Screenwriter and Author Ahmed Mourad: Abu Dhabi Congress Interview

In News by Porter Anderson

The Egyptian screenwriter Ahmed Mourad will speak in an the Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries on Arabian fantasy.

Onstage at the 2022 inaugural production of the International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries. Image: Porter Anderson, Publishing Perspectives

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

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This Year’s Theme: ‘Adapting Stories’
On May 21 and 22, the International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries will open the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair for a second season.

Last year, this major publishing conference’s debut created a memorable impression, bringing together a strong cohort of speakers to explore themes of publishing and influences on it in today’s evolving markets, under the direction of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre.

More than 380 attendees were on hand at the event, hearing from 35 speakers both from the world of publishing and from “nearby” creative industries that hold in common both victories and challenges in today’s shifting markets.

With a theme this year of “Adapting Stories,” the conference is focused on several elements of adaptation, including:

  • How to draw inspiration from the rich history of Arabian fantasy while also breaking new ground and creating compelling and original such content for a global marketplace
  • How to export Arabic content for global audiences while remaining true to the cultural roots of that content
  • How educators and content creators can ensure that “edutainment” supports learning
  • How artificial intelligence may be impacting the Arabic publishing industry now, and what may be ahead in the future
  • And how to adapt a novel for the big screen

What will follow, of course, is the public-facing book fair, which last year drew 152,024 visitors and 1,150 exhibitors to the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center, with some 165,401 books reportedly sold during the fair’s week.

But in these opening days, on Sunday and Monday, the Congress program is designed by the Arabic Language Centre—part of the Department of Culture and Tourism—as a focused collection of insights and discussion on business elements impacting entertainment markets in the Middle East and beyond. Engaged in the event this year will be 30 speakers, six “conscious conversations” and discussions, and 12 brands showcasing various storytelling technologies.

Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak

Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, who chairs the Department of Culture and Tourism in Abu Dhabi, says, “This is an exciting time of growth and opportunity for creative and publishing industries in the Arab world.

“The richness and creativity of Emirati literary heritage and contemporary culture offers great potential for collaboration and new ways of working.

“By bringing people together from different regions and disciplines, the congress plays an important role in supporting the cultural ecosystem and shaping the future for the next generation.”

Dr. Ali Bin Tamim

And Dr. Ali Bin Tamim, who chairs the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre, says, “Following the success of its inaugural year, we’re delighted to announce the second edition of the International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries.

“The congress is a unique opportunity for professionals across the publishing and creative industries working within—or with—the Arab market to come together, discover the latest developments in publishing, share their expertise, and make important new connections.

“In particular, this year’s congress highlights the significant potential in developing and promoting home-grown talent for global markets. There’s a wealth of innovation and creativity in the Middle East/North African region which holds great potential for the future of storytelling.”

This  year’s program includes an opening from comics creator Brian Michael Bendis, with focal sessions on Arabian fantasy tales and the impact ahead of artificial intelligence on publishing.

More topics touched on by speakers include:

  • “Edutainment”
  • Audiobooks and podcasts
  • Translation and localization
  • Adaptations of novels
  • And the intersection of Arabic and artificial intelligence
Ahmed Mourad: ‘Myth Is Now Being Manufactured’

Ahmed Mourad. Image: International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries

One speaker whose expertise will come to the fore early in the day on Sunday is the highly regarded Egyptian author and screenwriter both of fiction and nonfiction Ahmed Mourad.

He’s part of an early-day panel titled “Arabian Fantasy Tales: Where Did All the Magic Go?” Moderated by Abdel-Wahab Khalifa of Queen’s University Belfast, the discussion will also feature Nayla Al Khaja of The Scene Club; Mohammad Alshaibani of Sandstorm; and Alil Ghamlouch of Shahid Originalist, the MBC Group.

And in our exchange with Mourad, we asked about the classic “Arabian fantasy” and the “whatever happened to it?” question that surrounds many cultures’ most fondly held stores of legend and fable.

“Literature authors haven’t quieted the ancient tales’ impact,” Mourad says, “despite the world spinning off in new, modern directions. In fact, these tales have continued to inspire and captivate writers throughout history. The enduring popularity of ancient tales lies in their ability to explore timeless themes that remain relevant and relatable to readers, even in a modern context.

“The ancient myths are re-implemented and mixed with the spirit of the times. They won’t end. They’ll appear in new forms.”Ahmed Mourad, author and screenwriter

“Authors have been able to adapt and reinterpret these ancient tales to reflect the changing values and concerns of their own time periods. For example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can be seen as a reimagining of the Prometheus myth. Both stories explore the consequences of seeking knowledge and defying the gods or natural order. Shelley’s work, however, speaks to the anxieties and concerns of the Romantic era, such as the fear of scientific progress and the consequences of playing God.

“Similarly,” Mourad says, “William Shakespeare drew heavily on ancient myths and tales in his plays, such as Hamlet, which was inspired by the myth of Isis and Osiris. And you can watch Lion King to see the structural similarity. The enduring popularity of Shakespeare’s plays lies in their ability to explore timeless themes of love, jealousy, and the human condition, using characters and stories that have resonated with people for centuries.

“In addition to adaptation and reinterpretation,” Mourad says, “authors of literature have also used ancient tales as a source of inspiration for new works. For example, JRR Tolkien drew heavily on Norse and Celtic mythology when creating the world of Middle Earth. His works, such as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, have become modern classics that continue to inspire readers and writers alike.

