Ready, Set, Write!

Ready, Set, Write!

flash-fiction-graphic

FLASH FICTION CONTEST

In support of the UAE’s Year of Reading, the NYUAD Literature and Creative Writing Program has teamed up with Tempo Magazine to co-sponsor a Flash Fiction Contest. The deadline for submissions is 1 April 2016.

“Flash fiction” is a unique genre of storytelling that happens quickly – in a flash. It is a very short, imagined story that instills a sense of surprise, or tension, or mystery, or drama, or all of these and then. . . it’s over. But if it’s well written and conceived, it will stay with readers like a distinct smell or taste: it will haunt them. Flash fiction can have a beginning, middle and end like a traditional short story, or it can drop us right in the midst of a scene, with characters talking and doing things in a way that immediately gets our attention and leaves us satisfied in the end. Perhaps the writer will take us somewhere unusual and unexpected. If it’s done artfully, we will be touched in some way, perhaps even transformed.

The Rules

  • Writers must be currently enrolled in an accredited undergraduate university program in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
  • Stories must be written in English and make a connection to the idea of SEPARATION.
  • Stories will be judged on originality and the quality of the prose.
  • The maximum length is 750 words (not including the title and author’s information required below). Any submissions over 750 words will not be considered.
  • Submissions should be written in 12-point Times New Roman font.
  • A cover page must accompany each submission and should include the title of the story, the writer’s name, address, e-mail address, phone number and the name of his/her university. These items do not count toward the story’s length limit.
  • Submissions should take the form of a Microsoft Word document (.doc or .docx) attached to an email sent to flashfictionNYUAD@com  with “Flash Fiction” in the subject line.
  • The deadline for submissions is 23hrs 59minutes on the 1st of April. Anything received after then will not be considered.

You can download a flyer here. Spread the word.

Good luck and write well!

Flash Fiction is sponsored by Tempo Magazine and by NYUAD’s Literature and Creative Writing Program

Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival II

Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival II

Qasr al Hosn is in tension with itself. The professor sitting next to me put it this way: “I love the indigenous postmodernism of it all.” The student behind us, a junior from Canada, noted that many of the purported Emiratis doing handicrafts at the Qasr al Hosn Festival are in fact Omani or Saudi Bedouins who take part in the festival to earn a neat wad of cash that can see them through for a couple of months.

Every February, the Qasr al Hosn Festival showcases Emirati cultural traditions and heritage in a ten-day spectacle that lures out almost as many suburb dwellers as do the National Day celebrations on December 2. Many professors at NYU Abu Dhabi schedule outings to the festival with their classes: Some classes go because the festival touches on issues central to their course, others because the professor simply wants her students to leave the Saadiyat bubble behind and see the host culture first-hand. This particular tour was not part of a class trip, though, but rather an open-to-all event sponsored by NYUAD’s Office of Student Life for students who either had not seen the festival yet or who wanted to visit it again.

The festival grounds take up an entire city block many times the size of its New York City equivalent, but it lies empty and unused 355 days of the year. When the festival is not blocking Abu Dhabi’s main traffic arteries, it takes twenty to twenty-five minutes to reach Qasr al Hosn from NYU Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island campus. Abu Dhabi is no stranger to Thursday night traffic congestion, but since this particular Thursday is the busiest day of the festival, we sit in anxiety-inducing traffic for seventy minutes before finally reaching the festival.

As our driver tries to dislodge us from the chasm he got us stuck in, we use the extra time on our hands to observe the endless flow of pedestrians on the sidewalk circling the festival grounds. People from what seems like every country in the world saunter around Qasr al Hosn. Everyone wears attire that complies with Sharia’s prescribed modesty, of course – the festival is run according to Sharia principles, and men and women pay the ten dirhams it costs to enter the festival grounds in separate booths – but the diversity of this crowd rivals any public space I have seen.

