Yemeni Story Club: ‘Almaqah’ pens mended, and ink renewed

In Sana’a, July 2018, far from the noise of politics and war, a group of young people gathers around a table, listening to comments and suggestions about their work as part of a writing workshop organized by the Yemeni Story Club. The number of women exceeds the number of men. “The presence of women always dominates the presence of men at the club”, says Wajdi al-Ahdal. Al-Ahdal is an acclaimed novelist and founding member of the Yemeni Story Club. During a meeting with Al Madaniya at a short story workshop organized by the group, al-Ahdal told us about the history of club, its beginnings, mission and main activities.

A rebellious start

The Yemeni Story Club started in 1996, when a group of young story writers decided to create a literary space for narrative prose. This came at a time when there was more interest in and inclination towards writing poetry compared with storytelling, which was still in its early stages in Yemen. From here, the club created a presence for practices other than poetry. Yemeni writers, such as al-Gharbi Amran, Wajdi al-Ahdal, Saleh al-Baydani, Alwan al-Jilani, Arwa Abdo Othman and Zaid al-Faqih, led the movement. At the time Zaid al-Faqih was the director of Dar al-Kutub, and played a prominent role in providing space for the first meetings at the foundation.

 image courtesy of Rahman Taha

image courtesy of Rahman Taha

Reflecting on this period, al-Ahdal explains, “The older generation at the time was dominating the cultural and literary institutions as well as the unions. The younger generation felt disregarded and marginalized, so we decided to establish The Yemeni Story Club as a rebellious youth movement, forcing its presence on the monopolized and biased cultural institutions.”

The club’s first undertaking was to collect short stories by young writers and include them in a collection published by al-Thaqafa Magazine. The proceeds received from the publication were then allocated to support the club in its beginnings.

Shortly after, the club proved its influence and established itself in the Yemeni cultural scene. In 1999, it obtained official authorization from the Ministry of Culture and opened branches in other governorates, including Dhamar, Taiz, Hodeida and Ibb. In 2014, with the onset of the current political crisis in Yemen, the support granted to the club by the Heritage Fund was suspended. Today, the club is trying to survive the current crisis and continue its activities with the resources available and with the relentless effort of its director, the novelist and writer al-Gharbi Amran, along with the permanent members of the club.

“We were a generation without fathers”, said Wajdi al-Ahdal. “The practice of narrative prose in Yemen before the 1990s was minimal. Most writers were interested in poetry, so no one was able to support us as they had little understanding of the specifics of narrative writing. If you take a look at the bibliography of Yemeni literature in the 1990s, you will note the significant qualitative shift in the genre at the time.”

The club collected the work of individual young writers, and turned the genre of the story into a cultural phenomenon. It was at that time that the names of young story writers emerged alongside names of poets, who had a stronger presence in a culture where the power of poetry dates back more than a century.

About the club

The club’s aims and fundamental mission include: mentoring and supporting writers with narrative talents; helping members prepare and publish their work; introducing and developing the genre; increasing public and official interest; establishing a stronger literary presence; creating a harmonious relationship between cultural and governmental institutions; organizing cultural events to highlight the genre of storytelling in Yemen; supporting writers and protecting their freedom and literary work; building relationships with similar clubs and organizations locally and internationally; and nurturing young novelists and writers in the field.

 image courtesy of Rahman Taha

image courtesy of Rahman Taha

The club holds regular activities, such as the Wednesday evening meetings. During these meetings, the members discuss general and literary topics, and hold occasional events celebrating cultural achievements in various literary fields. The cultural and artistic events at the club are attended by a diverse audience with a variety of interests. In addition, the club sponsors some poetic and artistic activities. In recent years, the club has become one of the few cultural institutions where writers and artists have found a public outlet as many literary and artistic institutions closed their doors.

The club has also helped publish many books. It plays an important role as an intermediary between the author and publishing houses across Arab countries, to help Yemeni writers spread their work. Many writers face obstacles to publishing their books due to the high financial costs. To make matters worse, Yemen’s only publishing house, Dar Abbadi, closed its doors over a year ago. The books that the club has published cover narrative and literary criticism by Yemeni writers and novelist, such as al-Gharbi Amran, Wajdi al-Ahdal, Abdul Aziz al-Maqaleh and Nasim al-Sarhi. One publication, New Horizons for a Newer World, published in 2000 was a collaboration with al-Afif Cultural Foundation. It includes examples of literary works from the 1990s by 37 writers, and is an important publication dedicated to the writers of that generation.

