x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 February 2018

Qatari programme engages thousands with the written word

Writer's workshops, book signings and book clubs, in English and Arabic, are reaching out to readers of every age.

A literary outreach project in Doha aims to give voice to the hopes and fears of a generation. Ryan Carter / The National
A literary outreach project in Doha aims to give voice to the hopes and fears of a generation. Ryan Carter / The National

It began with two simple yet potentially controversial invitations. The first, to women, was to "Write about your life in Qatar from a woman's perspective"; the second, extended to include men, was to "Write about how Qatar is changing". It led to an extraordinary testament of youth - the previously unheard voice of the "hinge generation", poised uneasily with one foot on either side of the widening gulf between the past and the future.

"We just gave people the prompt and let them respond to it," says Dr Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, an Indian-born American who studied literature at the University of Florida and moved to Doha in 2005 as the assistant dean of student affairs at Georgetown University.

In 2008, during a consultancy with Qatar University and with the aid of a grant from the US Embassy, she launched Qatar Narratives, a six-week programme of writing workshops for women, and found she had located a previously untapped vein.

It was the start of an outreach project that has gone on to touch thousands.

Rajakumar has recently moved on to concentrate on her own writing after three years as director of reading and writing development at Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP), the joint venture between the foundation and the London publishing house.

Outreach has been a key part of BQFP's brief from the outset, and she leaves behind a thriving programme of writing workshops, book signings and book clubs, in English and Arabic, that over the past three years has engaged thousands of adults and children with the written word. For World Book Day alone, thousands of books were given away across 25 schools.

"The core mission, to promote a love of books to both readers and writers, is unique to BQFP and very well received because there isn't anyone else actually doing this," she says.

What surprised her most about the writing projects, she says, was the extent to which "people were willing, even in a small community, to put their names next to their pieces, as this was in doubt at the beginning" - and the alacrity with which "an impromptu community of writers sprang up, and met every month in salons - it was expats, Qataris, men and women".

The writing and reading groups "have been one of the few places where expats and nationals have been able to interact in meaningful ways. I'm honoured to have created and developed the Mixed Book Club ... for both types of members, this was the first time they met people outside their community and spoke about deep topics."

One of the key achievements of the project, she believes, is that it has "shown people within the community that it's OK to have an opinion, because often in the Middle East it's uncomfortable to go out in public and say something. I think it is very complicated; some of it has to do with censorship and repercussions; a lot of it is modesty and [fear of] not reflecting well on your family."

Qatar Narratives evolved into a book of the same name, published in 2008 and featuring the writing of 25 women - half of them Qatari, the rest residents from countries including India, Pakistan, the US and the UK.

It was, says Rajakumar, a natural progression, made possible by the BQFP venture.

"There is so little written about the Gulf and the Middle East, and the things that are written are usually written by expats - even if they are Arabs they are usually living in London or Paris," says Rajakumar.

"There is so much happening in this country right now and it is happening so fast nobody really has a chance to think about it, and so I thought a book would be a good idea - to take a snapshot of a moment in time, and from the personal view."

It was followed by Then and Now, which included writing by men, and in 2010 both books were distilled into Qatari Voices, a collection of essays by 21 young Qatari men and women.

"What you have on the page is people wrestling with tradition and modernity. They live in a traditional society and they have to adhere to certain social norms, and yet they are modern citizens. So whether it's their abaya, or arranged marriages, that's what they are talking about."

More recently, Qatari Voices has been made available on Amazon's UK Kindle store as an e-book, which means this unique insight into contemporary Arabian cultural concerns now has a wider platform.

The collection not only gives voice to the hopes and fears of the upcoming generation, but also shines a light on the experiences of their parents and grandparents. The result is a moving insight into tribal culture and a fascinating examination of the Gulf-wide tensions between the call of the future and a wistful longing for a recent yet rapidly fading past.

In Marriage in Qatar, for example, Mohammed M Al Khater, a graduate who studied law in the UK, tackles the sensitive topic of arranged marriage.

"The new generation," he writes, "is enlightened and has seen more; it expects more. Is it such a stretch to expect marriage to be, at the very least, with someone you know well enough to be able to decide whether that person is compatible with you on a mental, spiritual and emotional level?"

Mohammed acknowledges that his essay "may seem overly critical, but I hope it's clear that I am only critical because I care about my country; I care about improving it even further and making it as great as I know it could be".

Others look to the lessons the past still has to offer. "Despite everything we have these days, due to developments in so many fields, we are still missing something - something I consider more important than most of what we have today," writes Shaikha Yacoub al Kuwari, a major in computer engineering at Qatar University, in the essay Simple life, simple pleasures.

"It is simplicity we are missing, simplicity in everything, which was the real glory our grandparents lived with."

Rajakumar believes that for Qatar the development of reading and writing is no less a vital component of its drive to create a knowledge economy than the hosting in Doha's Education City of outposts of six US universities and those of HEC Paris and University College London: "You can't have a thriving knowledge economy if you don't have people interested in the written word."

Yet the aim of the reading and writing development programme is not literacy, she says, "because everyone is literate, everyone can read. We are talking more about a love of literature. People read for professional, academic, or religious purposes, but it is very rare that you see people reading for pleasure."

There has, she says, been "a disconnect, I think, between people and books" in the Arabic world - a disconnect that, in a sense, is itself a disavowal of the history of the region. After all, writing first emerged in Mesopotamia - modern-day Iraq and parts of Turkey, Iran and Syria - 5,000 years ago, initially as a simple pictogram system that evolved into cuneiform script, while the greatest library in the ancient world was founded at Alexandria, Egypt, in about 3,000BC.

And, says Rajakumar, at the heart of the most important book to Muslims everywhere is the exhortation to read. During the first revelation of the Quran, recorded in sura 96, the angel told Mohammed: "Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One who taught by the pen." Part of the problem, she believes, is "the complexity of formal Arabic, the fact that people don't speak the way that they write. Quranic Arabic is very valued but that means that when it comes to writing people are very hesitant. They have been educated in English, so if they have any kind of Arabic functionality it's in the spoken, not the written, and the difference between those is so big that it's hard."

Distribution is also a big issue; the lack of bookshops in the Arab world owes something to censorship, she believes, compounded by the tradition of oral storytelling. "It is a very complicated issue. Let's just say that in modern times people can't get access to books in Arabic or English. I think this is why book fairs are so popular in the Middle East."

Ironically, for now the e-book version of Qatari Voices remains inaccessible to online buyers in the Middle East. There is, she believes, a real hunger in the Gulf for culturally relevant material. "Look at the case of Qatar; Qataris are fiercely nationalistic, but the amount of information written about Qatar is very little, so if you have something written about Qatar by Qataris, you've basically got a captive audience."

As she leaves after six years in Doha, Rajakumar will be taking something of Qatar with her. She is working on a novel, set partly in London and partly in Doha, whose main protagonist is Abdullah, a young Qatari. It is, she says, essentially "a love story; I started with the question of how anyone in this Qatari generation finds love". As such, it is an embodiment of the work she has been doing for the past three years: a universal theme, with a local focus.

Jonathan Gornall is a senior features writer at The National.