Thursday, March 5, 2009

Meeting the Vice Chancellor

My last day in the UAE, I had the opportunity to meet the Vice Chancellor of the University, Dr. Abdulla Al-Khanbashi. He is one of the main reasons the program I was involved with was established.

Without his support, it seems nothing of import happens at the college. His original idea was to create cultural activities at the school for the benefit of the young women who attend - to expose them to new ideas and possible future pursuits. Hence, poetry as theater, digital photography, puppetry as theater and 2 other theater-related programs.

My final day was already over-full, but when a last-minute call came from the VC's office to say he would have time to see us at noon, my host and I made room. We arrived early and waited while people before us entered and left. It put me in mind of the Godfather.

When you want something done on the campus, if Dr. Al-Khanbashi is on board, it happens. And it happens quickly. Not like most things on campus or the UAE for that matter.

He was dressed in the traditional dishdashi and shook all our hands upon meeting. His office was quite spacious and clear of any clutter. He was handsome and soft-spoken and looked right at me when I spoke. He was not what I'd expected.

He wanted to know if Jim and I thought the program had been successful. I spoke of the talent and courage of so many of the girls and how welcoming they were toward me. And I thanked him for making it possible.

For each program (mine was the 3rd of 5), large, well-done posters are made to help publicize. A poster from each previous program had been presented to him with 'thank yous' and notes from the students scrawled upon the poster. Jim handed him one from this program, but it hadn't been signed by anyone. He handed it back, saying it means more to him with notes from the girls, because he saves them.

There is an international concert coming soon to a theater not far from campus. Jim has told me how difficult it is to get approval to take the girls off-site for even just a night. He has done it before, but only after many months of waiting each and every 'final' approval.

The concert is in a of couple weeks. At this meeting, Jim decided to ask Dr. Al-Khanbashi if he could bring his students. Dr. Al-Khanbashi happened to go to college in Kentucky and while there, worked as an usher at a theater (I had a difficult time imagining him as a theater usher, let me just say).

Not only did he give his stamp of approval (and it is FINAL), he also asked if it were possible for the girls to become more involved in the production - as ushers, as backstage help, as ticket takers, etc. He didn't want them to simply sit in the theater as audience.

In the US this would not be a big deal. Ideas like this happen all the time. In the UAE, this is so very contrary to much of what I witnessed and heard and experienced. Little there, happens quickly.

I was incredibly impressed by his attitude and his desire to create opportunities to help these young women grow. An honor to have shaken his hand.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

International Festival of Literature

I'm sorry if you have tried to comment on the blog and have been unable to do so. Several people have emailed me directly due to troubles with posting comments. Please email me at if you have anything to add/question. Again, sorry about the technology.

A few days back in the Florida Keys (and at least 2 more days) and am astonished at all the skin I see around me! Much of it, bubbly red and burnt by the sun.

And down here, I always thought the tourists drive fast (don't want to miss the morning happy hour prices), but this is nothing compared to the speed with which they drive their cars in the UAE. And no happy hour prices there, just lots of repressed sexual energy.

The first-ever Dubai literary festival opened last Thursday ( Sixty-five writers from 20 countries, including Britain and the United States, participated in the four-day Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature. The vision of the festival is to “join together people of all nationalities to celebrate literature in all its forms.”

The festival faced literary fallout earlier this month when ‘The Gulf Between Us’, a romantic novel by Britain's Geraldine Bedell, was turned down by the organizers. The book features a gay sheikh.

Canadian author, Margaret Atwood (award winning novelist and poet), vice president of PEN, the literary anti-censorship organization, cancelled her appearance at the festival outraged by the decision.

After further research, Atwood found the situation was not at all what it appeared. The allegedly banned book had not been published yet and there was no evidence Bedell or her book had even been invited.

Atwood wrote on Saturday in the London's Guardian newspaper that she regretted her decision, which she made based on the belief Bedell's book had been banned.

"This has nothing to do with censorship,” said the festival director. “We simply found after reading the book that it was not suitable for the festival.”

In the end, it was too late for Atwood to appear live, so she participated via video link at two festival events – a reading of her work and a panel discussion on the subject of censorship. Perfect!

On a personal note – I read about this incident while still in the UAE and applauded Atwood for pulling out. At the same time though, I thought how extraordinary it was for an event of this kind to be considered, approved and actually hosted in the Middle East. This was a FIRST and being planned as an annual event. I felt torn, wanting it to succeed and be embraced by the local, as well as international population.

The event entered the conversation my last night there. I was sitting at the dining table with 7 or 8 (all male) professors from the university (Arabic and other), along with the other 2 poets I'd been working with. One of the Arabic professors was boasting about Margaret Atwood’s upcoming appearance. Very pleased about it. Obviously, a fan.

I mentioned that she had canceled her participation and why (this was before her own further research and change of mind). “Ahhh, well, we can’t have that type of thing here, can we?” he said, nodding his head and folding his arms across his chest.

Another Arabic professor at the table responded (and I loved it), “If Dubai wants to become an internationally respected and sought-after business/cultural destination, then they have to start acting like one.”

Change is definitely in the air (or perhaps the sand)…

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Jet lag

These photos are from Abu Dhabi and a visit to the Emirates Palace, an astonishing place. Abu Dhabi is the capitol of the UAE and hopes to soon become an international cultural center. The palace is quite posh-

Since arriving back home, I've been spending more time sleeping than writing. I did want to post another collaborative 'found' poem written by one of the classes I was working with. We read the poem 'Famous' by Naomi Shihab Nye and talked about what we would like to be known for. In her poem, Nye talks about how a buttonhole is famous only to the button, the river is famous to the fish, the loud voice is famous to silence.

I would like to famous
like the smile of white jasmine
is to the garden.

Like the first drop of rain
is to the ground
to which it returns life.

To be famous
like a piece of ice
on a hot day
in the middle of the desert.

Like the ball
when it enters the goal,
along with all
the strong cheering.

I would like to be famous
like the long suffering shore
when it is hugged
by the waves.

Famous as the happy hen
when she lays her first egg,
but all her happiness
goes away
when the farmer takes it.

I would like to be famous
to the old man,
as the years he spent
and can't get back.

I would like to be famous
like Dr. Mirrione (he was my host).

Famous like a school uniform
is to the child who puts it on
for the first time.

I would like to be famous
as the spreading horizon
is to the sky.

I would like to be famous
as the naughty daughter
who always makes her parents laugh
and whose smile they miss
when she is sleeping.

as the sun
after a long darkness.

Collaborative poem
UAEU 2-09

Writing this poem with them, reinforced what an honor it was to be there helping them discover their voices.