KITABuDhabi is a community reading forum that continues the “Abu Dhabi Reads” program that Electra Street first sponsored at NYUAD in 2012. Based on the popular “One Book” programs that are sponsored by libraries across the United States, KITABuDhabi is designed to bring people together around a shared reading experience for no other than reason to promote discussion and to exchange ideas. KITABuDhabi is for everyone—not only NYUAD faculty, staff, and students, but also the larger Abu Dhabi community.
Our book for the fall is Octavia Butler’s novel, The Parable of the Sower, a dystopian novel about a near-future in the United States that looks very much like the world of today in many parts of the globe.
Co-sponsored by the NYUAD Institute and the Program in Literature and Creative Writing at NYUAD, KITABuDhabi will take place on Wednesday, October 28 at the NYU Abu Dhabi Saadiyat Campus. The time and precise location will be announced here soon.
We hope that you’ll be able to join us in person or virtually. In the meantime, the book is readily available in bookstores and on Kindle.
BY CYRUS R. K. PATELL
While I was growing up in New York, I was asked by my teachers to read George Orwell’s famous satiric novel Animal Farm three different times: once in sixth grade, once in tenth, and once in eleventh.The novel, we’d been told, was allegorical, and we read it each time as an allegory for something different.
Strictly speaking, the first time around we read it not as an allegory, but rather as a kind of fairy tale, a story about animals that could speak and the conflicts that arose among them. In fact, Orwell’s original title was Animal Farm: A Fairy Story. The subtitle was dropped when the novel was published in the US in 1946 and omitted from subsequent editions and translations.
In tenth grade, we read the book in conjunction with a course on modern European history, as an allegory of mid-twentieth-century fascism. Orwell had written the novel between November 1943 and February 1944, when Great Britain and the Soviet Union were World War II allies, a political situation that Orwell abhorred, given his active opposition to Stalinism. We also watched the 1954 film adaptation of the novel, a cartoon that takes some liberties with the plot to make it a little less downbeat.
The third time we read the novel to understand the principles of allegory — how it could work simultaneously on several levels — and we paid attention to the way in which the allegory worked not just as a view of twentieth-century European history, but also as an account of human nature.
More recently, I’ve been thinking about how the novel works as a piece of speculative fiction (a genre that might include science fiction, dystopian novels, and even thought experiments from political theory). Animal Farm enables us to think in a way that we normally wouldn’t and to contemplate a reality that is both like and unlike our own. Is it possible, I wonder, that speculative fiction, conceived in this way, might actually be the model for all literature? Doesn’t all “literature” — or, perhaps, all “great literature” — ask us to participate in what amounts to a thought experiment, entering into a reality that is simultaneously similar to and different from the one that we experience in our own heads?
Orwell’s novel has become a canonical text of twentieth-century Western literature. It was, for example, included in the final volume of the Great Books of the Western World series from Encyclopedia Britannica and the University of Chicago, and it ranks at #31 the Modern Library List of Best 20th-Century Novels.
Electra Street and the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute invite you to read and discuss the novel with us on Thursday, April 10 at 6:30 in the garden of NYUAD’s Downtown Campus. [Click here to RSVP] We have a few copies of a bilingual English-Arabic edition of the novel (pictured above), which we will be giving away to some lucky attendees. Copies of the novel are readily available at amazon.com (in both paper and Kindle editions), Magrudy’s in Abu Dhabi, and online at Project Gutenberg Australia.
Please join us for what promises to be a thought-provoking discussion of a classic of world literature.
Electra Street is sponsoring a third “Abu Dhabi Reads” community program in conjunction with the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute. We’ll be reading The American Granddaughter (Al-Hafeeda al-Amreekiya), the second novel by Iraqi journalist and author Inaam Kachachi. Our discussion will take place in the garden of NYUAD’s Downtown Campus from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, November 14. The formal discussion will last just over an hour, with time for informal discussion over refreshments afterward.