To those critics who insist that the UAE does not have any culture of its own, the fort and the festival it houses each year provides strong counterevidence. As I try to hear my own thoughts over the sound of a nearby razafat dance (known to most people as ‘that Emirati men’s dance with sticks’), it seems clear that the UAE does have culture, and that its citizens are proud of that culture. If only my native Denmark made so concerted an effort to showcase our culture every year and have a festival that unifies the country, as this one does. Qasr al Hosn Festival’s unifying effect is not just figurative: a man I know commutes from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi and back – a two-and-a-half-hour drive each way – to take part in the festival.

A more sophisticated way to phrase one objection many critics raise about the UAE is that the UAE’s culture today is not the culture of the pre-oil Trucial States. True, but why should it be? Such an objection reminds me of a passage in Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book Cosmopolitanism (2013) that takes on these cultural purists, viewing cultural contamination not as a juggernaut that erases cultures but as an inevitable fact of human society which we should try to harness and make the most of: “We do not need, have never needed, a settled community, a homogeneous system of values, in order to have a home. Cultural purity is an oxymoron. The odds are that, culturally speaking, you already live a cosmopolitan life, enriched by literature, art, and film that come from many places, and that contains influences from many more” (113).

camels

Other scholars have made the case against cultural contamination just as forcefully as Appiah makes the argument for it. They suggest that cultural mixing erodes the bedrock of a country’s practices, customs, and most importantly its language. In the UAE, those scholars have found a prime example of a country whose age-old language, Khaleej Arabic, is dying even as you read these English lines, and perhaps because you read these English lines. The push in Emirati schools towards strengthening its Arabic language program reflects the old culture’s efforts to ward off the new, invading culture, argue those who are skeptical about globalization. We Danes feel the thrust of that argument: Danish teenagers are losing touch with their mother tongues just as fast as their Emirati peers are. Absent a festival that can compare to the UAE’s Qasr al Hosn Festival, the cultural practices that make Denmark unique and set it apart from, say, Sweden or Norway, are dying out. We must not ignore the warnings of the globalization skeptics, but as I stand in this line, waiting for my legeimat, I find the thought that there is something wrong with this degree of conversation across cultures a hard one to accept.

These thoughts lead me back to the words my professor said a couple of hours earlier: “I love the indigenous postmodernism of it all.” I glossed over his words when I first heard them, dismissing them as too grandiose and intangible for me to process on a weekend night. Upon reflection, though, I realize that his words were not just a sarcastic comment. The reason we come here, the reason the Qasr al Hosn Festival engages us, has to do with the nature of the festival and its stance towards modernity. Qasr al Hosn features dhow builders and basket weavers, blacksmiths and subsistence fishermen, but it sets those anachronisms against the visually dominating Abu Dhabi skyline so that every visitor, no matter how entranced he is by the dexterity of the seventy-something-year-old fletcher, need only look up and see the towering Burj Mohamed bin Rashid attached to the World Trade Center Mall and Souk to be reminded that the UAE is neither stuck reminiscing about the past nor busy demolishing its history in the name of progress. The Qasr al Hosn Festival showcases nothing short of the spirit of the Emirates: a syncretic historical-postmodern state of mind that sees no issue in hosting a heritage festival in the heart of a bustling metropolis.

*Both photos: John Carges, used by permission

Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival I

Images of a City: Qasr Al Hosn Festival I

[soliloquy id=”4474″]A bedouin coffee party. An old man playing a rababa, its body sparkling and inlaid with mother-of-pearl and blue stones. A tourist kneeling in the middle of the bedouin coffee party, pointing at the beautiful rababa inlaid with mother-of-pearl and blue stones, his face very close to the singing old man, smiling for a little too long while his partner takes a picture with her phone.

A window washer hangs from the taller World Trade Center tower, perched over the scene watching the swarms of visitors as the sun begins to set. Why is he still up there?

A fisherman casts a wide net into a body of water in which there are no fish. The salty smell of fish in a fishless, man-made sea.

