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 


Worldwide, it's calculated that ONE TRILLION plastic bags are used and disposed of annually.

Since October 1 2011, Wales has placed a charge on the distribution of plastic bags. In the campaign running up to the imposition of the charge, Sustainable Wales carried out a huge amount of preparatory work, centred round employee Joe Newberry, who became known as ‘the bagman’.

Plastic bags are an important constituent of global plastic pollution. Countries are taking action to try to tackle this serious issue.

In May 2016, the state of New York in the USA agreed a five cents charge for every plastic bag distributed. Here, writer MARGOT FARRINGTON writes a very personal account of how she viewed just one plastic bag.

Margot Farrington

Margot Farrington

Margot Farrington is a poet, writer, and performer. She is the author of three poetry collections, most recently "Scanning For Tigers" (Free Scholar Press).  Her poetry has appeared in The Cimarron Review, Tiferet, Academy of American Poets (online archive) and elsewhere.

Her essays, reviews, and interviews have been published in The Brooklyn Rail, Delaware County Times, ABR: American Book Review, Art International, and Poetry Wales.


Black Plastic Bag

Wind of March 11th brings a plastic bag to spoil the view, to fasten insult to the big cherry at the back of the garden.  Tony makes the discovery and comes to tell me.  We go to the window and stare out.  Grimly, I remark that it’s the durable kind, not that flimsy, ghostly plastic wind pulls to pieces over time.

We see how high it’s snagged, three quarters of the way up.  The cherry’s height exceeds the two story building just behind: no ladder we own can bring us close enough for removal. Perhaps with a pole, I think, with some sort of hook on the end.  In more than three decades here, I can’t recall this happening, because our garden shelters within a long rectangle of neighboring yards, enclosed all round by the buildings of our block. 

Meanwhile, bags appear on the streets everywhere. Just three weeks ago, one plaguing a plane tree had torn to remnants and let go.  We’d watched that bag from our front windows for part of the winter, now the coming of spring was blighted with this black flag.  It waved, piratical and impenitent, frightening the cardinal that frequently perches near the top of the tree. Each spring he chooses the cherry to sing his clear-welling song, announcing to all his intention to mate and to nest and to raise fledglings.

I sulk at the sight of this intruder, I who am bag conscious, taking with me when I shop a canvas bag wherever I go.  Almost fanatic, nursing my hatred of the plastic ones dominating the city.  Stomping upon skittering sidewalk bags to arrest them, stuffing them into the trash. Tearing those within reach from street trees. Plucking them from plantings in the park.  I can’t do this everywhere I go, but mentally I chase, pinion, and correct.  And now, in disgust and at a loss, I turn away from the window.

The next day, I study the bag again, and the slender branch it’s slung over.  March has entered in reverse, that is to say, lamb-like: no buffeting winds and little of the raw chill typical of the month.  Instead, balmy days and the temperature easing up past 60, have brought spring on early.  I can see the blue-green leaves of the pearl bushes pushing out, hungry sparrows beginning to dismantle the pussy willow catkins.

Someone would have to climb part way up the tree, be agile enough with a long pole to dislodge or rip the bag from the branch.  I am not that person, nor is Tony, though once we could’ve done the trick.  I don’t want to see that bag as the cherry leafs out, don’t want to watch the birds shy from the flap-monster come to roost.

The following day the bag has wrapped itself into a black chrysalis, and maintains this form the entire day.  Someone will have to climb the tree.  I try to think of someone.  Or might the wind suddenly undo what it has done?

March 14th.  I try not to obsess, can’t help imagining that ugliness among the blossoms early May will bring on.  This cherry I call The Black Dragon (for a limb suggestive of a dragon climbing skyward) is of the species Prunus serotina. Planted by a bird, preserved by us when we took down the mulberry tree that overshadowed it.  Cherry all the birds enjoy, owing to the vantage point the tree commands, and of course for the fruit itself.  Why must our Black Dragon wear a black plastic bag?

March 15th, I’m sitting down to lunch at our dining room table, and I’ve looked out the window, as I have several times earlier, met each time by the presence of the bag hanging in space.  It has abandoned chrysalis form, regained shopping mode.  The garden lies wetly dark from rain earlier on.  At the end of lunch, I glance idly out, not with intent to check.  Something is missing—I scan the tree, convinced I’ve overlooked it somehow, but no, it’s really gone. 

Tony joins me and we look together, gazing from our third floor window, thinking we’ll spy the wretch caught in some other tree or bush, still asserting itself, still hateful.  But oh, how lovely, no trace.  No trace at all.  How foolish—I should have had more faith in the wind of March.  An errant puff: breath of the lamb at the perfect moment.  A black sail headed off to wherever.  Happiness restored.