Among other activities, the club has organized various festivals, such as the ‘Towards New Horizons of Narrative Writing Festival’ in 2000. Over recent years, many Arab authors and writers have returned to participate in the festivals organized by the club. The second festival of the story and novel, ‘Writers as Stars Under the Sky of Humanity’, was held in 2001. The third festival was held in 2003, and five years later the fourth Sana’a festival was held in 2008 in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture.

In terms of training, the club also organizes writing workshops to offer support and mentorship for young writers, which is one of its primary goals. Currently the workshops held at the club include a story writing workshop by Wajdi al-Ahdal, a novel writing workshop by Nada al-Kawkabani and Basam Shamsaddin, and a short story writing workshop by Zaid al-Faqih.

Writing workshops

When the club started its activities in the 1990s, it started with weekly readings of literature proposed by established writers. Later, the club’s organizers realized that this alone was not enough to help younger writers develop their writing practice and nurture their talents. As a result, they decided to set up writing workshops. Starting in 2002, these workshops included a screenwriting workshop, a novel writing workshop and a storytelling workshop; the most recent was held this year.

Workshops are held periodically to provide support and mentorship to young writers. They provide the space to explore different styles of writing and help the younger writers find their own voice. Experienced writers provide literary advice to younger writers who bring their raw narrative material and are mentored through the process of realizing their work.

“Writers often stumble at the beginning of their writing path. The idea behind these workshops was to organize close readings of their texts to help them through this process, and to offer suggestions towards their development. Our goal is to guide their talents in the right direction. We are currently thinking about publishing the outcome of our current workshop in a special publication at the end”, al-Ahdal explains.

 image courtesy of Rahman Taha

image courtesy of Rahman Taha

In the case of the novel, young writers often feel overwhelmed and stop writing after a few pages. In most cases, all they need is motivation. Workshop participants are encouraged to practice writing during the workshop. For example, novelist Nadia al-Kawkabani asks the participants in her narrative writing workshop to present at least one chapter of a novel they are working on. During the workshop they evaluate this chapter together and establish its narrative voice. Through this process they nurture the potential capabilities of their writers.

Wajdi al-Ahdal, an accomplished novelist who has published five novels, believes in the importance of writing workshops. He had a similar experience himself, as one of seven participants who attended a writing workshop at the second symposium organized by the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the Booker Prize). Al-Ahdal believes that this type of training has a great impact and creates tangible results.

Literary editor

The Yemeni Story Club is the first literary institution – and perhaps the only one in Yemen – that offers space for literary editing and criticism. The idea of a literary editor comes from western literature, but many writers in the Arab world do not accept it. According to al-Ahdal, “Many writers today approach narrative writing with little consideration. Here at the club we decided to offer direct criticism to writers in their early beginnings, to help them write precisely, to feel responsible for writing, and to accept criticism that is sometimes harsh. Our aim is to support them to write stories that warrant publication and represent their authors and Yemeni literature in the best way possible. This is the role of the literary editor, to push the writer to develop a style and move forward.”

A click away

At a time when instant publishing and social media are widespread, a writer can publish her/his writings at the click of a button, without the need for publishing houses or to consult critics or writers to assess the texts. “Social media writing contains a lot of misinformation, and is often devoid of literary merit”, Wajdi al-Ahdal explains, “so a work of modest value can gain widespread popular acclaim due to the number of ‘likes’ it gets”.

Despite this pessimism, al-Ahdal still believes that many young creative writers are interested in artistic merit and are keen to learn and improve their skills. Over recent years, more than 40 participants have attended the club’s writing workshops.

At the same time, al-Ahdal believes that the situation is much easier today than in the past. In the years before the revolution in communications, the writer had to go through a great amount of effort. Months, if not a year or more, were spent waiting to publish in well-known Arab monthly or quarterly journals or annual publications. Literary texts were then subject to many bureaucratic standards and procedures. In contrast, today the publishing industry has benefited from developments in technology and communication, and texts can be sent to journals electronically. In the end, all that is needed to lead a writer to success is sincerity and a dedication to writing.