Remembering The Travels of Ibn Rakha: November, 2008

Our intrepid explorer Youssef Rakha heads to the mall in the footsteps of ibn Battuta.


The journalist Abu Said ibn Rakha recounted as follows:

My trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai took place at a later hour than planned on Monday, the 22nd of the month of Dhul Qi’dah, in this, the 1429th year after the blessed Hijrah. My object was to roam inside the Emirates’ newfangled monument to my venerable sheikh of Tangier – honest judge of the Maliki school of Sunni jurisprudence, associate of Temur the Tatar and Orhan the Ottoman, and divinely gifted savant of his day – Shamsuddin Abu Abdalla ibn Battuta. He is the author of the unsurpassed Rihla (you may know it as The Travels of ibn Battuta), the glorious account of his three decades’ Journey around the world, dazzling pearl on the bed of our literary sea, which he dictated before he died in 770 or 779 and whose style I now humbly emulate.

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K for kitab

At the 20th Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, Youssef Rakha wonders if the United Arab Emirates might end up being the Arabs’ answer to an international publishing hub

After turning one of the Arab world’s worst read cities into a vibrant literary venue for five days, the 20th Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF, 2-7 March) folded quietly on Monday 7 March. It was followed by the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (10-13 March), organised by Magrudy’s Bookshops and any number of sponsors in Dubai – that slightly better read New York of the Gulf where the Arabic language is alas all but completely absent.

The Emirates Festival requires separate coverage, but it is worth mentioning in the context of ADBIF in that it shared with that event a profoundly multicultural atmosphere. By the time ADBIF closed, even the predominance of Arabic books there had not reduced the overriding sense that here, finally, was a international, multilingual publishing event or series of events drawing together variously important figures from the four corners of the global village.

Neither bang nor whimper marked the end of what seemed like a separate and self-contained world within the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (ADNEC), an isolated space of glass and concrete on the outskirts of the city proper – recently completed by the addition of a high-rise corporate-style hotel, ensuring not only accommodation but taxi transportation from the fair grounds. With the vast majority of the fair’s non-resident patrons already gone by Friday, business proceeded as usual until it came gradually to a halt.

Initially the fair had proceeded alongside a major gun show, subjecting unsuspecting bibliophiles who entered by the wrong gate to unnecessary, airport-like security. Deceptively low-key from the outside, ADIBF was at least as busy as the killing carnival next door.

Activity centred on the by now haloed Discussion and Poetry Forums and the Kitab Sofa, where writers (sometimes attended to by television crews) performed to small, inevitably distracted audiences. Interviews, readings, and discussions often involving more than one writer shed light on an enormous motley of subjects, from the history of the translation of Indian literature into Arabic to whether and to what extent contemporary American literature can engage with postmodern tendencies firmly embedded into consumer culture.

Highlight appearances ranged from flash-in-the-pan celebrities (Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, and the Algerian novelist Ahlam Mustaghanmi, for example) to award winners and writers whose relative fame may be better deserved from the literary standpoint (Adam Haslett, Yann Martel, Amit Chaudri, Pankaj Mishra, Alawiyya Sobh, Ibrahim Al-Koni, Sinan Antoon). There was a spaceman advertising new translation technologies, several dozen illuminated manuscripts (Islamic and otherwise) from various Europe-based dealers, and a Show Kitchen Programme featuring the authors of cookbooks demonstrating their recipes live – perhaps the most popular fixture.

For a moment on Saturday, with the Kerala Islamic scholar Sheikh Aboobacker Ahmad drawing a huge crowd to the Kitab Sofa in what seemed like a misplaced Friday prayers sermon, the more palpably Muslim aspects of the UAE’s cultural constituency became apparent, recalling what yearly threatens to turn into an Islamist takeover of the Cairo International Book Fair back home. Yet the atheistic and erotic titles published by the German-based Dar Al-Jamal, for example, were neither torn up nor burned. Islam is not about terrorism, was what Sheikh Aboobacker, in slighly broken Quranic Arabic, continued to reiterate.

Still, people filed through the labyrinth of booths representing various publishers from the Arab world and Europe, occasionally stopping at one or more of the three larger, prominently marked enclosures occupied by the fair’s own organiser, the Abu Dhabi Organisation for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), and its two initiatives, the Qalam series for Emirati writing and the Kalima megaproject of translation into Arabic.

