A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
What do most writers want? Nothing more than having their work read – and there is nothing more difficult than that. Until recently, for a text to reach a newspaper or to be accepted by a publishing house would require an enormous effort or a large share of luck. This was the case until Facebook came along and changed from being only a social platform aimed at communication to an unbridled arena to display culture and arts, where its users can practice creative writing without restriction and without obstacles preventing them from reaching the public.
Facebook’s numerous merits have enabled it to be a suitable environment for the growth of the literary movement in Yemen, as the number of Yemeni Facebook accounts exceeds two and a half million, alongside around another 145 million Arab users.Compared to the number of people interested in literature and reading outside the virtual world, this huge Arabic-speaking audience makes the local writer much more likely to be read than before. Facebook creates audiences from all walks of life and it is easy to reach them. However, although creative texts may not initially receive an avid and educated reader, they will certainly find someone who reads them, prompting the writer to continue writing and those who are interested in literature to pay attention to this literary product.
Facebook’s unrestricted space banished the fear of the censorship guillotine – except in rare cases – giving the writer more space for creativity since all texts can be written and shared. So the user is the author, editor, publisher, and the censorship authority (with the exception of some Facebook standards related to hate speech) – and by simply pressing the publish button, the text becomes available for reading anywhere.
Moreover, the interactivity – in terms of the posted content and the ease of direct commentary – have made the relationship between the writer and the reader closer than ever before. The writer has become aware of the reader’s opinion regarding their writings, and there is no easier way to pass criticism of the posted content than via Facebook. Also, the network linking the poles of the cultural process has facilitated holding meetings, from anywhere around the world, between writers and their peers and readers, as well as holding seminars, workshops and literary events more easily and with a higher attendance than what can be accomplished in reality.
This active Facebook literary movement has encouraged a number of people who were not interested in literature to get acquainted with writers and literary texts and to enter the world of reading, which has reflected positively on the printing and publishing movement, and has motivated more young writers to write and display their creative works. It has also contributed to developing the followers’ expressive skills by acquainting them with terms and expressive styles new to them, gained from Facebook posts and comments from other users.
Writers on Facebook
The writer Alaa Al-Solmi expresses her gratitude to Facebook as it has brought her many advantages in polishing her literary abilities, and now it is pushing her to continue working hard on her first short story collection. Al-Solmi says: “Recently, I have noticed an increase in my Facebook friends’ interest in reading literary texts. Facebook has created an audience for me, who have pushed me to write more, and it has connected me to local and Arab writers and critics from whom I have received criticism about what I write. In turn, this has guided me to formulate my own style.” Al-Solmi is not the only one, for poet Laila Hussein also gives Facebook credit for the publishing of her first poetry collection, Octavia issued by Naqsh Publishing House in 2019. She submitted a literary text to a literary competition held by Naqsh on Facebook, and she was chosen, along with another contestant, to have her worked published for free contrary to the common practice.
Hamza al-Qadhi, a young writer who published his first novel As if Nothing had Happened finds that Facebook has created a link between him and the reader and helped him market the book. Writer Alaa Jamal can’t agree more regarding the role of Facebook in marketing: “It was the platform through which I marketed my first novel Muntahay in 2016, and through it I reached a large number of readers.” She also finds that Facebook has improved the quality of what she writes, as the continuous writing trials on it were like a permanent exercise in writing – in addition to her readers’ criticism, which helped refine her literary talent.
Writer Nujoud al-Qadi does not consider Facebook to be the reason behind writing, but it was certainly an important factor for continuity and an aid to define her literary path. “A Facebook post is interactive; different readers read it at different levels and interact with it”, al-Qadi says. “This creates a space for cultures and ideas to intermingle, which will be beneficial to the development of the level of writing.” Al-Qadi won the Sharjah Prize for Creativity for her short story collection Memory of Sand and Echo, and Facebook was a way to make her achievement known to the world.
Abdul Hakim Bamakhram has been writing on Facebook since 2013, and says about his experience: “I started writing because I felt an urge to express my own thoughts.” Not only does he find that Facebook helps him reach his readers, but that knowing their opinions instantly about what he writes is something that he cannot get from publishing in local newspapers and magazines. Despite this, Bamakhram believes that the experience of writing on Facebook is not generally a positive experience, as it often makes the writer bound and subject to public opinion and mood, and this, he considers, is unhealthy for a writer.
So what about the other side of the effect of recognition that these writers get from their followers? Apart from its significant motivating role, these opinions, which are based mostly on emotional reactions, may contribute to the decline of literary quality, as the ease of publishing combined with the advantages of the feel-good factor that interactions with positive followers give to the writer may make them subject to the ‘obsession with likes’, motivating them to obtain as many ‘likes’ as they can without proofreading the text to be the best it can be. In addition, the followers’ frequent interactions with a writer’s texts may, over time, be turned into an unconscious habit; and thus the opinions they form may not be related to the objective criteria of evaluating a literary text. On the other hand, direct interaction with their texts might be a discouraging tool for good creative writers whose writings do not receive enough attention compared to other lesser-level writers. This may be because they do not have a large number of followers or because they do not have an attractive presence on Facebook, for reasons including that they do not provoke emotional excitement through their writing, or delve into social taboos, as well as their style perhaps being described as symbolic and complex, which makes it difficult for the general public to understand and interact with them. Therefore, this type of writing only encounters the elite readers who represent a small segment of society, making the audience of these talented writers limited, unlike the, for example, light cynical style which is much closer to the day-to-day language of the public and their issues.
The intense publishing activity could also suggest to the general reader that what is posted on Facebook is sufficient to build a cultural background and create a literary taste. Also, the fun, interactive reading atmosphere on Facebook may distract the reader from individual reading, such as reading books, which is a primary source of knowledge and authentic literature.
