x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Create it forward

A journal project by students at Zayed University encourages people to commit their thoughts and ideas to paper - and pass them on.

From lovingly crafted watercolours and poetry to a homemade remedy for the flu, people from different backgrounds and nationalities have begun expressing themselves and connecting with each other in a new and unique way. In May, an all-female group of Dubai-based Zayed University students printed 1,000 red journals, each with 10 blank pages inside, and began distributing them to the public. Unleash - A Wandering Journal is their attempt at encouraging the people of the UAE to interact and be creative.

Each recipient is asked to fill in one page of the book with whatever they like. The contributor is then asked to pass the book to a friend, a colleague or even a stranger, who must continue the project. When the journal is full, the final contributor arranges to send it back to the organisers. Signatures are optional. So far, less than half of all the contributers have chosen to leave their names. If the experiment is a success, the pages of the books will become artefacts of great cultural value - 10,000 creations by the people of one of the most diverse countries in the world.

With the project now almost two months old, the students have become graduates and are beginning to see the fruits of their labour. So far, just over 400 journals have been distributed and about 40 have been sent back. Although the project is moving more slowly than some might have hoped, the organisers still plan to give out all 1,000 books and have begun receiving requests for journals from as far away as Ireland and the US. A number of foreign embassies in the UAE have also contacted the women about getting involved.

"People are writing and drawing many different things," says Salama Khansaheb, one of the creators of the project. "It's always a reflection of the person. We had someone documenting the experiences of a pregnant woman, while another person just drew their favourite cartoon character." The works are certainly diverse, including many different languages, inspirations and media. It is also clear that the project has reached different age groups.

"One person wrote a poem about their deceased father," says Khansaheb. "On the other hand, some [of the pages] are quite abstract, with random objects like phone cards stuck in." Khansaheb also believes that a number of contributors have been influencing each other without knowing - or even meeting. In an unexpected turn, the graduates are finding that the entries in some of the books have begun to resemble a written game of Chinese whispers, with different contributions using similar colour schemes, imagery or subject matter.

"The inspiration for one artist can depend on who the journal starts with," says Khansaheb, picking up one of the books and pointing to a page. "This one starts off with a flag of the UAE and a phrase by the late Sheikh Zayed on the first page." She turns the page. "Then the next is similar but with just the colours and not the flag. So is the next, and so on. Having each artist influencing the next is something we did not anticipate."

While discussing the outcome, one of the graduates suggests that it might have been wiser to ask each contributor to cover their work after completion. "It's not that big a problem," says Khulood al Atiyat, another of the women behind the project. "We just hope that people will be original and not copy other people's contributions. It's a shame if people are not thinking their own thoughts." But just as seeing previous contributions might lead to plagiarism, the organisers believe it could also inspire greater artistry.

"If someone started doing something very creative, then the next person would probably be inspired to raise the standard," says Khansaheb. One of the striking things about the Unleash experiment is its use of traditional methods of communication. In an age where everything from birthday parties to political rallies are planned on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, this project's organisers seem to have relished the opportunity to buck the trend.

The experiment relies on paper, pens, paint and glue. Once completed, the journals need to be sent back to the organisers, which incurs a cost. Some people are opting to drop off the completed books by car. The project would certainly be more environmentally friendly if carried out online, and perhaps faster as well. "It was our intention [to do something physical] for our project and to start something creative that would last for years. But we weren't really reacting against doing everything online," says Khansaheb.

Although the main part of the project is physical, Unleash does have a tutorial on YouTube, which gives instructions to contributors. There are also presences on Twitter and Facebook to keep people up to date on the project's progress. "The only popular trend that we were reacting against was being materialistic and overly concerned about which job or major would earn us the biggest salaries after graduating," says Khansaheb. "We wanted to do something totally new, fun and stir up the need to be creative and original in the UAE."

The women also agree that the journals hold a certain aesthetic appeal that online media lacks. "We loved the idea of being interactive with a book. That's why we decided it's better to do something on paper that people can pass on and share and be inspired by," says al Atiyat before picking up a book. "You can't stick in something online with glue. This one has a broken CD stuck in it, another uses string."

"This is so much more physical and raw and human," adds Khansaheb. Participants in the project have taken advantage of the scope for creativity that the physical format offers. One page contains a packet of paracetamol pills and the words: "Will there be a day when emotional pain will have tablets?" In fact, the number of contributors who have used the anonymous medium as a forum for frank and emotional disclosures is surprising. They range from memories of dead relatives to failed attempts at being cool in school.

"I basically made fun of my adolescence," says the 18-year-old Fatma Lootah, a friend of the organisers. "I was thinking about the different changes that people go through in their teenage years - groups of friend and trends. At one point I tried to be emo, then I tried to be punk. I also tried to write one of those really sad poems. "My contribution was intended to make fun of all that," she says.

Although the project has shown that there is no shortage of people keen to express themselves, it has also exposed an unavoidable truth - that some contributions are better than others. The organisers of Unleash have admitted that, on receiving a number of journals, their reaction was initially one of mild disappointment. "Some of the first contributions made us go: 'Oh, that's all we can get out of people?'" laughs Khansaheb.

However, as more journals began to arrive, their expectations for the project began to rise. "Now, my jaw is dropping," she says. "We've been amazed by the effort that some people are putting in. The best work is being scanned in and going on Facebook and other people have been looking at them and working harder on their own contributions." Although the graduates are increasingly impressed by what they are seeing, flaws in the wide-ranging project have begun to emerge. The fact that, so far, only a small number of books have been returned could lead some to ask whether the country really is brimming with artistic talent desperate for an outlet. However, it is more likely that the slow progress is a result of a somewhat incomplete strategy for returning journals.

The organisers say they are happy to pick up the finished books, but this still requires some effort for the final contributor. Even if they do not have to return the book to its source personally, they will have to call a number and arrange a location and pick-up time. This could threaten anonymity. "The main problem is that it's summer, a lot of people are in schools and universities and are away," says al Atiyat. "Once school starts again, things will speed up."

The project's organisers have discussed what return rate they would consider to be a success. The figure falls somewhere between 500 and 700 books. "If you asked me a few weeks ago, I might have said 700 would be a bit too ambitious," says al Atiyat. "But the number is growing based on the results we have had." More than anything else, however, it is the enthusiasm of the project's contributors that points towards the likelihood of success.

Although not one of Unleash's organisers, the 17-year-old student Lubna Saffarini admits that the project is becoming an obsession for her. After completing her contribution - an homage to Palestine, her homeland - she encouraged several of her family members to make entries. She then asked for more journals to give to other members of the community, including her father's work colleagues and an artist she met in a mall. She now plans to send a journal to her cousin in the US.

"I think this could become very international," says Saffarini. "My cousin lives in America and she saw my entries scanned on Facebook and asked me about them. She now wants to add one." "I think it's fascinating," she says. "I don't know why I have become so absorbed in it. At the beginning, I thought it might be another project that people just talk about, but doesn't work. But I was wrong. It's something big and unique."

To request a journal, visit www.unleashonline.com.