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From modest beginnings in the last decades of the 20th century, the literature and publishing scene in the United Arab Emirates has grown to host one of the busiest and most widely attended festival calendars in the world. Prominent events include the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, launched in 1981, the Sharjah International Book Fair, started in 1982, and the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, founded in 2009 by Isobel Abulhoul, the co-founder of local bookstore chain Magrudy’s. Additionally, the House of Wisdom, Sharjah’s public library designed by “starchitecture” firm Foster + Partners, boasts a selection of over 100,000 books and offers a rich calendar of programs and workshops for all ages. It was commissioned as part of Sharjah’s designation as UNESCO’s 2019 World Book Capital and opened in 2020. More specialized institutions like the Abu Dhabi Children’s Library, the region’s largest dedicated library for children, and the Al Safa Art & Design Library in Dubai have enriched the UAE’s literary ecosystem and enabled wider access to diverse literature.
The UAE government announced a 10-year plan in 2021 as a blueprint to increase investment in the Emirati cultural and creative sectors. Featuring 40 initiatives to boost and diversify talent, jobs, and business enterprises within the local cultural and creative industries, the 10-year National Strategy for the Cultural and Creative Industries aims to raise the two sectors’ contribution to gross domestic product to 5% in the next decade. The goal is to make the UAE an increasingly attractive hub for creative professionals from around the world in the fields of heritage, design, visual and performing arts, and literature. At the same time, this strategy seeks to create a more structured and robust environment for young artists, writers, designers, and entrepreneurs locally to pursue opportunities within the cultural and creative sectors.
AGSIW spoke to Shamma Al Bastaki, a young Emirati poet, writer, and artist, to learn more about her work across cultural spaces in the UAE. As a co-founder of a small publisher, Shamma spoke about the literary communities and spaces that have empowered her to pursue an experimental approach to writing and poetry within the broader cultural ecosystem of the UAE.
AGSIW: Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do.
Shamma: I’m from Dubai, but I grew up between Abu Dhabi and Dubai before attending New York University Abu Dhabi. At NYUAD, I majored in social research and public policy and literature and creative writing and also served as a co-curator and performer at NYUAD Arts Center’s Hekayah. I later worked as an education specialist for Qasr Al Hosn under the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism. I’m one of the founding members of Untitled Chapters, a literary group for women Emirati writers, with an active network of over 60 writers, founded in 2011, and an inaugural member of The Cultural Office Women’s Creative Network. In late 2020, I co-founded the experimental chapbook publisher JARA Collective, along with visual artist Sarah Almehairi and poet and artist Jill Magi. Currently, I am pursuing my MA in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard.
I had quite a wonderful childhood filled with arts, crafts, and music. My mom was very conscientious about taking me to art classes at the Cultural Foundation and buying me art supplies to do arts and crafts at home. My mom and dad would also always read me bedtime stories, so I think that my attention to lyricality and musicality began with these nursery rhymes and stories that they would tell me. Narrative and storytelling were kind of ingrained in me as a child and that stuck with me as I grew older. I started writing at about age 7, when I wrote my first poem for a school project. I fell in love with words from then on.
AGSIW: How did these experiences in your youth shape your academic and professional path?
Shamma: By nature, I’ve always been interested in a lot of different things: the social sciences, arts and literature, the environmental sciences, and anthropology. A lot of my interests were people focused. Still, to this day, curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s concept of relational aesthetics – or thinking about people and the whole of human relations during the art-making process – is central to my art practice and to who I am as a person.
At NYUAD, I joined the Social Research and Public Policy program, but I found myself taking so many classes in the literature program that I ended up declaring a second major in creative writing and literature during my junior year. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. For my capstone project, I merged my interests in literature and ethnography to write “House to House.”
AGSIW: How did you go about writing “House to House”?
Shamma: “House to House” is a three-volume collection of poems, in total about 144 pages of poetry. It was based on a year and a half of interviews with and research on various communities around the Dubai Creek. When conducting the interviews, I was not only collecting stories, but also collecting the sounds, whether it was the TV in the background, people whispering, or the sounds of plates and utensils clattering against each other. I also worked with my family’s photographic archives featuring pictures from the 1940s to the 1980s. I collected the photographs, analyzed them, and incorporated collages of these images as poetry.
To do this, I extracted material from those interviews, coded them, and cast them into what is called a Woodwardian mold, after American poet John Woodward’s structure of a five-by-five stanzaic structure, that I adapted to a four-by-four structure to create perfect little cubes. The idea was to force language to reside within this rigid structure so that, when you read it, the language is interrupted. I think about it as a syntactical fuzziness and tonal confusion that mimics the way we remember and the way societies collectively remember and misremember.
AGSIW: What themes did your collection of poems engage?
Shamma: A central question that was driving this project was, “How does memory and its fragmentation, reproduction, retelling, and untelling create its own kind of history?” I was looking at the relationship between memory and history and people and communities with the creative process – making, writing, and storytelling. All are central to the story of Dubai but also specific to the communities that I was looking at. I was also thinking about language as material, language as sound, language as a series of phonetics, and language that travels beyond narrative. The text is primarily in English, but it’s a multilingual work, so it does incorporate Arabic. Some of the writing is transliterated, some of it is translated. Most of these choices were based on impulse: what I felt based on sound and the auditory component, and what looked interesting transliterated on the page, which goes back to the idea of language as material.
AGSIW: “House to House” saw quite a bit of success! Tell us more about that.
