DREAMS IN THE DESERT: Robert Minhinnick at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, 2016


Robert Minhinnick at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, 2016

In 2011 Seren published my collection of short stories titled ‘The Keys of Babylon’. In 2015 it was translated into Arabic and issued by Dar Al Hiwar Publishers, with support from ‘Spotlight on Rights’ in Abu Dhabi.

Because of this I attended the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, April/May 2016, with Literature Across Frontiers.

The Book Fair took place in the ‘National Exhibition Centre, the size of an airport. Every publishing company that issues Arabic texts seemed to be represented.

I answered questions in an interview, but was denied by impossible scheduling the opportunity of reading at one of the ‘women’s salons’.

These are superb occasions, marvellously hospitable, in which writers might be interviewed in depth and given a sympathetic hearing.  Literary, social and political issues are discussed. They are absolutely not confined to women.

Yet the salons prove for me how dependent on women is the best of Arabic culture. I was ready to read from ‘Amariya Suite’ and ‘An Opera In Baghdad’, about war in Iraq. I believe these poems are more pertinent than ever today with the publication of the Chilcott Inquiry.

Leaving the Book Fair, five minutes in a taxi took myself, Alexandra Buchler and Spanish novelist Andres Barba to ‘Masdar City’. Development here began in 2008 of “the world’s first sustainable eco-city” and I have long been intrigued by its progress.

Its website claims Masdar is ‘built for sustainable advantage… enabling innovation and sustainable urban development in a modern cleantech cluster and free economic zone.’

Make of that what you will. As an advisor to the charity, ‘Sustainable Wales’, I’m well acquainted with problems defining ‘sustainability’.

Masdar’s problems are even greater, yet my visit  to Abu Dhabi as a whole, makes me want to write. And fiction, not journalism. This seems inevitable, as change in the United Arab Emirates is so rapid.

At Masdar, there were none of the electric vehicles or bicycles I thought might be available. The ‘city’ is smaller than it purports, although Siemans maintains its base at the ‘Institute of Technology.’

 Masdar Institute by Foster & Partners

Masdar Institute by Foster & Partners

Fewer people seem to work there than figures claim, yet the Siemans HQ is described as “the most sustainable building in Abu Dhabi”.

“To power its desalination plants and increasing need for air conditioning, electricity consumption per household in Abu Dhabi was 10 times the world average, and water consumption rate per capita was 2.5 times the world average”, according to a study conducted in 2011.

 Masdar Wind Tower

Masdar Wind Tower

Architecture in Masdar is striking, based on ancient Arabic principles. The ‘wind tower’ is a notable feature

Back in Abu Dhabi, I discovered plans for themed islands in the Arabian Gulf. There are plenty of islands here, some in process of volcanic creation. ‘Yas Island’ might boast a Warner Brothers theme park, containing ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Ferrari’ spinoffs. I find this more than depressing. But also planned are ‘Ideas Island’ and ‘Tech Island’.

Thus I want to write about the imaginary ‘Festival Island’. This sees the Hay on Wye or Toronto’s Harbourfront festivals expanding to the Gulf.

My fictional participants will be an awkward squad of ‘geniuses’. These people are rewarded in “solar dirhams”, the new “currency of sunlight”, and live together “on a dhow-shaped island in a solar sea”.

And yes, people pay fortunes for the privilege of breathing the same air as these paragons.

This essay is linked to a blog I am writing for Sustainable Wales. It will concern the German-made solar panels on my roof in Porthcawl, the ‘renewable energy cluster’ known as ‘Cenin’ in Porthcawl, and Masdar City.

I believe renewable energy is the future for all of us. In Masdar it is very much the present. Masdar exports technology (and the energy it generates) to “remote and strategic areas across Egypt.”

Thus visiting Abu Dhabi allowed me to combine literary and environmental ambitions.

My introduction to the ‘women’s salons’, which might also be evoked in fiction, and to Masdar, a reality for all its hyperbole, have created a light for me in a post-Brexit world.

I appreciate Masdar has disappointed many people. Suzanne Goldenberg has written, after a visit in early 2016:

“By UAE standards, both the Siemens and the Irena buildings are state-of-the-art in terms of optimising energy use – but it’s less clear how they stack up globally.

“The UAE uses its own ratings system which does not readily translate to more familiar green building standards. In addition, the agency’s 90 or so staffers are the only occupants of the six-storey, 32,000m space.

“Fewer than 2,000 people work on the campus, according to tour guides. Only 300 live on-site, all graduate students of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, who are given free tuition and accommodation.

“The pioneering autonomous transport system - which was originally supposed to stretch to 100 stations - was scrapped after the first two stops.

“There is a bike-sharing station – though it’s a good 10 miles away from Abu Dhabi, and there are no bike paths.”

Thus Masdar, at time of writing (August, 2016) is a long way from what was hoped.  And how feasible is cycling in a blistering Abu Dhabi summer? I compare it with an ambitious artistic project that is gradually scaled back.

Yet I still believe the future is solar, and in a future blog I will write about the realities, and not the proposed fictions, of that sunshine economy.

Abu Dhabi, UAE, April 21, 2016