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Get shorty

A sly political gesture enlivens an awards ceremony dedicated to the celebration of English.

The anti-colonial struggle must be a bastard child. Not only is it terminally abandoned. You do not really mention it in respectable company. In fact it is an orphan, too: its father, nationalism, is long dead. Its mother, empire, has acquired new names and new ways to soil her reputation.

The above paragraph (exactly 50 words long) would have been an apt entry for the ESSC, or Extremely Short Story Competition. The 2008 round of the four-year-old contest took an unexpectedly political turn when the Emirati writer Mohammad al Murr, a guest of honour at the awards ceremony, made a subtle but striking commentary on the relationship between language and political power.

Supported by the British Council since the Zayed University professor Peter Hassall founded it in 2004, ESSC invites English students from across the Arabian Peninsula to try their hand at this insanely economical use of the language. This year secondary and university students from the GCC countries and Yemen were asked to write on the potentially platitudinous theme of Our Memories, Dreams and Futures. Out of 50 finalists selected from over 1,000 entries, the two “regional winners” to receive the gift of a creative writing course in the UK were announced on Thursday, together with seven “country winners” to be featured in an upcoming anthology along the lines of Emiratia: World English Voices of Emirati Women, and Pearls of Emirati Wisdom: World English Voices of the UAE.

The 50-word short story is a literary philosopher’s stone – a challenging form that could produce strong writing in any tongue. Yet the ESSC entry samples showcased on www.50words.org, much like the writing featured in the aforementioned two books, are clearly the work of language learners, struggling with English in such a ludicrously compact form. Celebrating their existence seemed hardly worth the journey to the Dubai-Al Ain Road from Abu Dhabi, which made the inevitable toing, froing and stopping to ask directions on the way particularly tiresome, with each detour longer than several of the stories put together.

On arrival, several security personnel in succession professed ignorance of the awards ceremony, too. Then, finally, with the press release fluttering before her face, a stern-looking woman in uniform made a phone call and said, “Go straight. After, go left”. Obeying hesitantly I eventually stumbled on a massive courtyard with a two shades of clear ceiling and a marble floor. As in a dream, I stepped in.

Flooded with daylight in the air conditioning were young palms, plaques of Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid and large, lustrous cylinders whose function still eludes me. All-white dinner tables fanned out of a refreshments buffet. Adjacent, an impromptu theatre had been set up with rows of velvet seats, a basic podium and excellent amplifiers. That theatre was flanked by displays like artists’ easels showing printouts of some of the winning entries with photos or art. Everything was incandescent.

Kay Hassall’s harp wafted through the shimmer – of all the possible instruments with which to celebrate Arabian writing, a harp? – shortly to alternate with the seraphic if equally desert-proof voice of Marlee Terry. Then a fluently confident Zayed University student in an abaya, Khulood al Atiyat, introduced, in turn: Murr, the vice president of the Dubai Culture and Art Authority (a sponsor of ESSC); Peter Sellers, the UAE British Council director; Hassall, the “originator and head teacher editor” of ESSC; and Anne Wiseman, the regional English manager for the British Council in the Middle East. During which time awards were handed out, self-congratulatory remarks made, jokes and anecdotes retold.

All of them, naturally enough, spoke in English. Except for the guest of honour: Murr began by explaining that he could have prepared an English speech but chose to speak in Arabic to make a point. Ironically, no kind of translation was provided. I seriously doubt that many of the English-speakers understood a word he said.

Murr expanded on the importance of Arabic to Arabians, conceding the need to learn different languages, of which, in the light of the growing international weight of China, he recommended Mandarin. As if to counter the assumption prevalent in the Gulf that Arabs have no culture, he offered a very abridged history of Arabic literature – a continuous tradition that has survived for at least two millennia now – stopping pointedly at the Thousand and One Nights to underline its principle setting, “the Arabs’ glorious capital, the city of Baghdad”.

Murr made it very clear that ESSC was not about writing but about learning a language, thanking the sponsors for their efforts in the latter department but strongly suggesting that there should be no confusion between TOEFL and the drive to express oneself and one’s culture. Why would an Arabic-speaking Emirati, or Saudi, or Qatari, choose to write in a language other than Arabic? he seemed to ask. Because perhaps a certain colonial residue requires it?

Well, in that case, Murr implied, saying not a word that could be taken against him, the bastard must rise from the ashes and make itself heard – in its mother tongue.

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