“The increase in man’s belief in science hinders a lot of thinking about writing the myth.” Mourad points out. “The time of writing the myth is linked to man’s convictions about the sky and the supernatural. The myth is part of the discovery of the world. Now our world is connected and luminous, and the mystery in it has become linked to technology.

“Thus, I think that the myth now is being manufactured, but in a way that we can hardly observe, tucked between stories, and time will take care of its spinning and digging its features. As I said before, the ancient myths are re-implemented and mixed with the spirit of the times. They won’t end. They’ll appear in new forms.”

‘A Significant Contribution to World Literature’

When Publishing Perspectives asks Mourad whether the Scheherazade material qualifies as a kind of mythology, he says, “The tales of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, are centered around the character Scheherazade, who’s recognized as an important cultural artifact and a significant contribution to the world’s literary canon.

“While the Scheherazade material may not have a direct connection to religious beliefs like other mythological stories, it does contain elements of mythology.”Ahmed Mourad, author and screenwriter

“Would it be accurate to consider these tales as a collection of mythological stories? A collection of beliefs that explain the worldview and culture of a particular group of people?

“These stories are often rooted in religion, and they provide explanations for natural phenomena, the origin of the world, and human behavior. The Scheherazade material does not have a direct connection to religious beliefs, as to other mythological stories, such as Christian mythology, for example. However, the Scheherazade, material does contain elements of mythology, including archetypal characters, supernatural events, and moral lessons.

“One of the archetypal characters in the Scheherazade material is the trickster, a character who uses wit and cunning to outsmart her or his opponents. Scheherazade herself is a prime example of the trickster archetype, as she uses her storytelling abilities to save her life and the lives of others. The tales themselves are also filled with trickster characters, such as the clever thief, Ali Baba. and the forty thieves.

“The Scheherazade material also contains supernatural elements, such as magical creatures and supernatural events. The tale of Aladdin features a magical lamp and a genie who grants wishes. The tale of Sinbad the sailor includes encounters with monstrous creatures, such as giant birds and sea serpents. These supernatural elements are often used to convey moral lessons and provide explanations for the mysteries of the world.

“Moreover, the Scheherazade material also includes moral lessons, which are a common feature of mythological stories. The tales teach important values, such as the dangers of greed, the importance of honesty, and the consequences of one’s actions.

“While the Scheherazade material may not have a direct connection to religious beliefs like other mythological stories, it does contain elements of mythology. So it would be accurate to consider the Scheherazade material as a collection of mythological stories.”

‘Arabian Fantasy’ and Cultural Realities

Finally, we ask for Mourad’s take on components of what’s popularly known as “Arabian fantasy.”

“To avoid aligning modern thinking with stereotypes, it’s important to approach Arabian fantasy with a critical and nuanced perspective.”Ahmed Mourad, author and screenwriter

“Arabian fantasy is a term used to describe a genre of literature, films, and other cultural products,” he says, “drawing on the rich and diverse cultural traditions of Arab and Islamic societies. This genre is characterized by its exotic settings, magical elements, and themes of honor and duty. While it’s possible to identify some common components of Arabian fantasy, there’s a risk that this genre can align modern thinking with stereotypes and misunderstandings about these cultures.

“One of the defining characteristics of Arabian fantasy,” he says, “is its use of exotic settings. These may include deserts, palaces, and markets, as well as fantastical locations such as hidden cities or mystical realms. These settings are often depicted in vivid detail, with elaborate descriptions of architecture, clothing, and cuisine. The use of exotic settings is intended to transport the reader or viewer to a different world, one that is far removed from their own experiences.

“Another key of Arabian fantasy is its use of magic and other supernatural elements. These may include spells, enchanted objects, and mythical creatures such as djinn or dragons. Magic is often used to drive the plot, as characters must use their wits and skills to navigate the challenges and obstacles they face. The use of magic also adds to the sense of wonder and mystery that’s characteristic of Arabian fantasy.

“Themes of honor and duty,” Mourad says, “are also common in Arabian fantasy. Characters are often driven by a sense of obligation to their family, their community, or their country. They may be motivated by a desire for justice, revenge, or personal glory. These themes reflect the strong sense of tradition and honor that is deeply ingrained in Arab and Islamic cultures.

“While it’s possible to identify these and other components of Arabian fantasy, there’s a risk that this genre can perpetuate stereotypes and misunderstandings about these cultures. The exotic settings, magical elements, and themes of honor and duty can reinforce simplistic and orientalist views of Arab and Islamic societies. This can lead to a narrow and inaccurate understanding of these cultures, one that is based on stereotypes rather than on the complex and diverse realities of these societies.

“To avoid aligning modern thinking with stereotypes, it’s important to approach Arabian fantasy with a critical and nuanced perspective. This means recognizing the limitations of this genre as a representation.

“And of course,” Ahmed Mourad says, “we writers have to reshape and mix the elements of the stories, break their rhythm, and anticipate them in new dramatic ways of telling that allow creating a new and contemporary form for the old stories, in addition to using cinematic writing that gives the text great vitality.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is here, and more on the United Arab Emirates’ market is here. More from us on book fairs and trade shows in world publishing is here. More on translation is here, and more on Arabic in the publishing world is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award. Our extended coverage of ADIBF 2022 is supported by the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.