The American Granddaughter dramatizes the pain of transnationalism in times of war. In the aftermath of the second U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Sadaam Hussein, Zeina Behnam returns to Iraq, fifteen years after fleeing to the U.S. with her family. Working as an interpreter for the U.S. army, she finds herself torn between allegiance to her adopted country and loyalty to the country of her birth. Zeina’s cultural background is further complicated by the fact that she is linked to two of Iraq’s minority groups, the Chaldean Christians on her father’s side and the Kurds on her mothers. Her devoutly religious and fervently nationalistic maternal grandmother, Rahma, seeks to re-educate her American Granddaughter in the ways of Iraq, but things really become complicated when Zeina falls in love with one of her “milk-brothers,” who also happens to be a member of the ultra-conservative Mahdi Army.
“If sorrow were a man I would not kill him. I would pray for his long life,” Zeina tells us on the novel’s opening page. “For it has honed me and smoothed over the edges of my reckless nature.” Zeina is an engaging narrator, who loves to make up titles for imaginary movies about episodes from her life, but the novel also includes chapters told from the third-person perspectives of several of its other characters. Careening between vivid scenes of “present” action in Baghdad ca. 2003 and memories of the past, The American Granddaughter vividly captures the disorientation and havoc wrought by war.
Written in Arabic and translated into English by Nariman Youssef, the novel was nominated for the Arabic Booker Prize. The English version is available in Kindle format from amazon.com, and copies of the English-language hardcover are available at the Magrudy’s branch on the NYU campus.For the first time at an “Abu Dhabi Reads” event, we will be offering simultaneous translation into Arabic.
If you think you might attend, please RSVP at the NYUAD Institute’s website so that we know how many refreshments to order.
We look forward to seeing you at “Abu Dhabi Reads” for an evening of lively conversation.
Electra Street is sponsoring a second “Abu Dhabi Reads” program in conjunction with the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute. We’ll be reading Across the Empty Quarter, an abridged version of Arabian Sands, Wilfred Thesiger’s classic account of his travels in the Empty Quarter in the middle of the twentieth century. Our discussion will take place in the Garden of NYUAD’s Downtown Campus starting at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 11. The formal discussion will last just over an hour, with time for informal discussion over refreshments afterward.
Thesiger was born in Addis Ababa in 1910 and educated at Eton and Oxford. He joined the Sudan Political Service in 1935 and later served in Abyssinia, Syria and with the SAS in the Western Desert during the Second World War. In Arabian Sands, Thesiger describes his early experiences in the Sudan and Ethiopia, but the bulk of the book concerns his two crossings of the Arabian Peninsula’s “Empty Quarter” — the longest continuous sand desert in the world — between 1946 and 1948. The 250,000 square miles of desert that he traversed and re-traversed are now part of modern-day Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Yemen. Along the way, he took the marvelous black-and-white photographs for which he is equally remembered. You can see them on the website of the Pitt Rivers Museum, which houses his archive.
Here’s how Thesiger begins his account:
I first realized the hold the desert had upon me when travelling in the Hajaz mountains in the summer of 1946. A few months earlier I had been down on the edge of the Empty Quarter. For a while I lived with the Bedu a hard and merciless life, during which I was always hungry and usually thirsty. My companions had been accustomed to this life since birth, but I had been racked by the weariness of long marches through wind-whipped dunes, or across plains where monotony was emphasized by the mirages shimmering through the heat. There was always the fear of raiding parties to keep us alert and tense, even when we were dazed by lack of sleep. Always our rifles were in our hands and our eyes searching the horizon.
Thesiger documents a way of life that existed in the desert for hundreds of years, coming to an end only recently with the discovery of oil in Arabia. Across the Empty Quarter presents the chapters devoted to the two crossings. Those who have the complete Penguin edition of Arabian Sands (available on Kindle) or the editions published in the UAE by Motivate Publishing — either Arabian Sands or the lavishly illustrated Crossing the Sands — and want to read more might take a look at the following chapters: “Secret Preparations at Salala” and “The Approach to the Empty Quarter,” which are rich with ethnographic detail, and “The Trucial Coast,” which describes the month that Thesiger spent in the in Abu Dhabi and then in Al Ain with Sheikh Zayed. (The Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain now houses a permanent exhibition devoted to Thesiger.) The two prefaces to the Penguin edition shed interesting light on what motivated Thesiger to live among the Bedu and record his disappointment at the almost complete disappearance of their traditional way of life.
