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Saudi poet, literary editor Ahmed Al-Ali discusses career ahead of Emirates Literature Fest 2023

DUBAI: Saudi poet, translator and literary editor Ahmed Al-Ali has worn many hats over the course of his career, but the Dubai-based writer — set to speak at a panel at the upcoming Emirates Airline Festival of Literature — started out as a software engineer.

“I wasn’t satisfied being a software engineer who has no time to read books except before sleeping. ‘There are people who read all day and get money for doing that,’ I told myself. By that time, I was aware of the literary scene in the Arab world, had written two poetry collections, translated three titles into Arabic, and had my articles published in newspapers and edited many books. I taught myself everything I needed,” he told Arab News. 

“Then, in 2012, I resigned from my job, applied for a scholarship, and flew to New York City with no clue that I will study publishing. I just went there to be in the center of the world and to have my chance to do something with my life.”

Al-Ali — along with children’s publisher and writer Amal Farah and poet and writer Qasim Saudi — will speak on the panel “How to Market Your Book” at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on Feb. 3 at 4 p.m. If there were a debate on the topic, it would be fair to assume that Al-Ali would advocate for authors sticking to writing and writing well, and nothing else.

When asked if authors should really be worrying about the marketing side of the publishing business, Al-Ali said: “Marketing books is the tool book sellers and book outlets use to sell the ‘products’ they offer, which is the job of neither the publishing house nor the author. Publishing houses should market their authors and brand them. Why do you think a planner that features quotes by Margaret Atwood would sell more than some of her titles? Authors need to know that writing good books and caring for their public image are all that they can do and ought to do.”

Currently working as the managing editor at Sharjah’s Kalimat Group and its fiction imprint, Al-Ali is responsible for introducing the Arab world to international authors like James Baldwin, Raymond Carver, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, John Ashbery, Ali Smith, Michael Ondaatje, John Banville and Claire Messud.

He has also personally translated several English novels. “Paul Auster’s ‘The Invention of Solitude’ is so close to my heart because I was discovering NYC in real life and also discovering it through the literature of this author,” he said when asked to pick a favorite.

But what Al-Ali is probably most known for are his poetry collections. Poetry, to Al-Ali, is the medium best suited to “seeking the truth” about the world.

“I tried in each of my books to illuminate one topic. My ‘Facing Skype’ book discovers having an avatar in social media versus your real persona in real social life. ‘The Drifter’s Guide to NYC’ is about the known and hidden gems of the city written in prose poetry. ‘Lavender, Hotel California’ claims that this life is a ‘hotel’ and tests this claim via various poems,” said Al-Ali.  

The author’s current work-in-progress, a project about oil-hunting in the region, is “a work of poetry, research, translation and editing; it embodies everything I can do.”

But, unsurprisingly, the poet inside Al-Ali is jaded by the current state of the literary world.

“My generation and the younger ones are caught in the web of competitions and awards; they are not seeking anything real. If you don’t realize that there are huge efforts to program people, and that we are in a matrix and you must break through, then what do you know as a poet?” he said.

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