Aisha Sultan is a woman of many facets — journalist, writer, director of a publishing house and a human rights champion. Among her recent achievements was the launch of her latest book in Arabic, “Cities: Travelling & Leaving”, alongside four of her contemporaries at a special event at The Space, twofour54, during the Abu Dhabi Festival. The annual festival, which is organised by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (ADMAF), ran from March 3 to April 2 this year.
Sultan sat down with the Weekend Review to discuss the inspiration behind her writing, the importance of encouraging UAE nationals to find their voices — whether as authors or journalists — and the dynamics that go into balancing an immersive professional life and pursuing personal passions.
“I’m so pleased that ADMAF supported Emirati authors by co-publishing their works during this year’s event. It’s important and vital to have such strong support for both Emirati writers and publishers,” she said.
Sultan already has several titles under her belt, including “Alphabets” (2000), “Winter Tales” (2012) and “In Praise of Memory” (2014). As any author will tell you, no matter how many books they write, each comes with a new set of challenges. Aisha noted that “Cities” was no different.
“The most challenging part with this book was making sure it was completed on time, as ADMAF wanted to launch it on March 31. It was inspired by my passion for travelling and the various cities I visited. I wrote about my personal experience and my relationship with travel and how it developed over the years; it actually represents an important part of my memories and it has a special connection with me,” she said.
Sultan also noted that she was grateful for her supportive friends who wanted to see her travelling experiences and impressions compiled into a book, which they could then share with others.
“My friends were advising and encouraging me to write about my travels, so I decided to write this book. Parts of it appeared in previously published features but I revised the content and republished it in an enhanced version. Plus, I added a lot of new [material],” she said.
She reflected that though there is a growing interest in the works of Emirati writers, there is still much to be done, whether increasing awareness among budding authors or the local publishing industry as a whole.
“This area is growing ... we need more awareness efforts [whether] in the media, [through] education channels in addition to family support and encouragement. [But] there are several hurdles. The biggest challenge is the high cost of printing and the lack of a strong support for Emirati publishers along with the weak marketing and distribution process. This area needs assistance from the government as well as professional marketing and distribution companies,” Sultan said.
That reason, combined with a growing desire to realise her literary dreams, spurred Aisha into establishing her publishing house, Dar Waraq, in Dubai in 2013.
“I [founded] it after I left my job [and had] time to pursue it. I was fully dedicated to it and motivated with all my passion and enthusiasm. There weren’t any difficulties in the beginning, I had the full backing of my family and friends. I had a very successful start,” she said.
However, she acknowledged that as with any other organisation, experiencing challenges was inevitable.“After launching Dar Waraq, things were running smoothly for a while. Then I faced some challenges because I had to deal with different parties who have different views and attitudes. But I persevered and things are running much more smoothly nowadays.”
Nonetheless, the publishing house is thriving and is a continuous presence at various events, including the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and Sharjah International Book Fair.
“These events are great because they encourage Emirati writers and publishers through various initiatives. I’ve also found the National Library in Abu Dhabi to be a good advocate by making the works of Emirati authors available to the public,” Sultan said.
Still, she notes that as more UAE nationals are exploring their talents in the literary field, more programmes should be implemented, whether publicly or through private institutions.
“It is good but not enough so far. It needs to grow and talent needs to be further supported and fostered in a more professional manner. We need workshops and schools specialised in creative writing for the future at least,” she said.
Drawing on her extensive journalistic experience — at present as a regular columnist on the Arabic daily “Al Ittihad”, previously as a columnist for “Al Bayan” newspaper where she also headed the education and culture sections, and as the political programmes director of Dubai Media Incorporated — Sultan also noted that this encouragement could be applied for Emirati youth interested in joining the country’s growing media field.
“It’s important to nurture this interest. I think the best way to mould them into good journalists is by providing scientific training at local and international media organisations, and hiring them immediately so that they don’t lose their motive and enthusiasm for this profession,” she said.
“By building and promoting a more educated culture, raising awareness and highlighting facts to the public through well-defined and reliable media messages, [we can] alleviate fanaticism by providing a space for freedom of speech and opinion.”
Sultan firmly believes that writing in its various incarnations, from articles to books and everything in between, not only offers people the opportunity to learn about different topics, but also exposes them to different viewpoints, which helps foster dialogue.
“Writing plays a great role in any society. I feel lucky that I can see how my words affect my readers, who hopefully can tell how passionate I am about each topic I write on ... one of the most important challenges I faced was finding a balance between offering my opinion and the sensitivities of various parties who I criticised,” she said. “[However], we can overcome these challenges through strong self-confidence, a firm commitment to our role and the legality of what we do.”
This commitment to debating various points of view has led Sultan to participate in various discussions over the years, which allowed her to interact with both peers and other notable figures in different fields.
“I feel proud of all the activities and public events that I have been a part of, whether as an organiser, participant or both. These events are a vital part of my life and my experience in serving my community,” she said.
“These panels represent a public space that allows exchange of information and ideas to take place. This is important as it allows any society to develop in a healthy and enriching manner, while educating all community members.”
Sultan is also fiercely proud of two other accomplishments, co-founding the Emirates Human Rights Association in 2006 and the UAE Journalists Association in 2007. Since then, each organisation has grown from strength to strength, whether it is attracting new members or helping to raise awareness and offering support.
“Being a co-founder of these vital organisations is among the most important achievements in my life to date. I feel proud of their successes, as I think having such organisations is crucial for any society because they always manage to effect change for the better, which makes any country strong,” she said.
As a result of her tireless efforts, it may seem that Sultan has trouble finding some time to pursue her hobbies and passions. But she insists that she wouldn’t trade a single, hectic moment.
“We can’t always be balanced when it comes to work and personal life, especially when you choose a writing career and journalism and work in the field of book publishing. However, I keep trying to achieve this balance. I have many hobbies like reading, travelling and gardening,” she said.
Even as she plans new trips, thinks about new books to explore, or wonders what to grow next in her garden, Sultan revealed that she’s already busy thinking about future events and projects. “I’m working on a set of new books that I plan to publish soon, so they can be featured by Dar Waraq at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair.”
Nathalie Farah is a writer based in Abu Dhabi.