Most Arab universities do not offer creative writing courses, but writers like the Kuwaiti novelist Taleb Alrefai try to make up for this by holding workshops for talented young Arab writers.
Alrefai has held workshops on creative writing in several Arab capitals, like Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Amman. He also worked with official and private institutions to highlight the importance of teaching creative writing.
While he teaches a course in creative writing for the American University of Kuwait, he regrets that “most Arab universities lack an academic specialisation in creative writing, yet it is a subject of high importance at American and European universities and institutes.”
In a recent interview, Alrefai told Al-Fanar Media that creative writing has become a life necessity, thanks to the spread of social media and their users’ indulgence in expressing themselves.
The reception of his workshops varies from one workshop to another, based on students’ knowledge, number, creativity level, and the extent of their harmony with him and with one another.
Studying the Craft Abroad
Before he started teaching creative writing, Alrefai studied the craft at prestigious institutions. He has participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, in the United States, and earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Kingston University London.
“Most Arab universities lack a specialisation in creative writing, yet it is a subject of high importance at American and European universities.”Taleb Alrefai
He earned his undergraduate degree, in civil engineering, from Kuwait University in 1982. He was already writing fiction during his university years, however, and published his first novel, include “Ẓill Al-Shams” (“The Shadow of the Sun”) in 1998.
In addition, he has published about a dozen story collections. Some of his works have been translated into other languages, notably English, French, and German.
Among other honours, Alrefai was selected to serve as chair of the judges for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and was chosen as the “Cultural Personality of the Year” at the Sharjah International Book Fair last year.
He also founded the Al-Multaqa Prize for the Arabic Short Story, a joint effort of the American University of Kuwait and the Cultural Circle, a literary discussion group he leads in Kuwait.
Teaching an Art as a Practical Subject
Alrefai believes that teaching creative writing through workshops contributes to spreading knowledge among university students, especially those with a talent for writing. There is value in teaching writing as a practical subject, he says, besides a link between creative writing and grappling with the reality of everyday life.
Alrefai’s writing workshops use an American approach based on interactive teaching between the teacher and students. The workshops include a theoretical part that introduces various literary genres, with a particular focus on short stories and novels. This is followed by a collective and open discussion among the participants, under the supervision and participation of the lecturer.
“These workshops are directed at students in general, and the gifted ones in particular, with the aim of refining their talents.”Taleb Alrefai
Few books are available in Arabic that explain the craft of creative writing. To help fill this gap, Alrefai published his book “Principles of Creative Writing for the Story and the Novel”, in 2018. The book includes the essence of his academic and practical experiences to present a creative-writing curriculum.
He is currently working on a revised edition of the book with new ideas related to recent developments in creative writing styles, given the spread of social media, he said.
In response to critics who say workshops cannot produce highly talented writers, Alrefai says the workshops are intended to benefit writers with some experience, not to create new ones from scratch.
He explained: “These workshops are directed at students in general, and the gifted ones in particular, with the aim of refining their talents.”
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The workshops help talented students understand and assimilate the technical elements of writing, he said.
“There is no specific formula for writing,” he said. “Early reading, imagination, language, and the adventure of experimentation are the most important elements for any writer.”
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