The crowd ebbs and flows: hundreds of abayas, thousands of kanduras, a sea of rubber flip flops and wriggling toes with chipped polish.

Three teachers get henna in the traditional Emirati style. Their hands look like lumpy spiders. A preteen boy with three cameras around his neck bumps into one of them, smearing her henna on her sleeve. Another teacher pours water from a Masafi bottle as she tries to scrape it off, but all she does is rub it into the denim as the muddy water drips onto the sand and between her toes. The smell of the dye lingers as they depart for the saluki park.

Helvetica signs that say HERITAGE.  Bad typesetting spells dwindledtothepointhweremanyspeciesarenowendangered. The seas are over-exploited. The sign implies that should probably not eat hammour if you want to be sustainable.

Old shipbuilders with a rusty awl, their dhow perpetually under construction.Palm fronds on the ground and chanting that sounds like it’s emanating from the earth, but is actually blasting from a speaker muffled with a burlap sack.

Fun fact: qasr has the same root as castle. “Wait, you studied abroad in Spain, right? Is alcázar…whoa! That’s so cool.”

A British man expertly explains the burqa to his wife, referring to it as a “face mask.”  A man with a belt made of bullets, holding a gold-plated gun, stands in front of a police station. The line of his rifle barrel points to a sand pit full of children in orange vests, digging.

A poster explains the growth cycle of date palm fruit. Can you eat them when they’re green? No, you cannot. But when they’re just slightly unripe you might be able to make juice out of them.

A sand bag with a fax number on it. An LED billboard across the street, advertising the QASR AL HOSN FESTIVAL. A festival celebrating a fort that you are never allowed to enter.

A man with an iPad, eyes wide. “Would you mind taking a quick survey about your experience tonight?”

My experience?

A wedding celebration.

An antique gramophone.

A prayer rug on the sand.

A tree with fat beanpods, hanging.

A man swinging an axe at a date palm.

A minaret perfectly aligned between two glassy buildings.

A small boy holds a large falcon.

A smile with missing teeth.

A toddler in a tiny kandura is placed on a pony against his will. La, ‘ami, la!

An anchor stuck in a gleaming fishing basket.

A fur-lined abaya.

A woman in a burqa atop a camel.

A man sitting on a pile of crates, wearing a tartan skirt and taking a swig from a clay jug.

Wheelchair hubcaps painted with the UAE flag, black slowly fading to red, to green, to white as the owner wheels up a ramp onto a boat.

Children with gold tangled in their hair.

 

You can go to the Emirati Salad stand to learn about the edible plants of the region. The first bush looks familiar. “I think I’ve eaten that one! Do you pickle it?” He asks where, eyebrow raised. “…Georgia?” Well – it is a desert plant, he explains. He doesn’t think you ate it in Georgia. He chuckles and gives you a bite of a succulent-type thing that tastes like a sour cucumber.

A family of five eats legaimat on the ground, leaning against a dune in the corner behind the houbara enclosure. Cardamom fog lingers in the air, and you can hear the syrupy rosewater dripping back into the paper bowl, or at least you think you can.

Spotlights shooting from the turret of the fortress, hazy in the night sky and stretching upwards to converge in a many-pointed star. The effect is such that, when you first notice them, you think the rays are coming down from between the clouds, illuminating the tower with heavenly light.

Photo by John Carges, used by permission

Photo by John Carges, used by permission

 

 

 

Sushi: Japan’s Small, Yet Powerful Ambassador

Sushi: Japan’s Small, Yet Powerful Ambassador

ON LOCATION IN ABU DHABI

The voyage was over. After a short journey on the waitress’s lacquered black tray, the wooden sushi boat anchored on my placemat. On the board sat tuna, red snapper, and squid sushis. The pink tuna gleamed silver in the light—a sign of freshness.

