In April, I wrote about attending the Saudi Cultural Days in Paris and how it was an amazing experience to me personally . After writing about one of my favorite authors, Mohammed Hasan Alwan, I would like to introduce some more Saudi writers to international readers just to highlight how vast the Saudi cultural landscape really is. As a scholar who focuses on contemporary literature, I almost consider it a duty to represent my country’s vast literary contributions to the global level and to help introduce them to readers outside the Arab world.
Couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of knowing one of the Saudi writers through social media who is a vocal activist that adopted writing about the role of women in Saudi Arabia. I am speaking of none other than Umaima Al-Khamis, author of the two best-selling novels “Al–Bahriat” or Sailors (Levantine ladies) and “Al- Warfah” (or The Leafy Tree). You may have heard of the latter, which was nominated to the 2010 Arabic Booker Prize . She is a prolific Saudi writer and a columnist and her work ranges from non-fictional cultural criticism to children’s literature. Al-Khamis received numerous awards for her work and has become known for her pure feminist point of view, which weaves into her narratives and documents history from another perspective. Many of her insights and ideas seem to be derived from her awareness for gender issues, which she compellingly packs into well-written stories for children and adults alike.
Since 1982 Al-Khamis has written and published a number of short story collections, novels, children’s books, and columns in AL-Jazeera Network, and in both the Gulf Times and Al-Riyadh newspapers.
Her writing ranges from reality to fantasy, but nevertheless remains factual and relatable. You can read her op-eds on the role of women in Saudi Arabia in media, but equally find her writing touching stories for children, that allows them to reflect realities in their own playful manner.
Her narratives revolve around cultural awareness and gender equality, she isn’t shy away from criticizing the very patriarchal structures that makes up societies both within and beyond the Arab region. In her novel the Al- Warfah, Al-Khamis tells the story of a female doctor challenging obstacles that threatened her professional career, in a very patriarchal society. Her book reads like poetry but the messages she sends are critically aware and penetrate the realm of what we often take for granted in an unreflected manner. In another of her recent novels “zyarit Saja”, Al-Khamis tells the story of a crime scene which she uses to shed light on a silent social crime of a culture not oriented towards women. She successfully represents the real world and skillfully asserts her character’s rights against unquestioned traditions and accepted social codes. Yet, her character is cautioned to be wary and to remain aware what consequences open criticism might have. The author candidly expresses gender inequality, risking her own (real) position, yet manages to maintain a distance from explicit forms of social critique that would jeopardize her. One could say she practices what she preaches in her novels, and does so in a contagious manner that lets the reader unable to put the book down.
It was the German playwright and author Bertold Brecht who famously proclaimed “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”. For Al-Khamis, it is both. Women’s rights are becoming more commonplace in discussions within and outside politics. Many intellectuals, activists and artists have taken it upon themselves to assess women’s role in society through literature and take the realm of the fictional to explore where Arab and Western ideas meet, align, or clash. While writing on this is not an easy task, being a writer with an alternative and somewhat uncommon perspective in the bulk of literature on Saudi history makes Umaima an irreplaceable light on the Saudi literary horizon.
What makes me admire her approach is how multi-faceted and powerful she is. Beyond her many activities, she is a vocal proponent and trainer when it comes to cultural awareness and gender equality. She holds lectures and information evenings both within and outside Saudi Arabia, and offers courses and workshops in creative writing too. All of this fascinates me because the environment we live in cannot be distracted from the stories we create out of our fantasies. We are always situated within our lives and what we value seeps through narrations, explicitly or implicitly. When Al-Khamis writes, she makes no secret about what she believes in, but rather turns it into a compelling call for a better future that can either be read in a newspaper, enjoyed as bed-time reading, or learnt hands-on through one of her workshops. What in earlier days might have been termed a Renaissance man can now be called a contemporary, strong Saudi woman.
When communication and transferring messages and meanings becomes multi-faceted, it is more likely to stick. The Saudi Cultural Days mirror this very much, as they seek to raise awareness for the many aspects of Saudi culture. However, what was missing is not only the reference to literary actors – like Mohammed Hasan Alwan – but also the reference to the fact that all different forms of culture and cultural expression are interrelated to one-another intimately. These interrelations have the power to mirror what is real, and to show what could become so. Umaima Al-Khamis is a wonderful example for how calls to action do not always have to be explicitly political, but can touch the lives of many through books. None of this negates the importance of Saudi traditions, cultures and norms. On the contrary – when they are critically engaged with, we can think about the meaning they have for us and come to appreciate it even more. Still, it is vital to remain critical and down-to-earth. Al-Khamis gives me hope for a world filled with more writing, and more appreciation for what fiction can do to change our lives. As a literary scholar, her work fills me with inspiration I can seldom relate to the real world this way.
SAUDI ACADEMIC & WRITER*