More established writers have the same opinion about Facebook; although it is not the platform for their first appearance, it has effectively contributed to connecting them with their readers and publishing their work. As for what Yemeni young writers publish on Facebook, writer Al Gharbi Imran believes that a number of Facebook writings demonstrate that it will produce great writers in the future: “Certainly not everyone who writes is worthy, and the ease of publishing will make reaching the top more difficult for the writers and will increase the level of competition.” Regarding the quality of the content, he says: “There are good and bad writings, and this does not matter because the one who will remain is the faithful!”
Najat Bahakim, the writer and the director of the Culture Bureau in Amanat al-Asimah, says: “The rise in the use of the cultural movement on Facebook is a positive movement and not only at the local level; it stimulates the literary movement and introduces the writer on a larger scale.” However, she is concerned about the freedom of expression and publication on Facebook, as she sees the possibility that some may use it in a way that will hurt the literary movement, such as praising poor literary content or offending a writer of a book or text for personal reasons far from objective criticism. As for publishing on Facebook in general, she finds it very useful as she believes that it resembles an introductory card for the writer, so they will be more careful upon posting through reviewing and paying attention to the quality of the content. “Facebook has helped us in the Culture Bureau in Amanat al-Asimah through spreading cultural activities, let it be national celebrations, artistic works, literary writings, or otherwise, which pushes the literary movement forward”, Bahakim adds.
Writer Wagdi al-Ahdal notes that, “Facebook has greatly contributed to make my literary work reach readers”. And about the literary role that Facebook plays, he says: “The absence of magazines and newspapers in Yemen has left a harmful effect on the new generation of young writers, but Facebook has formed an alternative and it may play a better role in terms of its ability to reach the readers wherever they are.” As for the quality of the literary content posted on Facebook, al-Ahdal believes that there are high-quality texts and low-quality ones, and this does not pose any danger to literature, as everyone has the opportunity to publish and readers can judge for themselves.
Facebook and the Yemeni cultural environment
Those interested in literature and working in the cultural field have realized the importance of Facebook’s role in pushing the cultural movement, and they have made use of it to serve this goal.
The Facebook group Yemen Writes is a good example of this. The group was established five years ago to create a forum that gathers talented writers, and today it has 20,000 members who are interested in writing – a number that is difficult to find in a cultural forum on the ground. This group has provided many services to talented youth, such as creating a platform for creativity and connecting writers with readers. It has also shaped an environment for continuous learning and guidance for the talented through mutual interaction between the writers and its members who are specialized in literature and the Arabic language, who comment on the writers’ posts and correct them orthographically and linguistically. This, in turn, motivates the writers to be more careful when writing. Areej Ali, a spokesperson for the group, says: “Our group has inspired other cultural forums that have contributed to revitalizing the culture movement in Yemen. We have received a huge interaction from the members who developed their level of writing constantly; some of them even get local and foreign opportunities to publish their work. As a literary forum, we have printed four books by members of our group.” The group that started on Facebook has borne fruit, by holding courses, training programs, and various literary activities.
Many cultural institutions have benefited from the young writers’ vital movement on Facebook to present their programs, such as the cultural foundation Romooz, which has a dedicated publishing program that helps introduce writers from the social networking site by publishing their writings on its own page. Sadiq al-Harrasi, coordinator of the Kitabat program under the supervision of Romooz Foundation, says: “Facebook is one of the most important links between the foundation and youth and to know their views on the literary activity in Yemen and the needs of writers, as well as disseminating training opportunities and workshops.” Romooz has held a writing contest on Facebook, posted on its page, to which about a 100 writers submitted their work. It also previously published a comprehensive book entitled Struggle: New Fiction in Yemencontaining various stories by young writers, some of whom are active on Facebook and who submitted their work to one of its writing programs.
Naqsh is a local publishing house interested in publishing literary creations and focuses primarily on youth. “The writings of the youth on Facebook have motivated us a lot, and we aim to support the creative youth and direct them towards publishing their work in reliable ways”, says Hamzah Abdullah, general manager of the publishing house. Naqsh holds an annual writing competition via Facebook, considering it an important platform and a free space for publishing, and provides a free and complete publishing service for the winning works.
Writer Ohoud Samir, author of the novel Cancer in a Branch of a Tree 2018 published by Naqsh in 2018 and founder of the 6,000 member Kitabat wa Kotob group, which is dedicated to literary writings, finds that the ease of access to the Facebook application and the large number of characters available for a post – compared to other platforms – enables it to be the ideal place to practice writing, hence the presence of a large number of writers. For this reason, she has chosen it to launch her project ‘One Hundred Texts for One Hundred Writers’, which is a project that aims to issue a comprehensive book that includes literary texts written by Facebook writers along with drawings by artists who are members of the group. Most of the book has been completed, and it is expected to be published by the beginning of 2021, in both Arabic and English, in addition to an audio version.
The final example is the Yemeni story literary club, elmaqah, which holds a weekly cultural activity every Wednesday. It has found a way to reach its members and introduce its activities through Facebook, and it is similar to other Yemeni literary forums.
Nowadays, it is hard to deny the great impact that Facebook has had on the literary movement in the Arab world in general and Yemen in particular, but there is still a debate about the quality of this influence, whether positive or negative. There are those who believe that the dynamic movement of writers on Facebook has helped enrich the cultural content and encouraged many people to enter the world of literature and invest in their ability to write. But others believe that the ease of publishing has contributed to the distortion of the cultural scene by enabling those who are not skilled at the art of writing to reach a large number of audiences and to publish poor content that will later affect readers’ literary tastes.