Pinching the tuna sushi between my oversized chopsticks, I dipped it upside down in the soy sauce. In one mouthful, it vanished. Blood gushed through my teeth. A Pacific breeze seemed to rush through my nostrils and the sweet aftertaste of the rice and vinegar washed the bloodiness off my tongue. Five thousand miles away from Tokyo, in the Taiki restaurant in Abu Dhabi, I found home.

Taiki, located by the Al Ain Palace Hotel, is not the only place that serves Japanese sushi in Abu Dhabi. Eleven restaurants, many near expensive hotels, offer authentic Japanese cuisine where locals and visitors can sit down to indulge in the Japanese delicacy. The recent Japanese-culture craze, which started with the eccentric costume play of manga and anime maniacs, has recruited fervent sushi-lovers all over the world.

“Japanese food is very famous. Most of the tourists in the Philippines are Japanese. There are many, many Japanese restaurants in the Philippines,” said Chef Nelson Dolana, the head chef of Taiki, who cooked Japanese food for thirty-one years in the Philippines. Taiki is his sixth restaurant.

Chef Sawai Mulsrisuk, one of Dolana’s sous-chefs, worked under a Japanese chef in Thailand before his job at Taiki.

“There are too many Japanese restaurants in Thailand,” he said, throwing his head back in laughter. Sous-chef Jerry Ruiz, who made sushi in Bahrain, smiled beside him as he pressed a palmful of rice into a neat box with his two fingers.

While sushi is best known as Japan’s national dish, sushi’s ancestors originated in Southeast Asia. In Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and China, people preserved freshwater fish by fermenting it in cooked rice for at least half a year. They ate the fish and discarded the rice.

Sushi arrived in Japan in the 9th century. Banned by Buddhism from eating meat, the Japanese gladly welcomed the new method of fish preservation, which they called nare-zushi, or “aged sushi.” By the 16th century, the addition of rice malt and salmon lees reduced the fermentation process to one month. Shorter fermentation kept the natural flavor of the fish alive. The turning point of sushi history came during the Empo period (1673-81), when physician Yoshiichi Matsumoto found that vinegar accelerated fermentation, softening the fish and flavoring the rice. His discovery led to the creation of haya-zushi, or “fast sushi,” eaten within a day of its preparation.

Finally in the Bunsei period (1818-30), Yohei Hanaya devised the nigiri zushi, or “pressed sushi,” prepared by pressing grilled or pickled fish slices firmly onto beds of rice. The most commonly eaten form of sushi today, nigiri-zushi—made with raw fish—became common during the transition from the Meiji period (1868-1912) to the Taisho period (1912-26) with the invention of refrigeration. Nigiri-zushi quickly found its place as a favorite fast food for commoners in Edo, who frequented the sushi stalls scattered all over the city.

Gaining popularity in Japan, sushi ventured to the U.S. during the 1920s, where it received little applause from an audience unaccustomed to raw foods.  The Ladie’s Home Journal omitted all mentions of raw fish in their feature on Japanese cooking in 1929. Instead, “sushi” recipes involved balancing cooked shrimp on squares of bread, like a French canapé.

Only in the 1970s, as Japanese immigrants poured into Sao Paulo, Los Angeles, and Hawaii, did sushi arrive on overseas tables. Riding on the waves of the Asian cuisine and health foods fads, Japanese chefs opened restaurants where sushi captivated American tastebuds. Fusion sushis arose as chefs catered to customers uneasy about eating raw fish and nori (dried seaweed sheets). Chef Ichiro Manashita and his assistant Ichiro Mashita, from Los Angeles’ Tokyo Kaikan restaurant replaced tuna with avocado and rolled the maki (rolled sushi) inside out. Their ingenuity gave birth to the California roll. Following the California roll, American chefs introduced other innovations, such as the spider roll, Philadelphia roll, and caterpillar roll. By the 1990s, the sushi craze caught fire in Europe.

As celebrities dined at posh sushi bars and elite businessmen ordered take-out sushi for lunch, sushi earned its name as a high-class food. With the rise of technologies such as the sushi robot and conveyer belt sushi bars, however, sushi became available to middle-class families as well. Today, the sushi trend knows no boundaries.

