Dr. Afra Atiq is an Emirati scholar and poet. She has completed her PhD in Media and Creative Industries at United Arab Emirates University (UAEU), where her research focused on social media and the Arab literary ecosystem. Her research sheds light on the role social media plays within the literary sector—particularly, how Instagram is affecting the literary ecosystem.
Dr. Afra also has a master's degree in diplomacy and her research on education, reading, and social media has been published in international journals. She has won the Special Achievement Award at the Arab Women Awards in 2018, and the 2017 Abu Dhabi Music and Art Foundation Creativity Award.
Her artistic work explores a broad range of topics, which include heritage, culture, identity, legacy, self-acceptance, grief, and almost everything in between. She writes and performs in a blend of English, Arabic, and French.
She has been featured on numerous international platforms including in Kuwait, Jordan, India, Germany, and the UK. Locally, she has showcased her work, most notably, at the Dubai Opera, Louvre Abu Dhabi, PublisHer summit in Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi Art.
Community and education are at the core of everything that Dr. Afra does and she dedicates much of her time to educational visits and community collaborations. She's a founding member of Untitled Chapters – a community for Emirati women writers. She collaborated with MKS Jewellery and conducted workshops on self-expression, through voice and poetry, at the Emirati-Jordanian Refugee Camp in Jordan. It is these activities that drive Dr. Afra’s purpose.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Afra, one of the authors attending the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2021.
Saira Malik (S.M.): As a performer and someone who loves to connect and interact with a live audience, how have you been finding inspiration during these unprecedented times due to the global pandemic?
Afra Atiq (A.A.): In all honesty, it has been extremely difficult. As someone whose career is built upon being in spaces with people, it has been frustrating and tiring to navigate this territory without the tools that I am used to, such as visiting new places, meeting people, and just soaking up all there is. The amazing thing about poetry, though, is that it always prevails. It reveals itself to us in ways, sometimes unbeknownst to us, when we least expect it.
I believe that inspiration surrounds us and that anything can be inspiration. So I have been immersing myself in books, poems, and conversation. I've also been using this time to document the experience of living in a pandemic and all the things that go with that—be that good, bad, or ugly. At the end of the day, poetry is really the human story.
S.M.: In your mind what makes spoken word different from written word?
A.A.: I get asked this question quite a bit, and I'm not entirely sure there is one right answer. I think spoken word is written with a specific purpose of it being experienced through performance and recitation. This is one of the elements I absolutely love about spoken word. It is being able to experience the work as it is being experienced by the audience.
There is a beautiful reference for ‘spoken word’ in Arabic, which is often translated as "free verse poetry," and through my experience and research, I have found a reference to ‘spoken word’ as "free poetry." The beauty in these interpretations is that it alludes to poetry that has been freed from the confines of rhyme and meter.
S.M.: Having achieved so much success in such a short time how would you describe your journey to date?
A.A.: I have been blessed with an amazing journey. Yes there have been disappointments, rejections and heartbreaks along the way but there has also been love and tremendous support. It's been a beautiful journey.
S.M.: Since you cover difficult social topics, tell us about your biggest obstacle before getting to this point?
A.A.: Poetry has always been a facilitator of change and a spark that starts conversation. The obstacles I have faced have taken so many different shapes, but I would say that the biggest obstacle has been trusting myself to do what I do. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. In the end, obstacles are only as big as we let them become and we need to have faith that things will work out.
S.M.: What are some of the milestones you are most proud of?
A.A.: I'm so proud of earning a PhD, and juggling a full time poetry career. I've been blessed with a craft that have allowed me to perform on so many incredible stages, like Dubai Opera and Louvre Abu Dhabi. I am also proud of a collaboration with MKS jewelry, which took us to the Emirati Jordanian Refugee camp, where we wrote poems, told stories, and created beautiful jewelry keepsakes. We laughed, we cried, we hugged, and it was life changing in the most incredible way.
S.M.: Can you share that one piece of advice with young aspiring creatives and poets that you think would have helped you when you started your journey?
A.A.: Trust yourself, trust your craft, and find your voice. It is there, it is yours, and it will bring hurricanes.
S.M.: Would you tell us about your recent research and findings on the changes that Instagram brought to the literary ecosystem in the Arab world?
A.A.: What has really stood out about my research is that it works on both sides of the equation. It looks at social media from a consumer and producer perspective, and translates this concept of producers and consumers of literature. I interviewed writers and readers from all over the Arab world to understand how Instagram is affecting the literary ecosystem. The findings were not surprising but they were enlightening. Many writers are turning to Instagram to upload their written work, foregoing traditional publishing models, and seeking support through forming a community of writers, which cites a lack of support elsewhere. I think the takeaway from this study is the need to reevaluate the Arab publishing industry, and ecosystem as a whole. While ensuring that writers get the support they need to thrive.
S.M.: Your poem, ‘Cher Moi’ is a combination of three languages, what was your experience writing it and why do you think it has resonated with the audience so well?
A.A.: I think words that come from a genuine place always resonate with the audience. Cher Moi is a very personal poem that explores, what I think many people including myself struggle with, reconciliation of who you were as a person with who you aspire to become and evolve into. It was performed at Louvre Abu Dhabi and that makes it even more special.
S.M.: Who are your peers within the spoken word sphere that you look up to?
A.A.: So many names come to mind, above all, my mother. She's not in the spoken word field per sé, but she's in the field because I'm in the field. There is no one I look up to more than my mother. Of course, I look up to the fabulous women of Untitled Chapters (a collective of Emirati women writers). They have been my rock since day 1—they are my family.
Carlos Andres Gomez, is my hermano, whilst Danabelle Gutierrez and Christine Jean Blain, my poetry sisters.
Honestly there are so many exciting projects going on at the moment that are being done by so many of my peers. Open mics, collaborations, and everything in between. The pandemic had forced creatives to think outside of the box, and there are some fantastic ideas coming to life now. I'm so proud of my peers and how the field has really rallied together to get through this difficult time.
S.M.: What are your future aspirations and where do you see yourself in another few years?
A.A.: I see myself creating positive change, inspiring content, and being inspired. Happy, healthy, and surrounded by love and loved ones.
Words: Saira Malik
Images: Courtesy of Dr. Afra Atiq;
Header image by photographer, Waleed Shah;
Third image courtesy of Khaleejesque 2016, by photographer, Olga Lobanova