ABU DHABI // Maitha Omar got her big break in the world of books when she entered the wrong event.
"It was a competition for literary work written by adults for the age group 11 to 15, but we thought it was for young writers," said the 14-year-old from Sharjah.
Encouraged by her teachers and mother, who is an Arabic teacher, Maitha submitted seven short stories in 2009 on motherhood, heritage, friendship and other aspects of life. She wrote most of them during break time at school or when her teacher was late or absent.
"I like a noisy environment full of life," she said. "I can't write in quiet places."
The competition was one of many held each year by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development since it was established in 2006, replacing the Ministry of Information and Culture.
Maitha was upset when she heard she was disqualified from the competition, but then she received "the best news" from the ministry: their officials had liked her work so much they wanted to publish it as a book. "They told me that they want young voices like mine to be heard," she said. "They were very encouraging about my work and told me not to give up and to continue writing."
Maitha said she was "very shy" until her first book was published, but has since developed a sense of confidence. She is almost always working on her next project, writing parts down on scrap paper or even tissue if she happens to leave her notebook back home.
"I am completing my second book on revolutions, particularly the Egyptian one," she said. "I am struggling with the last chapter as I feel it is difficult to see the conclusion."
Her passion lies in metaphysics and the paranormal, with her other works focused on ordinary people with one "abnormal" attribute.
"One character is always based on me, and the other is the character I wish I could be," she said.
Encouraging young Emiratis such as Maitha is a focus of the youth ministry, which has a partial mandate to "engage" the young of the country.
"We want to be able to reach them and help them break that shy barrier within them, as well as any social barriers perceived by them," said Dr Habib al Attar, the director of culture and social activities.
Last year, the ministry published more than 70 books, 35 of them by young Emirati writers. They address a variety of subjects: one is a collection of fables, Lulu the Small Cat, another a more philosophical novel called The Destructive Love.
Published in Arabic originally, most of the works will be translated into English to reach a broader readership. "We are here to promote and encourage culture in all its forms," Dr al Attar said. "We are trying our best to mould a new generation of Emiratis that appreciate and want to participate in home-grown cultural and social activities."
The Arab region has the largest population of young people in the world. According to the latest statistics from the ministry, young people aged 14 to 25 represent 52.9 per cent of the UAE population.
An Emirati actor with more than 40 years' experience on the stage and TV, as well as a PhD in theatrical literature and art, Dr al Attar often gets hopeful young actors and filmmakers passing by his Muroor Road office for advice. "We do what we can to help the young, or anyone who comes to us with a good idea or project," he said. The ministry works closely with other governmental institutions and schools, with the latest workshops and competitions regularly announced on its website at www.mcycd.ae.
As well as cultural centres run in every emirate, the ministry sends out a monthly "cultural caravan" to more remote towns and villages throughout the UAE.
"We don't just publish written work," said Bilal al Budoor, the assistant undersecretary of cultural and arts affairs at the ministry. "We work closely with the community and focus on developing all different aspects of culture and identity."
The ministry also offers pamphlets on subjects from volunteering to etiquette, and runs workshops teaching specialised skills such as archiving, as well as training in Emirati music and folklore.
"We want to have Emiratis trained in every aspect of culture and social affairs," Mr al Budoor said.
One of the challenges, he said, was engaging "privileged" youths.
"It is actually harder to get someone who has been given everything and who is used to things coming to him or her to come here and get involved. We try to cultivate a sense of purpose by trying to gauge what could be of interest to them, and get them involved."