It goes without saying that reading Arabian Sands in its entirety is highly recommended; Across the Empty Quarter contains Chapters 7, 8, and 11, as well as an excerpt from the preface of the longer volume.
Our discussion on April 11 will be accompanied by a slideshow featuring Thesiger’s photos. If you think you might attend, please RSVP at the NYUAD Institute’s website so that we know how many refreshments to order.
We look forward to seeing you at Abu Dhabi Reads for an evening of lively conversation.
BY LAUREN HORST
“I have a story that will make you believe in God,” an elderly man promises to the fictional narrator of Yann Martel’s fantasy adventure novel Life of Pi.
So begins the story of Pi, who survives being stranded on a lifeboat for 227 days with a Bengal tiger as his only companion. This passage also began “Abu Dhabi Reads,” the inaugural communal reading event sponsored by Electra Street.
On November 1, the NYU Abu Dhabi campus transformed for the evening into a reader’s paradise as more than seventy members of the Abu Dhabi community congregated to discuss Martel’s Life of Pi.
It was a beautiful night under the soft haze of the campus lights and the setting sun, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The five people chosen to start the conversation – of whom I was one – read passages from the novel that they had found particularly provocative, and then posed questions for the rest of the group about everything from whether religion is a cage and whether the story really makes us believe in God, to the importance of re-reading a text and the meaning of the novel’s surprisingly complex ending.
With these initial comments to mull over, the next hour and a half belonged to the audience, who shared their own thoughts and responded to others’ observations on the novel. Looking out at the audience that night, many of whom were holding copies of Life of Pi in their hands, I felt closer to my fellow bookworms in Abu Dhabi than I ever had before. It was as if we were all afloat on the lifeboat of the novel, sharing our experiences as we rowed to shore.
I am what you could call a veteran of community book reads. The California town where I grew up hosted a similar event every year, and every year I would diligently read the book. Annotated book in hand, I and others like me would flock to the local town hall to discuss and dissect together. If anything, those discussions taught me that reading is much more than a private experience between the reader and the book. Reading can in fact be equally rewarding and stimulating when it is shared and discussed among people – part of the power behind “one book, one community” initiatives like “Abu Dhabi Reads”. (You can read more about community book projects at the United States’ Library of Congress page here.)
These thought-provoking discussions that I now believe made me love reading in the first place came to mind again at “Abu Dhabi Reads,” as I listened to the audience members on the lifeboat with me engage the text and one another in discussion. Many loved the book, some hated it, and a handful confided in me that they had not yet read it. Still, everyone in attendance loved reading for the sake of reading, a fact that became clear evident in the discussion. After all, only book-lovers could begin a conversation with the symbolic role of cages in the text and somehow end up debating, “What is truth?”
At the same time, as much as I was reminded of my experiences from past community book reads, “Abu Dhabi Reads” was uniquely the product of Abu Dhabi. When we heard the call to prayer, we paused in the discussion for a few moments, and some members of the audience took the opportunity to pray while others reflected on the discussion. In that moment I was struck by the diversity of the audience, which included both students and faculty, expats and Emiratis, English and non-English speakers. That brief pause in the discussion captured the spirit of “Abu Dhabi Reads:” this eclectic group from all corners of Abu Dhabi had banded together to celebrate reading.
After the fictional narrator is told that Pi’s story will make him believe in God, he says, “That’s a tall order.” Without skipping a beat, the elderly man lobs back, “Not so tall you can’t reach.” Building a community around book-reading no matter where you are can sometimes feel like a tall order. But if the first “Abu Dhabi Reads” is any indication, it’s not such a tall order for Abu Dhabi.
For those who missed the inaugural “Abu Dhabi Reads,” never fear. This event may have been the first, but it will certainly not be the last. If you are interested in joining our reading community, Electra Street welcomes any suggestions of books for the next “Abu Dhabi Reads,” set to take place in spring. Please post suggestions to the comments section of this post or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.