And judging by the multi-ethnic composition of the audience, the broad spectrum of participating institutions, including the Goethe Institut and the British Council, and the currency of topics like the secrets behind the success of best sellers, the impact of literary awards on Arab culture or the state of comics and the graphic novel in the Arab world, it seemed the event was effectively introducing Western publishing norms into the as yet isolated Arab industry. How long will it take for that industry to be fully integrated?

Instead of enthusiasm from Abu Dhabi’s tiny community of Arabic book lovers, anyway, the fair now clearly bases its credentials on KITAB (Arabic for “book”), the joint venture of ADACH and the venerable Frankfurter Buchmesse, forged in 2007 to bring the event up to speed. For three years now ADIBF, founded in 1987 as a conventionally “Arab” fair, has been mutating into a global industry-standard publishing forum. So, at least, is its perception among a growing number of Gulf-culture champions who respect its aspirations. Two main concerns inform Arab cultural interest in the Gulf and the fair suggests answers to both of them.

First, it seems unfair that an oil-rich Emirate with hardly a single celebrated writer to its name should be positing itself as a literary centre of gravity, until you realise that what Western-style benefits Abu Dhabi manages to garner wearing the cultural-capital hat – literary prizes, publishing ventures, translation initiatives, copyright-protection measures – it will garner for beneficiaries across the Arab world.

Secondly, the fact that the UAE has – contentiously, for some – pioneered cultural projects managed by or modelled on Western institutions (the Saadiyat Island Louvre and Guggenheim initiatives, the Sorbonne and New York University campuses, etc.) has endangered cultural identity only within the borders of the UAE, where Arabs coexist with comparably sized non-Arabic speaking Asian and Western communities. In traditional cultural capitals like Cairo, the overwhelming incidence of Arabic language and literature, not to mention Arab mores and morals, makes culture more or less immune to what atrophy or confusion the adoption of a harshly capitalist, foreign (and once colonial) system might subject it to. But that remains a subject for much more involved debate.

With the Frankfurt Book Fair managing and developing it, at least, ADBIF does focus on the process of publishing, not (like the much older and by now proverbially disorganised Cairo International Book Fair, the most populous book-based event on the Arab map) on selling as much as possible regardless of substance or procedure.

At ADBIF there is no censorship, no fear on the part of security forces of an Islamist takeover of the fair grounds, no working-class-family-outing atmosphere, no shoddy infrastructure, no sudden and inexplicable absence of previously announced big names or enforced lack of access to them, no stiff formalities, and no dire shortage of information or facilities.

Property rights across languages and borders and the editor’s role in the writer’s career are just two of the areas where ADACH hopes to make a radical even if wholly imported contribution to the industry. On the basis of that contribution it is attempting to turn Abu Dhabi into “the region’s publishing hub”, as the official press package already puts it (emphasis mine), the region being all of the (Arab) Middle East and North Africa.

And notwithstanding the difficulties inherent in this business, ADACH just may be succeeding. Certainly ADBIF now looks and feels far more like Frankfurt than Cairo. In a relatively small-scale, comparatively relaxed event, just as much emphasis is placed on the profession of publishing and cross-national networking as on book-related amusements and book-buying opportunities for the public.


Established in 2007 in memory of the founder of the UAE, the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards have since 2008 been overshadowed by the the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, better if less accurately known as the Arabic Booker), a joint venture of the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Foundation and the prestigious Booker Foundation (judging by this writer’s taste in recent years, Booker and Man Booker short lists have in fact seldom lived up to the name). Yet occurring within 24 hours of each other at the Emirates Palace and Beach Rotana Hotels, respectively, the awards ceremonies demonstrated just how much more interest the Booker commands at every conceivable level.

The Sheikh Zayed Book Awards this year went to the Lebanese Albert Habib Mutlaq for his translation of The Animal Encyclopedia, the Algerian Hafnaoui Baali for Comparative Cultural Criticism: An Introduction, a contribution to the field of literature, the Emirati Qais Sedki for the children’s book Gold Ring, the Egyptian Ammar Ali Hasan for The Political Establishment of Sufism in Egypt – deemed the Best Contribution to the Development of Nations – and the young Moroccan critic Mohammad Al Mallakh for Time in Arabic Language: Its Linguistic Structure and Significance, as well as His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi as Personality of the Year.