Shamma: Well, I submitted about 20 pages of “House to House” to be considered for the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation Creativity Award in 2019, since the theme that year was literature, and I won the award. Historically, the award has rotated among film, visual work, and literature. Since my work was both literary and visual, it worked out well. It was nice to know that the kind of work that I was doing, which felt unconventional and experimental, was recognized at that level. My bigger hope is to contribute to the literary scene of the UAE and to help it flourish. To know that work like mine is interesting to the community and that it is something that people respond to definitely provided a boost of confidence.
Also, an excerpt from this collection was published in Asymptote, which is a journal of global contemporary literature. It was published in a multilingual feature alongside work from some of my literary heroes, like Douglas Kearney and other incredible poets. So, I was very fortunate to have my work in such great company. I found out a year later that this excerpt was being taught in a university in Japan and in Taiwan as well. Further, a syllabus was created for high school students in the United States around my poetry, which looked at it in relation to ethnographic poetry and taught students to write their own poems based on interviews and people as process. That was such a surreal moment.
AGSIW: When did you begin developing the idea for JARA Collective, and what did you aim to create?
Shamma: The initial seeds for JARA Collective were starting to grow after I graduated. That’s when Jill, Sarah, and I started having conversations about literature and accessibility. We became interested in the medium of a chapbook, which has such a rich history globally. A chapbook is a short, handmade book of around 40 pages or fewer that usually contains some form of literature and can make literature instant, easy, and accessible – not tied to the grandeur of publishing, the hierarchies that a lot of writers are subject to, or the barriers that the publishing industry can impose. So, we wanted something that could allow more experimental work to reach the public. It’s something that we felt was needed in the UAE.
JARA Collective is a press that aims to publish works biannually, though sometimes we publish fewer than two and sometimes more than two. It really depends since our work process is really fluid and dynamic, especially since we’re all based in different places between the U.S. and the UAE. We’re constantly trying to work through our translocational status. JARA Collective is also entirely self-funded – that’s pretty much the point of a chapbook, to have something independent that is not grand or exorbitant. Our chapbooks are based at the Jameel Arts Centre bookstore and Warehouse421, and each chapbook is one of its kind and handmade by the three of us.
AGSIW: What gap was JARA Collective hoping to fill?
Shamma: At its core, the project started because we wanted to collaborate – it sounds really cheesy, but it started from a place of love: love of literature. All three of us write poetry and are visual makers or artists. Also, all three of us like making books physically. Those were three dots that connected us, so we thought, “Why not come together to create work because we love doing these things together?” Jill advised both Sarah’s and my capstone at NYUAD, so that was another thread of connection.
So, it started as a labor of love, but we also felt like, at many literary events that we went to, especially in terms of publishing, we didn’t really see much work for the community and by the community. Since community is central to all of our practices, we wanted to create something that was very entrenched in a community-based process of finding, cultivating, and sharing literature. We also felt like we didn’t see much experimentation or work that stretches language to its limits – things that are super contemporary and don’t necessarily make it into mainstream publishing. We felt like we could do that on a small scale but also connect it to sister presses that we work with in Bangalore, Paris, and New York to exchange chapbooks so that work from the UAE can make it into chapbook scenes around the world. So, it’s also a way of making the voices that emerge in the UAE’s experimental literary spaces exist in other places. It’s about creating that space and access.
AGSIW: What was your involvement in Untitled Chapters?
Shamma: Untitled Chapters was my first venture into the literary world beyond my own little bubble at home. When I was about 14 or 15, I stumbled across Untitled Chapters on Twitter and saw that it was a hub for female Emirati writers, founded by Fatma Al Bannai. I reached out to them saying, “Hey, I’m a writer, I write poetry, and I would love to be part of this group,” even though I didn’t know anything about it back then. They invited me to their first meeting – it was me, Fatma, Afra Atiq (another prominent Emirati poet), Shahd Thani, and some others. We had regular meetings to discuss poetry readings that we wanted to start, books that we wanted to read together, and events that we wanted to create for the community. Now, more than 10 years later, we’ve held many workshops and readings and created a platform for our community of writers to share work on our website and Instagram. So that was my first literary community, and they definitely contributed a lot to my development as a writer.
AGSIW: Looking forward, how do you hope to tie your artistic and literary work into your ambition to create more grassroots spaces in the UAE?
Shamma: Right before coming to Harvard, I spent a year with the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy, where I completed a postgraduate diploma in UAE diplomacy and international relations. For my capstone project there, I wrote about museums as transnational actors in the global political arena and thinking about the function of museums as extending beyond their day-to-day functions. I looked specifically at how the UAE, as a case study, could pose a model for museums as agents in international cultural diplomacy.
Looking ahead, I’m always thinking about how I can operationalize the relationship among art making, research, and cultural policy for future generations of Arabs and Arab youth specifically in the UAE, where I feel like there’s so much potential. People are already doing incredible things, so I want to be part of the story that bridges those spaces and strengthens them. I’m also thinking about how to decenter dichotomous discourses and nuance and enrich ways to approach culture, cultural production, and cultural policy in relation to the story of the UAE and its wonderful successes so far. I definitely want to keep pursuing my practice as a writer and poet, and an artist as well, and keep expanding the horizon of expectations concerning my literary and creative output but also to be part of creating spaces to enable other writers and practitioners to do the same.
Follow Shamma on Twitter @shammakab.
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