The changing Arab world needs a modern literature that reflects its concerns and angst.
Read an Arabic book on World Book Day, March 3
The joy of travel is in the revelation of the subtle differences and cultural significances among populations. At least this has been my reflection, sitting in taxis barely able to pass through the ancient streets of Cairo or Damascus or in the back of London's iconic black cabs.
London's cabbies are known for having an opinion on everything from politics to parenting to pets, and for combining this with an unparallelled skill for complaining about everything. But I find the taxi drivers in the older Arabic cities the most pleasurable - for they combine a sense of history, literature and poetry that can turn a frustrating journey into a memorable stanza.
With such individuals displaying a natural flair for and knowledge of literature and poetry, why is it that the Arab world is seen as having meagre levels of reading, authorship and translation? Arabic history is replete with examples of glorious literature from pre-Islamic poetry to the Quran, from Mutanabbi to the tales of Kalila and Dimna and so on. But this appears to be diminishing among younger Arabs.
This leads to two problems. The first is the loss of appreciation of the canon of Arabic literature. When I worked in Bahrain, I met young locals who could not understand the classic Arabic of the Quran and instead had to read an English translation.
The second issue is the viability of the shared linguistic connections across the Arab world. Will Arabic literature and the Arab love for literature be able to continue their shared, glorious past? No one wants to return to the archaic Arabic of old, but how should linguistic variations be dealt with in modern standard Arabic, where communities show richness and variety in their grammar and vocabulary?
There are some promising signs. In the next few weeks, the UAE will host a book fair and literature festival that are growing in world recognition. First is the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature, from March 8, which has rapidly made a place for itself on the international literary calendar. Shortly after, beginning on March 15, is the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, a trade fair that attracts a wide audience from around the world.
Later in the year, Sharjah hosts the 30th anniversary of its own book fair; the festivals in Beirut and Cairo are two other occasions that celebrate Arab writing.
What is exciting about these book fairs, compared with those held in cities such as London and Frankfurt, is that they appeal directly to the public. Thousands of local people stream through their doors and use them to stock up on books that otherwise would not be available in local stores.
Are these purchases being read at home? Will these vast fairs inspire young people to become writers That English is so dominant at these festivals should actually encourage the Arabic literary community: this part of the world is thirsty for literature, and the opportunity for Arabic writing and books is ripe for the picking.
With a growing youth population and increasing unemployment rates, and constantly changing political, economic and religious climates in the region, the Arab world really does need modern literature that reflects its concerns. It needs writers who can produce this text in a language that reaches across geographic territories. But such writers need readers to reach out and touch.
March 3 is World Book Day, a good opportunity to get children into the habit of reading. The UAE's literary festivals are another opportunity that both readers and writers should not miss.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk