The poet, painter and documentarian Nujoom Alghanem speaks about her education, her love for words and her filmmaking partnership with her husband.
The dream builder
Suggest to Nujoom Alghanem that she's something of a pioneer among Emirati women and there is likely to be an explosion of rich, incredulous laughter. The 47-year-old filmmaker and poet - one of the UAE's finest - doesn't see herself as a role model for anybody.
Yet she forged her path from an early age, always knowing that her raison d'être was writing poetry. Along the way, she graduated with distinction from an American and later an Australian university, became a prize-winning documentary filmmaker, a prominent member of the cultural community and the mother of three daughters. She was the only female poet at the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature in Dubai this year, reading several of her pieces to an entranced audience along with other poets from the Gulf. She has been invited to take part again next year.
"Poetry in the Arab world is something that is under our skin," she says. "It is something in every household and something that we are good at. When you begin to show your talent for words, you usually start with poetry. It's the first challenging form of writing." A studious child, Alghanem was encouraged by her teachers at school in Dubai, where she grew up. "I started with the classical form and my Arabic teachers recognised that I had potential and encouraged me when I was very young. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we became more open to other forms of writing and I listened to the debate going on about the various forms. Nowadays there are two styles that are very popular in the media: the nabati style written in the local dialect and the more formal taf'ilat style that keeps certain rhythms and forms.
"My style isn't either of these. I like to call it free poetry writing. Even when you write freely you should keep the poetic feel. I believe that poetry has to be really descriptive. Mine is rich in metaphors and imagery." Dr Omnia Amin, a professor at Zayed University in Dubai, has described Alghanem as "one of the strongest modern Emirati poets". In a review, she wrote: "Her language is such that it permeates the soul with a rich and flavoured life experience that goes beyond the five senses. Her ability to mix the spiritual and the physical, the real and the unreal, the mythical with the present, is what makes her poems resonate in the mind more than any other writer. Alghanem offers a spiritual and mystical surrounding without ascending or descending into deep and obscure regions of the psyche."
Much of Alghanem's work might be described to an English audience as blank verse. It undoubtedly loses something in the translation from Arabic, but you only have to listen to her read it in her own language (as she did at EAIFL and at the Dubai International Poetry Festival) to appreciate the rhythm and flow and the intensity of the words. Short poems such as Yesterday encapsulate her style: It was just yesterday when we met,
We inscribed our signatures On the long roads. It was just yesterday when we faked The first reason to be together, And we spent the first day adorning our tent. It was just yesterday, I swear it was just yesterday. Then, what are all those years That every time we counted another is added? The first of Alghanem's six poetry collections was published in 1989. Masaa Al-Janah (which means Evening of Heaven) was followed by Al-Jarair (The Consequences) in 1991, Rawahel (Journeyings) five years later, Manazel Al-Jilnaar (Homes of Pomegranate Blossoms) in 2000, La Wasf Lima Ana Feeh (No Describing What I Am In) in 2005 and Malaikat Al-Ashwaaq Al-Baeeda (Angels of Distant Longing) in 2008.
She's currently working on a new collection that she hopes will be ready for the next EAIFL. "The theme is the relationship between the outsider and the place that we live in. It's difficult to find the exact word in English. Eccentric implies strangeness and it's not exactly that. It's about the feeling of apartness inside you in relation to everyday life, the feeling that you are a stranger in your own world," she says.
Six anthologies in 20 years may not seem like a prolific output, but Alghanem is hard on herself with regard to her work, constantly refining and polishing. There are also the matters of earning a living and caring for her young family. Alghanem's background was modest. She describes her father as a government worker and her mother as a traditional Emirati woman who stayed at home and looked after her family. The young Alghanem had dreams of studying abroad, which appalled both parents.
"I wasn't able to do this while living in my father's house," she says. "Initially, I wanted to be an artist. I was hoping to go to London on a scholarship. "Later I thought about going to America to study and a friend helped me make the enquiries. I was accepted by Michigan University and my friend telephoned to tell me the good news but my father answered the phone. He was very angry and just said: 'No.' I was not permitted to go. I was very sad. He said if I wanted to study I could go to Al Ain University."
Her father did not, however, object to her working and after she met a senior journalist at Al Ittihad newspaper at a women's event, she began working as a columnist at the Abu Dhabi newspaper in 1982. "It was a bit strange for my father at first to have a working daughter but then he accepted it and was supportive. My mother wasn't happy about it at all. After I got married and she started seeing my name published and other people began to recognise me, she softened up. She also started to see other women with daughters going to work."
Anxious to broaden her mind as well as earn her own living, Alghanem enrolled at Al Ain University to study media but soon discovered that it was impossible to do in the restrictive attitude of early 1980s female academia in the UAE. "By this time I was 21 and already working. I even had a car but the administration of the university would not let me use it. Society wasn't developed in those days as it is now and it was very frustrating. You had to stay on campus and live in a dormitory. I stayed for one term and decided to quit."