The globalization of sushi led to more eccentric fusion sushis, such as the peanut butter jelly roll. And the further sushi traveled, the further it got from its original shape. In 2006, Toshikatsu Matsuoka, Japanese minister of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, questioned the authenticity of Japanese cuisine abroad. After spotting Korean barbecue and sushi offered on the same menu in a restaurant in Colorado, Matsuoka could not sit still. He set out on a $2.5 million project to certify Japanese restaurants overseas.

“What we are seeing now are restaurants that pretend to offer Japanese cooking but are really Korean, Chinese, or Filipino. We must protect our food culture,” said Matsuoka.

Media, scholars, restaurant owners, and bloggers, from inside and outside Japan criticized the minister’s project, calling him the “sushi police” and accusing him of nationalism. Responding to the criticisms, the minister changed his strategy from certification to guidance. The government established a nonprofit organization called Japanese Restaurants Overseas (JRO) to help restaurants abroad prepare “better” Japanese food. The JRO recommends Japanese ingredients and teaches cooking tips as well as language and good service.

Even without the JRO’s assistance, Japanese restaurants in Abu Dhabi commit to serving “authentic” Japanese food. Chef Dolana claimed that 95% of Taiki’s ingredients come from Japan as he proudly pointed to the crabmeat, eel, octopus, and mackerel on display in the glass case of the sushi bar. The seafood arrives by plane two days after he places an order.

“Nothing to worry, because it’s fresh,” he reassured.

Moving behind the sushi bar, Chef Dolana emerged from the counter with a small bowl of ten red beads, plump with orange liquid and reflecting stars of light.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“It’s ikura (salmon eggs)!” I answered.

“And this?” He took out a container filled with finer ruby beads.

“Tobiko (flying fish roe)!”

A satisfied smile stretched across his wrinkly face. “Yes. All from Japan as well.”

Chef Dolana disappeared to the kitchen and returned with a bundle of Japanese products: tofu, Kewpie mayonnaise, and soba noodles.

“We use Japanese foods,” said Chef Dolana, passion flickering in his chestnut brown eyes. “We don’t use imitations because we have Japanese guests and they know what is real.”

Yoshiharu Suzuki, a worker at Hitachi Zosen, dined with eight of his colleagues at Taiki on January 16 after holding a pavilion in the World Future Energy Summit.

“When I eat sushi abroad, they always get the ratio of the vinegar and the dashi (fish stock) wrong,” said Suzuki. He put his elbow on the table and rested his head on his hand. “Here, it was so-so.”

For most Japanese, however, fusion sushi hardly scratches their national pride. The JRO may know the correct amount of vinegar to mix in the sumeshi (sushi rice), but the truth stands: no matter its shape or ingredients, sushi is undeniably Japanese. Sushi symbolizes the island nation’s success in asserting its presence across the globe.

“Sushi is a gateway for people to know about Japan,” Suzuki commented.

Whether as a California roll or tuna nigiri, sushi works as a small yet influential ambassador for Japan.

Shyam Benegal: Portrait of the Artist

Shyam Benegal: Portrait of the Artist

“Why do you want to make films?” Shyam Benegal peers curiously around the ethnically diverse group of NYUAD film students, who have woken early on a Saturday to attend a master class with the renowned director. Benegal has made 24 features, 42 documentaries, and 4 television series, garnered awards and nominations at the largest international film festivals, and received the highest accolades given to artists by the Republic of India. “Don’t be shy,” he chuckles. It seems almost a reversal of roles, but the ever-curious Benegal is intent on provoking us to reflect on our personal histories– an attitude that permeates his day-to-day attitude as much as his filmmaking.

Part of a three-day retrospective organized in collaboration with the Indian Embassy and Indian Film Society of the UAE, this class is structured more like a round table forum than a formal lecture. The director leads an intimate Q&A about his life, his culture, and, in particular, his views on filmmaking.

