Sara Al Jarwan is the pen name of Emirati writer Hessa Al Kaabi, who was just 14 years old when she wrote her first novel, Shajan Bint Al Qadar Al Hazin (The Melancholy of the Daughter of a Sad Destiny), published in 1992. Today Al Jarwan is a full-time novelist based in Abu Dhabi and focuses all her attention on developing her intellectual prowess. She is also a regular invitee at cultural activities both in and outside the UAE. The novelist tells Weekend Review about the literary ladder of hope and honing she has steadily climbed.
You have said that your pen is able to bring out what others go through, that the word itself can build a world of love and mutual understanding if used wisely. But do you think you can convey the essence of your words to others?
I do. My writing was born of a sincere desire to bring about some kind of change and create a better tomorrow. I wanted to spread optimism and show a beautiful way of living through my writings.
As a young reader you were fascinated by the romantic fiction ‘The Thousand Nights and One Night'. Besides such classics, which other works do you like?
I was and still am in love with this style of writing and the narrative techniques of such works. The Iraqi poet Nazik Al Malaika and the Egyptian novelist and journalist Ehsan Abdul Qudoos have also had an impact on my character as a writer. I have read translations of Freud and Ernest Hemingway, as I believe that a writer should always be exposed to a variety of readings and different points of view. At present, however, I'm attracted to works on Sufism and asceticism.
Your novels are grounded in reality and you attempt to introduce both ancient and contemporary aspects of UAE society to readers. But this, such as your novel ‘Toroush Ela Mawlay Al Sultan' (Letters to My Lord the Sultan), has led to some kind of misunderstanding among readers and kicked up a storm of criticism. How do you deal with such things?
Well, it's an epic novel that throws light on a significant era in the history of the UAE; it describes details of the tribal life of the Emiratis and residents of the Gulf before the formation of the UAE. The novel shows how determined the people were to bring about change and how they cooperated with an outstanding leader who dreamt of prosperity.
In a nutshell, the novel mirrors the pride of the country's past and glorifies one of the most crucial stages in the development of the UAE. Aside from minor criticisms, the novel has actually received a lot of appreciation from the government and most people.
Your literary works have won a number of awards, including Best Emirati Writing for your 2003 short-story collection ‘Ayqounat Al Hilm' (The Dream's Icon). How do you feel about the success and the responsibility of such honours?
I'm proud of this work; I wrote it in the early 1990s and then decided to compile it in 2003. I feel every success carries with it a great deal of responsibility, and every time I hear an applause, I become even more determined to surprise my readers with something better. It's a mission in which there's no rest but it is enjoyable nonetheless.
You participated in the International Berlin Literature Festival. What was the experience like?
The festival gave me the opportunity to get to know an audience I was not familiar with but which showed a lot of interest in my writings. I realised that the audience was very informative, flexible and aware of what's going on in the world; but most importantly they were open to other cultures. The core concept of such international participation is to help social and cultural exchange, which builds a mutual understanding of the other.
You also participated in the Sharjah International Book Fair 2011 in November, of which you are a permanent member. How was the experience this time?
The Sharjah book fair is an essential part of my identity; I grew up with it, visiting it regularly with my father when I was a little girl. And I cannot forget the huge success that was awaiting my novel Toroush El Mawlay Al Sultan in 2008; the signature ceremony was held at the fair and a little later my novel was announced the most-sold novel among all the participating books at the fair. This year I had the honour of signing my recent novel, A Virgin, A Saint and A Magician, and enjoyed people's support.
What are your comments on the book fair overall?
I support the two suggestions that were made. First, that the writers would like to meet His Highness the Ruler of Sharjah Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, as his knowledge and wisdom would help us greatly. And second that there be an award for Emirati novels only, where the winning story will get translated into as many languages as possible, so it can reach a wide readership.
What are you writing at present?
I'm working on the second in the Toroush El Mawlay Al Sultan series; it will be named Burg'a, meaning "veil". I'm also writing a few things for TV and cinema.
Fatma Salem is an Emirati writer based in Dubai.