It began with an innocent question from a student intern: “Why don’t we do one of those community reads things?” The other student writers for Electra Street, the arts and humanities journal at NYU Abu Dhabi, thought it sounded like a great idea. I, as the faculty editor, was filled with grown-up skepticism about staging a literary conversation in a city as diverse and seemingly unbookish as Abu Dhabi, which does not even have a library that is open to the public with any regularity. But somewhere between student optimism and faculty skepticism, “Abu Dhabi Reads” took root, and one warm night in early November, more fifty people from all over this desert city gathered in a garden at NYU to talk about Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi.
The U.S. Library of Congress started their “One Reads” program to celebrate the pleasures of shared reading. The program is simply designed—a town chooses a book then invites its residents to read it and join a public discussion—and has proved incredibly popular. In 2003, there were sixty-three programs in thirty states; in 2005, more than three hundred programs ran in all fifty states, and now there are One Book programs in countries all over the world.
Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is a city where it is easy to remain a stranger; casual conversations can be difficult to find, even among the many disparate expat communities. Abu Dhabi sprawls along the edge of the Arabian Gulf like Los Angeles or Houston and, as in those U.S. cities, most residents race purposefully from point A to B in air-conditioned cars without pausing to interact with their surroundings or fellow inhabitants. Abu Dhabi doesn’t have a particular “downtown” area, and unless you count the many malls dotting the landscape, there is no town square where people mingle. A community read here, where there isn’t a strong sense of community—or rather, where there are many small communities that do not generally intersect with one another—would seem to be doomed from the start.
In an effort to catch the interest of residents more attuned to movies than literature, we chose Life of Pi because the city was plastered with advertising for Ang Lee’s 3D adaptation, which features several actors better known in Bollywood than Hollywood. At the very least, people might read the novel because they’d heard about the movie and were curious to discover how a boy and a Bengal tiger came to share a lifeboat on the Indian Ocean for two hundred and twenty-seven days. Pi Patel, the novel’s eponymous hero, is a fantastic storyteller and an inveterate collector of religions; he practices Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. Near the beginning of the novel, the narrator tells us that Pi’s is “a story to make you believe in God,” and while Abu Dhabi Reads wasn’t intended to spark religious conversions, we did hope that bringing people together to read Pi’s story would create, at least for the span of an evening, the intimacy of a town hall gathering: a common space carved out of a wildly diverse city.
My skepticism about whether Abu Dhabi readers would emerge and join the conversation proved to be unfounded: as has happened with these events in America, readers emerged from the proverbial woodwork, clutching their paperbacks and e-readers. Where did they come from, this gardenful of readers? We had spread word about Abu Dhabi Reads through newfangled social media (Facebook, Electra Street’s website, Twitter), and old-fangled print publications (an article in The National, the country’s English-language newspaper; flyers hung in bookstores and around the NYUAD Campus). Whether pulled in by new media, print, or that oldest of standbys, a friend saying “let’s go,” the NYUAD garden was full of people—not only NYU students and faculty but also high school students and local professionals of all ethnicities and national dress. For the most part, we read silently and alone, but, paradoxically, part of the excitement of reading comes from sharing our experience with others. And while there is a thriving online book culture, with sites like Goodreads, face-to-face conversations seem increasingly rare—and when conversations do happen, it’s usually in the confines of a book group with a relatively homogenous membership. In fear that our audience might not have anything to say, we had asked a few people to be “conversation starters”: three students from NYUAD, an NYUAD faculty member, and an Australian novelist who lives in Abu Dhabi. Each person spoke for a few minutes about the novel, and then posed a question to the audience. Their questions were insightful, but ultimately, we needn’t have worried. The diverse group who gathered to talk about Life of Pi appeared motivated equally by wanting to talk about the novel and wanting to listen to what others had to say. People had gathered for the conversation.
I have taught Life of Pi several times, although never in Abu Dhabi, and each time, students have been fascinated by Pi’s attempt to practice Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam simultaneously. Students appreciate Pi’s desire to combine spiritual practices, but they doubt that such a goal is ultimately attainable. Their skepticism is shared by characters in the novel, all of whom insist that Pi must choose only one way to worship. But Pi wonders why, if a person can be a mixture of nationalities, he can’t also be a mixture of religions. After all, he thinks, if the point of religion is to “love God,” then shouldn’t he be able to do that any way he sees fit?
