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“The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the social isolation it has induced across societies is driving home the truth that amidst all the challenges impacting the world today, it is arts, culture and books that we can count on as our allies,” remarked Muhsin Al-Ramli, an Iraqi writer, poet, academic and translator, at a virtual cultural session held at the 39th Sharjah International Book Fair.

“So, read more books and find beauty in the world around you,” he urged the SIBF audience while speaking at a session discussing the ‘Influence of the Modern World on the Writing of Today’.

Al Ramli was joined by journalist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on the ‘Sharjah Reads’ virtual platform and the session was moderated by Eman Al Yousef who raised the topic of a credibility crisis impacting both journalism and literature today.

“Before the advent of social media, we could rely on just a few newspapers for credible information. But today, there is so much disinformation as the sources of ‘news’ have increased, and we often do not know what the truth is,” said Al Ramli, whose novels Dates on My Fingers and The President’s Gardens were longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. “I believe this is a great opportunity for powerful journalism to rise to the fore and re-establish its credentials as the real source of verified information.”

He added: “In journalism, credibility is judged based on the accuracy of reporting while in literature, the humanitarian ethos has been a constant and this lends it greater credibility.”

Alibhai-Brown, a print journalist for the past 35 years and who also has experience in both radio and television journalism, said: “Truth has become very slippery today. Social media is a root cause of distortions that we no longer know what is true or false. There are many who still believe the pandemic is a lie.”

“What I find troubling is the rise of ‘selfie media’ where young people go all out on virtual platforms with no understanding of what might happen,” added Alibhai-Brown, author of Ladies Who Punch. “The commercial exploitation of these young people who are turned into influencers on platforms that follow no rules or regulations is a disturbing development. Social media has given everyone a voice and extreme views are often amplified here.”

Muhsin Al-Ramli begged to differ. He said: “The positivity and negativity of social media stems from the way we use them. The discussions and sharing of ideas that once happened in physical cafes has now moved online. The strength of the individual comes from being part of the larger group, whether in a virtual or physical space.”

She added: “I have so much faith in the young people of today – they relate better to those who are different from them; they don’t see differences in the way their parents or grandparents did; so, I think after the hard times we are going through now, something new and civilised will come out of this.”

“Economics and politics are creating deep divides amongst societies; we need to revitalise efforts to boost power of arts and culture to instill love and acceptance of others,” Al-Ramli concluded.