She met her future husband, Khalid Albudoor, during her first year at work. Now an acclaimed poet, scriptwriter and filmmaker, Albudoor was also a journalist, contributing articles to one of the magazines in what was then called Emirates Media (now Abu Dhabi Media Company, the publishers of The National). Theirs was an instant meeting of minds. They formed a journalists' society and pursued their love of Arabic verse with regular poetry readings.
It was a love match that Alghanem's parents initially opposed on the grounds that Albudoor did not belong to their extended family circle, but they eventually gave their blessing. The pair were married three years later and their first daughter, Nahar, was born in 1988. She was followed by Fatima two years later. Their third daughter, Reem, is now 11. For Alghanem, marriage finally provided the opportunity to study. She applied and was accepted to a television production programme at Ohio University. She received a five-year scholarship from the UAE Ministry of Higher Education and the newspaper gave her study leave. The visual medium was, she felt, a natural progression and television production gradually gave way to filmmaking.
"Thanks to Khalid I was able to start achieving my academic dream," she says. "When you have had strict parents and you marry an understanding husband, that is a blessing." Although Alghanem felt capable of tackling a university degree as well as looking after her young daughters in a foreign country, Albudoor thought it might be too difficult for her, so applied successfully for a scholarship to do his master's degree at the same university.
"I don't think he liked the idea of being left at home to look after himself," she laughs. It was a brave decision for someone who did not speak English. Her first year was spent learning the language, but as soon as she was able, she plunged into her course with enthusiasm. "I was so hungry to study," she says. "I was able to study art and theatre. I was so scared and worked so hard that I finished my coursework well before the end of the four years. It was tough because I was a student and also a full-time mother." Sometimes she would have to gather up the girls and their toys and take them into the editing suite in order to finish her projects on time but in the end she graduated with high honours a year and a half early.
By this time, her daughters were rapidly acclimating to America, something that worried both parents. One incident in particular precipitated their decision to move to another country. "Our eldest daughter was beginning to show signs of being a bit too independent. She was just seven years old and one day I was talking to her about something and she just said: 'Look Mama, I can take care of myself.' My husband felt that we had to experience another place so we went to Australia to do my MA."
She gained her master's degree in cinema production from Griffith University School of Film before returning to the UAE. She became head of Al Ittihad's cultural department in 1991 and later worked as a television training co-ordinator. In May, 2000, she became the head of human resources, training and development and might have continued her career in management had the compulsion to write and make films not led to her decision to give up full-time work in 2006.
"It's a balancing act," she says. "You have your job and you have your dream. When you are a full-time employee you can't pursue your dream entirely." Alghanem has produced and directed four films, starting with two shorts called Ice Cream and The Park in 1997. Two years, later she and her husband produced a documentary sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage called Between Two Banks. It is based on the story of Khamees Marzouq, the last remaining rowing boatman on the Dubai Creek, and shows the challenges he faced to survive in an increasingly modern city. Scripted by Albudoor and directed by Alghanem, the film was shown at festivals all over the world including Japan, France, Tunisia, Brazil and the UAE.
Their most recent collaboration was the prize-winning Al Mureed, a documentary about the revered Emirati Sufi Sheikh Abdul Raheem Al Mureed, who died two years ago. It chronicles his life and his annual Mawlid Nights ceremonies, which celebrated the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. The documentary is a stunning piece of filmmaking that won the Appreciation Certificate at Dubai's Gulf Film Festival 2008 and Best Documentary in the Gulf from the Emirates Film Competition in Abu Dhabi. It also won Alghanem the Most Promising UAE Female Filmmaker Award from the fifth Dubai International Film Festival.
Working so closely together is not always easy for Alghanem and Albudoor. The pair often argue about the way a subject should be portrayed but there is a healthy respect for each other's abilities. They have separate studies in their Dubai home, which is full of books, video tapes, music and Alghanem's paintings. "There are times when you can't write and you can't make films, so I paint," she says.
Filmmaking is very much a labour of love at present. Although the documentaries the pair have made together have been met with high praise at film festivals, they have yet to be sold. "We are dependent on ourselves, so when we want to make a film we have to make some money first and hire a team," Alghanem says. "Filmmaking always needs good financing and I am not a marketing person; I am a director. You need to sell your project, whatever it is."
She is currently working on an idea for a film that tackles the subject of abandoned children, a sensitive topic hidebound by red tape. Alghanem is pragmatic about it. "There are certain national regulations that protect children and you have to be responsible. I will stop if it is going to be too difficult because you have to respect the place where you live. I feel that you have to show the faces of children; without them the film won't be as effective. I really want to be productive but if I have to run around working my way through procedures, these energies are going nowhere."
A board member of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage, she is an ardent promoter of poetry and language who frequently visits schools and colleges to encourage young people in their studies. She travels abroad to film festivals and is a strong supporter of events such as the poetry and literary festivals at home. "Poets don't have many festivals so when we all get together it's like breathing and feeling alive. I don't have illusions about myself. I believe there are many successful and talented women in this country and together we all form the future of the country. I am concerned about producing quality work, whether in film or in poetry. I have to challenge myself before finding someone else to challenge."