Benegal’s work focuses largely on how religious and cultural influences shape the individual and pushes viewers to think about concepts of universality and identification in an increasingly globalized world. This message seems particularly relevant given the demographics of today’s class – a group of young, expatriated students at an expatriated university, in an ever-expanding global city.

A soft-spoken Emirati girl pauses, then speaks: “Why I want to make films? Sometimes I struggle to express myself with words…it makes more sense on screen.” Another student steps in: “From where I am from in Mexico, we are in search of an identity, and believe film will be a way of exploring it in the future. I really hope to be a part of this process.” The 77-year-old director nods thoughtfully, then proceeds to ask each student about their respective backgrounds and local film cultures.

For a man who is widely regarded as legendary trailblazer in the New Indian Cinema and cultural ambassador at home and abroad, what is most striking about Shyam Benegal is the unpretentious way he discusses his art. “I began making films in an advertising agency!” he exclaims, describing his early love for the moving image, which began with watching his father’s old home movies. Later, as a publicity guy, Benegal produced more than 900 advertisements. Benegal’s engaging, truthful style of storytelling can be credited to these modest cinematic beginnings.

“There was no such thing as film school,” he says, reflecting upon his entry into the film industry in the 1950s. What there was, however, was new generation of highly educated, socially conscious Indians in a search of an authentic sense of national connection following nearly a century of British rule. Benegal connected with this new market by combining the underground Indian film style known as ‘parallel cinema’, which told homegrown stories and real human experiences, with the national Hindi language. (Parallel cinema had previously only been produced in local dialects.) Conveying intimate messages in a universal language is how Benegal believes the filmmaker can share “the essence of human experience.”

Benegal’s films connect with his audience on a deep emotional level, while at the same time reveal a strong social agenda. As with creating an advertisement, he wants his films to make you think about an issue or, better yet, do something about it. His first feature, Ankur (1974), was a local, gritty story set in his hometown of Hyderabad and tackled issues of domestic violence and sexual abuse. The film was awarded more than 45 international festival prizes, and presented a sharp turn from the melodramatic Bollywood style that still characterizes mainstream Indian cinema today. In contrast to many directors today, his candid approach is refreshing. “The key to making a good film is essentially to portray a good story,” he admits. However, there must be a message: “A film that has no take-away is not worth it.”

The ageing director today mourns the loss of emphasis on regional stories in contemporary mass media. Benegal has resisted the urge to make more commercially oriented features, and one of his recent projects includes a 53-part television series on the history of India. And yet, forever young, Benegal is still in search of new cultures, new mediums, and new stories to explore. It isn’t clear when – if ever – Shyam Benegal will tire of learning and growing as a filmmaker.

“I still don’t know anything!” he says, laughing, at the end of his talk, before we head for lunch. Our group leaves the class feeling humbled and quite inspired. NYUAD sophomore Hasan Nabulsi reflects: “The special thing about Benegal’s talk was the simplicity that he conveyed…I want to remind myself that simplicity is beautiful. I want to remind myself that truthful art will be well received, at least eventually.”

 

Shyam Benegal Timeline:

 1934 – born in Trimulgherry, a British Cantonment

1959 – begins career as a copywriter at a Bombay-based advertising agency

1973-77 – release of four seminal films of the Indian alternative cinema: Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977)

1974 – Ankur nominated for Golden Berlin Bear

1976 – Nishant nominated for Cannes Palme d’Or

1980 – begins role as Director of the Indian National Film Development Corporation

1988 – directs the 53-episode television serial Bharat Ek Khoj, one of India’s largest television projects in history

1995-2001 – begins trilogy on Indian Muslim women: Mammo (1995), Sardari Begum (1996) and Zubeidaa (2001)

1999 – critiques the Indian caste system in his film Samar – the film goes on to be awarded the National Film Award for Best Feature Film

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