Dubai, literature, and Egyptian Arabic

By Neil Hewison, author, translator, and former AUC Press associate director for editorial programs

Forget Ghost Protocol. There were times deep in the exuberant skyscraping and light-playing future-scape of Dubai that the movie world I was most put in mind of was Blade Runner, especially when it rained. I was there for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, along with a constellation or two of literary stars. We were bussed, boated, or careemed around the sights of this otherworldly city—to the newly constructed “old” quarter and the bustling spice and gold souks; into the desert for a night of poetry and feasting; to the world’s tallest building for a 124-floors-in-60-seconds ride to “At the Top” (which is not actually at the top, but high enough); to the Nobel Museum, situated incongruously amid a European-style beach resort; and on a sleek Creek cruise past hundreds of flamingoes standing in the mangrove shallows of a wildlife reserve to the architectural extravaganzas towering at the water’s edge rather like . . . flamingoes standing in the mangrove shallows. One day I slummed it and found my way by abra, metro, intercity bus, and the number 94 to the Abu Dhabi Louvre, an astounding space of walls and water spanned by a great hovering filigree dome and housing an extraordinary collection of global cultural treasures, creatively displayed not chronologically or geographically but thematically, and with simplicity and grace.

But all that was the sideshow. The real business of the Festival was the daily schedule of panel discussions, presentations, workshops, masterclasses, book signings, and school visits. In the Green Room I met a range of interesting writers, editors, translators, and publishers from around the globe, as well as listening to some of them in their panels and presentations. James Owens talked about the literacy charity he founded called The World is Just a Book Away, which has so far built ninety libraries to serve seventy thousand children in underprivileged and disaster-hit areas of the world. Martin Puchner outlined the comprehensive view developed in his book The Written World: How Literature Shapes History. Paulo Lemos Horta presented a new translation of Aladdin by Yasmine Seale, reminding us of the degree of bowdlerization the Disney classic has inured us to. And there were familiar faces too: AUC Press author Shereen Abouelnaga (Women in Revolutionary Egypt) discussed “New Politics, Old Identities” with Iraqi writer Shahad Al Rawi and Lebanese writer Jabbour Douaihy, and although I missed Naguib Mahfouz Medal–winner Huzama Habayeb’s panel, I was able to catch up with her briefly at her book signing.

“Publishing Anew: The Dynamics of Translation” (left to right: Thalia Suzuma, Bassam Chebaro, Neil Hewison, David Perry)


The sessions I was directly involved in turned out to be thought-provoking and stimulating for me at least, and possibly even for the other participants and the audiences. The first, deftly moderated by David Perry, sales director emeritus of Oxford University Press, was on “Publishing Anew: The Dynamics of Translation.” Lebanese publisher Bassam Chebaro, UK editor Thalia Suzuma, and I discussed and took questions on selecting books for translation, finding the right translator for each book, and editing, publishing, and marketing the finished work. Bassam gave the English-to-Arabic perspective, Thalia and I the Arabic-to-English. The similarities and differences between the challenges and strategies of the two directions were intriguing. And I did manage to throw in a few not entirely gratuitous references to the AUC Press and Hoopoe Fiction.

“The Value Add of Editorial” (left to right: Allison K. Williams, Nabiha Mheidly, Abdulwahab Alsayed Al-Rifaee, Neil Hewison)


A couple of hours later I was moderating a panel myself, on “The Value Add of Editorial”—a title perhaps in need of some value-added editing, though we plunged into the conversation regardless. My panelists were Kuwaiti novelist and publisher Abdulwahab Alsayed Al-Rifaee, Lebanese children’s writer and publisher Nabiha Mheidly, and American writer and self-proclaimed “unkind editor” Allison K. Williams (she’s not actually unkind to her authors, just lovingly honest). The nub of the discussion was the apparent absence of an editorial process in much of Arabic publishing, why that should be, and what a good editor can bring to the author, the publisher, and the reader. The consensus was that editing, whether kind or unkind, does indeed add value.

“Do You Speak My Language?” (left to right: Hend Saeed, HE Major General Mohammed Ahmed Al Marri, Roudha Al Marri, Neil Hewison)


On my last day at the Festival I found myself on a panel called “Do You Speak My Language?” I wasn’t quite certain what was expected of me, but the very kind moderator, Iraqi writer and translator Hend Saeed, was reassuring: all I had to do was say something about my experience of learning Arabic when I first arrived in Egypt forty years ago, and how that had informed my understanding of Egyptian culture. My fellow speakers were UAE minister of immigration HE Major General Mohammed Ahmed Al Marri, who spoke about the country’s spirit of tolerance, and its pride in the diversity of its population, representing two hundred different nationalities; and Emirati writer Roudha Al Marri (no relation), who described the impetus and thinking behind her book UAE 101: A Guidebook to the Emirati Culture. The minister and Roudha both spoke in Arabic, and the very large audience was almost entirely Emirati (men in white kanduras to the left of the aisle, women in black abayas to the right), but when my turn came I chose to answer Hend’s questions in English, explaining that I only spoke Egyptian Arabic and had difficulty following the Gulf dialect, hence my use of the simultaneous translation facility. All went well, and then it was Q&A time. After a couple of questions from the audience for His Excellency and Roudha, the minister said with a smile that he had a question himself, and this was for Mr. Neil: Can we hear you speak some Arabic? I thought it a perfectly fair request, so I made a few comments in Arabic, including a repeat of my apology for not understanding the Gulf variety. The audience up to that point had been attentive and serious; suddenly there were smiles and raised eyebrows of surprise and delight, and I was given a warm round of applause! I had become a hit, not only for speaking Arabic but for speaking Egyptian Arabic—from overheard comments afterwards I gathered that the people of the Gulf just love to hear the dialect of Egypt, and that my pronunciation of the word khaligi, with a ‘hard g,’ was ready proof of my Egyptian credentials.

On the flight back to Cairo I watched The Wife, in which—spoiler alert!—Glenn Close edits her husband’s poorly crafted early novels (and writes the later ones) so well that he wins the Nobel prize in literature. For the critics, Close’s “powerfully implosive performance doubles as an accumulation of details that define a marriage” (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone). For me, it was all about the Value Add of Editorial.


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