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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Literaturhaus at Nadi marks a Dubai salon revival

A new series of literary events in Al Quoz is creating a fresh intellectual space

Afra Atiq performers her poetry at last Saturday's Literaturhaus at Nadi event in Dubai. Courtesy Alserkal Avenue
Afra Atiq performers her poetry at last Saturday's Literaturhaus at Nadi event in Dubai. Courtesy Alserkal Avenue

Afra Atiq’s love poem is not about a man – it is about food. It begins with laughter from the audience, seated casually on the floor of a bright, open room at Nadi Al Quoz in Dubai, until she hits the line: “I want to cover all the mirrors in the house because I can’t stand looking at myself in them”. Then, there is silence.

Atiq’s poems about bullying, naysayers and an uneasy relationship with the dinner plate kicked off the first session of the Literaturhaus at Nadi, a Dubai incarnation of the literary salon once prominent in Europe and the Middle East.

The summer series by ­Alserkal Avenue brings together authors, musicians, poets, critics, curators, translators and publishers to present readings and performances as a starting point for discussion. The weekly talks run every Saturday at 4pm until September 30 at Nadi Al Quoz.

In an age of social polarisation, when public debate is usually relegated to the digital, the literary salon has made a popular revival in Dubai. Even in the stasis of a Dubai July, about 100 people turned out to the first talk last Saturday.

“I felt like the entire event was a conversation, which I like,” says Atiq, an Emirati spoken-­word artist who is studying for a doctorate at UAE University. “For this literary salon, you want pieces that are going to bring out discussion and spark ideas and themes that are kind of universal. I would like to see people really putting themselves out there.”

For the salon’s curator, Monika Krauss, it was important to have a rolling programme rather than a one-off event to create an intellectual space.

“It’s really a home in addition to an artistic community and that really does make a difference,” says Krauss, the former general manager of Kitab, the joint venture between Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and Frankfurt Book Fair. “They need each other. Writers need artists and vice versa. Every book is a piece of art in itself and I think it’s very important to have this healthy mixture of mingling.”

Literaturhaus casts itself as a reinvention of the 19th-­century salon, where a host opens their home to artists, aristocrats, philosophers and playwrights. The European salon, associated with the French Enlightenment, dates from at least the 16th century. Salons were normally hosted by accomplished women, from Madame de Rambouillet, who ran the salon at Hôtel de Rambouillet in Paris in the 17th century, to Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, who hosted a salon in their Paris home in the 1920s, attended by the likes of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald.

Yet the literary salon's origins are often credited to Sukayna bint Al Husayn, a great-granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed who hosted a gathering of music, literary criticism and poetry during the Umayyad Dynasty in the eighth century.

Salons returned to ­popularity in the Middle East in the late 19th century, playing a pivotal role in the cultural renaissance of the Nadha. Women in Cairo, Beirut and Damascus who could not participate in the public sphere sidestepped gender restrictions by bringing men and public debate into their private homes, and steered the politics of their day to questions of equality, justice and social reform.

Krauss says Literaturhaus is “not about politics, at all”. Instead, it may flip the original ethos: many talks will bring the intimate into the public.

This Saturday’s reading and performance is by Fadi Zaghmout and Hani Yakan about Zaghmout’s book The Bride of Amman. A bestseller, it explores taboos in Jordan’s capital through the eyes of female characters such as Salma, an anonymous blogger considered a spinster at the age of 30 and condemned by her grandmother as “unplucked fruit left to rot”. The following Saturday (July 15), Hussain Ali Lootah presents his semi-autobiographical novel on polygamy, Between Two Wives.

“What I really did not look into [was] putting a red line about the topic into the programme, because I think it’s important to show the diversity of what the UAE has to offer,” Krauss says. “It’s not about politics, at all; it’s just about the diversity of the authors that are in the country and the topics that are close to the hearts of the authors at the moment.”

Dubai has long been a safe place for local, regional and global exchange. For many residents and migrants who call the emirate home, it is difficult or impossible to return to the country their parents knew or where they grew up. When discussing the personal, the political is always present. Literaturhaus builds on the foundation of Dubai groups such as The Poeticians (started by Palestinian writer and filmmaker Hind Shoufani), the Dubai Literary Salon and poetry and open-mic collective Punch.

“Essentially poetry readings are literary salons,” Atiq says.

Literaturhaus is distinct in gathering people from across the arts, and runs alongside a series of exhibitions and workshops. In the grand tradition of the salon, its relaxed atmosphere encourages up-and-coming writers to meet prominent authors.

Atiq believes this is evident from their programming. “I don’t have anything published, so for a venue like Alserkal Avenue to do something like Literaturhaus and to approach a poet who doesn’t have a book out, it says something about their commitment to the artist community," she says.

Literaturhaus is held at Nadi every Saturday from 4pm, and also midweek on September 13 and 28 at 6pm and 7pm. Events are free, but registration is required. Email rsvp@­alserkalavenue.ae for bookings

Notable salonnières of the Middle East through history

Al Khasan (Okaz, Saudi Arabia)

Tamadir bint Amr Al Harith, known simply as Al Khasan, was a poet from Najd famed for elegies, earning great renown for the eulogy of her brothers Mu’awiyah and Sakhr, both killed in tribal wars. Although not a salonnière, this prestigious 7th century poet fostered a culture of literary criticism and could be found standing in the souq of Okaz and reciting her poetry, publicly pronouncing her views and inviting others to join in the debate on scholarship. She later converted to Islam.

 

Maryana Marrash (Aleppo)

A poet and writer, Marrash helped revive the tradition of the salon and was an active part of the Nadha movement, or Arab Renaissance. Born to an established family in Aleppo in Ottoman Syria in 1848, Marrash was educated at missionary schools in Aleppo and Beirut at a time when many women did not receive an education. After touring Europe, she began to host salons where writers played chess and cards, competed in the art of poetry, and discussed literature and politics. An accomplished singer and canon player, music and dancing were a part of these evenings.

 

Princess Nazil Fadil (Cairo)

Princess Nazil Fadil gathered religious, literary and political elite together at her Cairo palace, although she stopped short of inviting women. The princess, a niece of Khedive Ismail, believed that Egypt’s situation could only be solved through education and she donated her own property to help fund the first modern Egyptian University in Cairo.

 

Mayy Ziyadah (Cairo)

Ziyadah was the first to entertain both men and women at her Cairo salon, founded in 1913. The writer, poet, public speaker and critic, her writing explored language, religious identity, language, nationalism and hierarchy. Born in Nazareth, Palestine, to a Lebanese father and Palestinian mother, her salon was open to different social classes and earned comparisons with souq of where Al Khansa herself once recited.