Far more engaging was the awards ceremony and the press conference of the Arabic Booker, which had generated the greatest controversy in its short history this year. Predictably for the vast majority of commentators, the Saudi novelist Abdu Khal’s She Throws Sparks won the grand prix, whether because it was the least controversial novel on the short list, or the work of the short list’s best respected author, or (according to some views) because books that could have competed with it – notably Alawiyya Sobh’s Its Name Is Love – had not made it that far or had been excluded from the start.

Many had contended that the exclusion of important contributions from the long and (more controversially) the short list was intended to facilitate the emergence as the final winner of a book from the Gulf; and subsequent statements by the head of the jury, the Kuwaiti novelist Talib Al-Rifa’i, to the effect that it was time that novels from the Gulf should be introduced to the Western world seemed to give credence to this theory.

Of course, should this be the case, it would be contrary to the regulations of the prize, and Al-Rifa’i in his eagerness to defend the jury, whose names, also contrary to regulations, were published in Cairo two weeks before the short list, ironically worked against it. All manner of accusations and conspiracy theories had been levelled at the jury and the board of trustees, but the head of the Booker Foundation, Jonathan Taylor, seemed confident of the administration of the prize. There was a leak,پh he responded to the question of how the names of jury members could have been known so early. پgI am sorry there was a leak.پh

More to the point, when asked why the judges of the Arabic Booker (unlike those of the Booker and the Man Booker) are not made known to the public in advance, Taylor said, “We were told that this would make it easier for the jury to do its work.” Once again inadvertently, Taylor seemed to give credence to the notion that the corruption of the Arab literary scene may have seeped into a Booker Foundation-managed institution after all.


The “Arabic Booker” Short List

The London-based Palestinian writer Rabie Al-Madhouns Ass Sayyidah min Tal Abeeb (The Lady from Tel Aviv) has been called a work of “post-Oslo resistance literature”. It tells the triple story of Al-Madhoun himself, his writer-protagonist Walid Dahman, and the hero of Dahman’s own fictional novel-in-progress. On a plane from London back to Gaza to see his mother for the first time in decades, Dahman meets an attractive Israeli actress who is subsequently killed in cold blood as a result of a previous love affair with the son of an Arab leader.

The young Lebanese writer Rabee Jabirs America is a fictional account of early 20th-century Lebanese immigration to the United States, told from the viewpoint of a country woman who follows her husband to New York.

The older Egyptian novelist Mohammad Al-Mansi Qindeels Yawm Ghaim fil Bar al Gharbi (A Cloudy Day on the West Side) tells the story of a Muslim woman in late 19th-century Upper Egypt who abandons her young daughter, Aisha, to protect her from the brutality of a merciless stepfather, baptising her as a Christian. This conversion, it later turns out, leads Aisha – who grows up to become a translator – to fall in love with a fictional version of the famous British archaeologist Howard Carter.

The Palestinian-Jordanian writer Jamal Naji’s Indama Tashkish adh Dhiaab (When Wolves Grow Old) has a wide cast of characters and a plot drawn from detective genre fiction. It depicts the social malaise of contemporary Amman, exposing sexual and political repression, the hunger for power among intellectuals and religious leaders, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

The young Egyptian Mansoura Ez Eldins Wara al Firdawss (Beyond Paradise) chronicles an obscure episode in the history of the Nile Delta, when surging demand for red brick made from the mud in the Delta created a sudden explosion of wealth among some enterprising local landholders, but in so doing depicts the intensely personal journey of a young female literary magazine editor from her small town to Cairo.

Abdu Khals own Tarmi bi Sharar (Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles), set in a destitute Jeddah neighbourhood and in the palace that has recently been built next door to it, shows the brutality  of the owner of that palace, a well-connected, wealthy and powerful if sadistic tycoon who seizes and tortures his enemies. He employs the narrator – a child of the neighbourhood notorious as a homosexual and a bully – to sexually abuse his victims, who are videotaped as they suffer.

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The Sands incarnate

arabian-desert1I am on the way to Al Ain to attend the opening of the newly restored Al Jahili Fort when it starts to rain. I know the event will take place in the open air and, thinking of its seemingly miraculous highlight – the presence among the audience of the late Wilfred Thesiger’s travelling companions Salim bin Ghabaisha and Salim bin Kabina, the two teenagers from the Rawashid tribe immortalised in his book Arabian Sands – I suddenly relish what cold and discomfort might come as a tiny taste of the unique spell “this cruel land can cast”.

While the microbus nears its destination, the window frames the crest of a sand dune, fleshing out the fantasy of being in the Sands. A pale yellow mound of immense proportions (though I know it is much smaller than its grand siblings to the south), the dune’s indistinct edge wavers across the gleaming orange disk of the slowly setting sun; and it is as if I am seeing animated colour versions of Thesiger’s striking black-and-white photographs of dune country. The sensation is both cheering and unsettling.

Bin Ghabaisha and bin Kabina arrived with Thesiger at Jahili, fresh from the wilderness, in 1949; exhausted by limited supplies and marauding tribesmen, they were graciously received by HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, then the Ruler’s representative in Al Ain, whose hospitality they would never forget. Their admiration for Sheikh Zayed was such that, so many years later – neither bin Ghabaisha nor bin Kabina have birth dates but they must be in their eighties by now – they leapt at the chance to honour the memory and express their love, repeatedly stating that Sheikh Zayed’s virtues are incarnate in his progeny. 

When I arrive at the fort, four lush, cafe-au-lait, distinctive looking camels are standing sentinel at the entryway, two on either side of the red carpet; and by asking their minders what breed they are, I manage to confirm my proximity to the Sands: these are Banat Antar, or the Daughters of Antar (as Thesiger points out, only female camels are used for riding in these parts). “He lived 150 years ago,” the man speaks of the animals’ male ancestor, Antar, “and still people identify them by his name. They cost millions, especially those of them used in racing.” 

In the twilight, with spare, warm lights glittering at key spots, the space looks magical: dust ground, white crescent against cobalt blue sky, and off-white mud brick in rectangular formation; the circular towers are especially imposing in their sheer austerity of form. But it is bin Ghabaisha and bin Kabina who subtly upstage all else: the one squat and bare headed, with a grave expression on his face, his bow-shaped light beard deeply hennaed; the other taller and leaner, wholly affable, with a simple white head dress, a long white beard and a stick in his hand. 

Drawn in by bin Kabina’s smile, I join their gathering for as long as I can. “When I walked in Jahili today,” bin Kabina whispers at one point, “I remembered Zayed and the day we came. And I felt just as young as I was then.” But with officials and friends charging ahead in various directions and the two old Bedouin constantly changing position to keep up with them, before too long I have lost sight of the two people I came to see.

Night falls to the sound of drums as the incredibly poised ayala dance is performed outside the gate. Two lines of men face each other – barely moving as they sway in tempo in a manner that recalls the camel’s sedate gait, waving their sticks and chanting in hoarse unison – while the drummers flit in a single, integrated troop from one row to the other, exaggerating the movements of the dancers as they vigourously set the rhythm: a many-bodied, loudly provocative beast. 

For hours, while official functions render bin Ghabaisha and bin Kabina (in the company of HH Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon now) inaccessible, I dither between the exhibition and the stage, biding my time while I attempt to reconcile the two strong, rough-hewn teenagers in Thesiger’s photographs with these wise old men, as well heeled as they are frail. But as the evening comes to a close I see them leaning on their children’s arms on their way out. I attempt to catch up but I lose sight of them again.

Sighing, I waddle in the wake of the departing audience when suddenly I glimpse the yellow kandura of bin Ghabaisha and realise they have been ambushed near the parking lot. “Zayed is the best ruler,” I hear bin Ghabaisahas saying, “and his children by the will of God are also the way he is. I take pride in this state. The Christian,” he refers to Thesiger, “depended on Zayed. When he went to a place he did not know, he only had to mention Zayed’s name, because who has not heard of Zayed? His generosity, his courage, his knowledge, his horsemanship, his camel riding, his every quality – no one in the entire world,” he says again, “no one surpasses Zayed.”