Winning a competition where the prize includes doing the washing up and braving a cold British winter might not seem like much of a reward for most people. But for budding Emirati novelist Hassan Yousif Mohammed, it was, in his own words, ‘better than expected’. ‘I enjoyed it, although I think I was the only person there who liked going outside,’ he laughs. ‘I enjoy cold weather.’
Lucky for 24-year-old Mohammed that he likes the air crisp, otherwise he might have tried to give the prize back. He is one of two winners of the Middle East’s first ‘Extremely Short Stories’ competition, organised by the British Council Middle East (BCME) and Zayed University, with the support of Dubai Culture and Arts Authority. The competition asked students to write stories that were exactly 50 words in length.
When Mohammed’s ‘Thoughts Of A Newspaper’ was picked as a winner, he found himself packed off to Shropshire, one of the UK’s most rural and sparsely populated counties, to take a creative writing course in a historic writing house. The former home of British playwright John Osborne, it accommodated Mohammed and nine other promising young authors from around the world, all of whom were expected to help with the kitchen chores as well as hone their literary skills.
That might sound more like a punishment, but it’s all part of the BCME’s efforts to inspire students from the GCC and Yemen to use the English language for creative purposes (the competition and the writing course, that is – not the washing up). Regional English manager for BCME Anne Wiseman says it is helping ‘the development
of real talent across the region’, which is an important goal.
Especially as encouraging more people in the Arab world to read and write is a big priority for the UAE right
now. Alongside the two major literary festivals – the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature and Dubai International Poetry Festival – that were recently hosted in Dubai, the Knowledge Without Borders initiative, which aims to provide every Emirati family with a library of books, continues to roll out its programme.
Mohammed is now working on his first novel which, like his short story, is written in English. ‘I tried to write in Arabic once, but it wasn’t as good,’ he explains. ‘I’m not sure why. Maybe I just like the English language.’ Plenty of Arab novelists have found worldwide success with works written in their native tongue – Egyptian scribe Khaled al Khamissi of Taxi fame is just one example. But surely it is positive that young writers are being given a choice, in that there are now opportunities to learn how to use English beyond purely functional means.
Although Mohammed studied Business Information Technology at Sharjah Men’s College, there was plenty of encouragement for him to write. ‘I’ve always been interested in writing, but I also had a teacher at the college who would tell me to participate in competitions and stuff,’ he tells Time Out. But, like any struggling artist, Mohammed is finding it difficult to compose his debut. ‘I can’t find time to work,’ he admits, adding that his progress is ‘not bad; it could go better’. The novel is a historical piece set in Persia; he’s three chapters in, but juggling writing with trying to find a job after graduating.
However, it’s good to find Mohammed hasn’t let the fact his short story was picked from more than 1,000 entries go to his head. Many bright young things get a whiff of success and the ego takes over. Mohammed says he didn’t expect ‘Thoughts Of A Newspaper’ to win. ‘I don’t know why it did. In the UK, one of the tutors said it was pretty original, so I guess that’s why they chose it.’ There’s an audible shrug over the telephone line. ‘Maybe I’m just lucky.’
Poems From The Desert
For the first time, the poetry of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, has been released in an English-language anthology. Poems From The Desert is a volume of selected verse from His Highness, who is a renowned poet. In the foreword by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, the writer of international best-seller The Alchemist, says: ‘HH Sheikh Mohammed reveals his passions but tempers them with justice and tolerance. His Highness’s poems help us to better understand the soul of a man and the heritage of a nation.’
Dhs75, available at all major bookstores and online at www.booksarabia.com