai promotes its literary festival, and encourage schoolchildren to participate in special activities created just for them. There are short-story and poetry competitions, musical events, Arabic language and calligraphy courses, even cookery demonstrations hosted by celebrity chefs with cookbooks to promote.
The most fulfilling session for me was the Heritage Evening with renowned Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, the author of I Saw Ramallah and I was Born Here, I was Born There. At first I thought I’d made a mistake because the session was conducted in Arabic, but then I obtained a headset for the simultaneous translation that was going on in a booth at the side of the stage. Even though I don’t speak Arabic, I sat there and listened to the wash of words and found it beautiful, the sibilance and rhythm as much a part of the poem as the content and imagery.
The weather was cool and pleasant, as we sat by the creek, the Dubai skyline sparkling in the background and a lit-up boat slowly traversing the water. A line of men in jalabiyas danced a traditional Arab dance, sticks in hand. When Barghouti read a poem about a village boy dancing a dabka and catching a wink from one of the village girls, I thrilled to hear his verses describing how the boy’s world catches on fire and he becomes the dance itself.
On my way home, I passed by a series of billboards lining the Sheikh Zayed Road, put up by one of Dubai’s major construction companies. These billboards advertised a new housing complex, with slogans urging customers to live the life of luxury, enjoy the world of comfort and class that the company could provide.
In buying one of their houses, you were buying into a privileged lifestyle, illustrated by large graphics of an Arab woman sitting at a table while a chef in white linens served her a gourmet meal, and a European woman lying in bed being served breakfast in bed by a blonde servant in a French maid’s uniform. I suddenly started to feel claustrophobic and then felt an overwhelming urge to go home and do my own laundry.
I realised that Dubai sells a modern-day mirage to people here. In the olden days, a mirage was a shimmering oasis in the desert, filled with date trees, cool blue water and shade, meant to give food, water and comfort to weary travellers who needed to rest before shouldering their packs and making their way across an unforgiving desert. The modern-day mirage of Dubai is something very different: the illusion that for the right amount of money, you can become a member of an ultra-privileged class whose destiny is to be served by others while you wallow in every imaginable luxury.
In the days of the desert mirage, too, the idea of privilege was closely linked to aristocracy: you are born to privilege, and can’t jump class divisions to inherit a birthright that doesn’t belong to you. In Dubai, you can buy it or earn it: call this the Gulf dream. It entails the assumption that there exists a class of people who are born and who exist merely to serve you, a sort of super serving class, educated and trained to serve the rich and privileged (whereas servants have been traditionally uneducated or undereducated due to lack of time, resources, or opportunities).
The rulers of Dubai are keenly aware of the fact that Dubai needs culture, not just luxury, in order to make their city truly complete. They do work hard to bring cultural events to the city: the World Music Festival, the Jazz Fest, the Taste of Dubai, and the Emirates Festival of Literature are some of the examples of their recent efforts.
Sometimes it works and sometimes it feels artificial and forced — after all, there was nothing here but desert before they decided to build this city and turn it into the tourist and business hub that it is today. The leaders of Dubai have great vision — nobody can doubt that. And yet the Gulf dream with its attendant dreams of luxury and privilege seem somehow at odds with their desire to develop Dubai’s culture. True culture is something you don’t have to pay money for; it doesn’t have to be flashy and slick; sometimes a little roughness around the edges makes it more authentic and honest.
Back to Barghouti and his beautiful, striking images of life in Ramallah, in exile, and under brutal occupation. The literature festival did a great job of showcasing that great art, but somewhat ironically it illustrated the vital point that no great art is created without suffering.
The leaders and citizens of Dubai must realise that without deprivation and privation, no art can truly flourish, no understanding of humanity can arrive. I do hope one day they’ll strike the right balance between their two visions, and turn their desert into the kind of oasis that brings satisfaction not just to people’s bodies, but to their minds, hearts and souls.
The writer is the author of Slum Child.