The readers in Abu Dhabi turned quickly to talking about Pi’s religion. But instead of wanting Pi to limit himself, they admired his buffet-style theology. “Eh, you worship, so you worship,” said an older Arabic man in the audience. “What matters more is how you treat the other people in your life, not what you call your prayers. Instead of concentrating on two percent of difference, we should concentrate on ninety-eight percent that is the same.” There was a smattering of applause at his comment, as this group of people, whose lives might never otherwise connect, realized they shared this man’s attitude.
Martel’s novel, however, doesn’t rest quite so easily with this idea of shared connections. In fact, the early chapters of the novel suggest that, Pi’s beliefs notwithstanding, it might be impossible to reconcile different world views. When Pi shows a zebra to his science teacher and to the baker who has been teaching him Islam, for instance, the men, both of whom are named Kumar, are stunned—and then their reactions diverge. Kumar the science teacher says “equus burchelli boehmi,” and Kumar the Muslim baker says “Allahu akbar.” How should we understand this moment? Both of the Mr. Kumars are mesmerized by this creature, which neither had ever seen before, but their interpretations of what they see do not intersect; it is almost as if they are looking at two different creatures. While scientific categorization and praise for the divine are not necessarily mutually exclusive attitudes, these men have nothing to say to one another: they neither notice nor dismiss; they simply ignore. The narrator tells us that the men’s paths never again cross, which could suggest that their interpretations will also remain separate. Pi himself says of the zebra only that “it’s very pretty.” Does that suggest that aesthetics trumps any other form of understanding?
In all my readings of Martel’s novel, I’ve never been able to answer that particular question, although I do think that the novel’s conclusion values the emotional and personal response over the intellectual. Close to the novel’s end, Pi encourages us to believe “the better story,” which seems connected to “it’s very pretty,” in that both responses are about how we feel about a particular event rather than what we think about it. What I noticed during our conversation with Abu Dhabi readers, however, is how fervently people wanted the novel to allow for both connections and peaceful difference. Readers debated whether religious faith is necessary for hope; they argued over whether certain events in the novel happened or if Pi simply imagined them; and there was strenuous debate about the novel’s surprise ending (which I won’t reveal here, in case you’ve not read it—or seen the movie). All these disagreements notwithstanding, however, the audience insisted that the novel ultimately offers a cosmopolitan, and hopeful, world view.
Reading, as one audience member pointed out, occurs in a specific moment and is therefore always inflected by where we are and how we’re feeling. When you re-read, she said, “You go back not only to the book itself but also to wherever you were, emotionally and physically, when you read the book for the first time.” There were nods of assent, but no one immediately responded because at that moment the adhan, thecall to prayer, rang out from the mosque that abuts the NYUAD campus. We all sat in silence as “Allahu akbar” spread across the city and the green lights at the tip of mosque’s turret flickered against the darkening sky.
It makes sense, doesn’t it, that these readers—sitting in the shadow of a mosque in a city where more than eighty-five percent of the population is from somewhere else—wanted the novel’s primary message to be about religious tolerance. If such a thing isn’t even possible in the pages of a novel, then how can aspiring cities, like Abu Dhabi, founded forty-one years ago and engaged in rapidly transforming a nomadic culture into a modern city by the sea, hope to flourish? As the final notes of the adhan drifted away, the conversation resumed, but in slightly more subdued tones, as if the audience was reflecting on the implications of their shared endeavor.
I don’t think Pi’s story made anyone in the audience believe in god who didn’t already believe, or broaden anyone’s existing belief system to include another religion’s divinity; and I’m not sure if any connections forged that night during the discussion will result in long-lasting friendships. I did, however, come away with a renewed belief in the power of a book to open us to one another and to the opportunity to talk across difference. Abu Dhabi, it seems, does read—and wants to read more. Plans for a spring Abu Dhabi Reads are already underway.
Deborah Linday Williams is an affiliated faculty member in the literature program at NYU Abu Dhabi. She is the author of Not in Sisterhood: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Zona Gale, and the Politics of Female Authorship, and numerous articles about early 20th century women writers.
Graphic by Darya Vladmirova Soroko