By the book

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is promoting cultural understanding – not only by introducing world-famous authors to people in Dubai, but also through those same authors carrying a new appreciation of the Arab world back home

Dubai. A place you may not yet have been, but will have surely visited in your imagination. High-rise, high-living, high hopes; a dazzling desert metropolis.

Of course, this is just a part of the story. What makes headlines inside Dubai (where the broadsheet dailies go heavy on arts) are events such as the International Jazz Festival and the International Peace Music Festival, Art Dubai, the Dubai Dance Festival and the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, which this year gained the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE.

The Festival of Literature was founded by Isobel Abulhoul, an Englishwoman who made her home in Dubai 43 years ago and set up the Magrudy’s bookselling chain. It recently concluded its third season based, as usual, at the InterContinental Hotel Festival City. “It’s a great honour,” says Abulhoul. “HH Sheikh Mohammed has been the inspiration behind the Festival from the very beginning. I remember reading about his vision to reduce illiteracy in the Arab world and wondering if a festival would help. That was one of the main goals of the Festival – to bring joy and celebration to reading and thereby encourage more people to read.”

From the outset, Abulhoul’s own vision was for an event that was “accessible not elitist – and not just for book lovers”. An event that would “reach out and attract diverse audiences”, chiming with the vision His Highness shares with HH Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi in Sharjah, a passionate advocate, with his daughter Sheikha Bodour, of books and reading for both learning and pleasure.

Among those featured in the festival’s opening year, 2009, were Philippa Gregory, Louis de Bernières, Kate Mosse, Sir Mark Tully, Claudia Roden and Frank McCourt – his last public appearance. In the second year, Martin Amis, Ahdaf Soueif, Amit Chaudhuri, Yann Martel, Youssef Ziedan and Bahaa Taher – the latter two being winners of the International Prize for Arab Fiction – were among those taking the stage. This year’s Festival – the most ambitious to date – gathered 100 authors from 26 nations, among them Margaret Atwood, Leila Aboulela, Lynne Truss, Edward de Bono, Khaled Al Khamissi and Tariq Ramadan, as well as Children’s Laureates Michael Morpurgo and Anthony Browne. A United Nations of literature which, like all good festivals, has given birth to a Fringe, featuring music, poetry, story-telling and debate. The workshop programme (which this year included everything from calligraphy to ‘trauma journalism’) and educational outreach were fully booked well before the opening parade of children dressed up as their favourite literary characters.

New additions this year were the George Orwell Lecture with the BBC’s Gavin Esler, and three Gala Evenings. The first, in January, featured Jeffery Deaver, a star turn from 2010 who so fell in love with “the real Dubai” that he set part of his new James Bond novel in the emirate. The others, which took place during the Festival at the new Al Mamzar Theatre, showcased the Dubai Sinfonia alongside Michael Palin and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, while Margaret Atwood was joined by poets Simon Armitage, Nathalie Handal and Benjamin Zephaniah.

“Our authors are our greatest ambassadors – for the Festival and for Dubai,” reflects Programme Director Vivienne Wordley. “Our vision was to bring together on stage writers from East and West to share their passions, exchange ideas and discuss issues that concern us all. We know that many authors return to their native lands with a new understanding of the Arab world, which they then share.

“This year we grew from three to five days, and to the Festival staples of poetry readings, interviews and debates, we added drama workshops, cookery demonstrations, a literary lunch with Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire, a Literary Quiz Night and a musical strand. We’re now working on 2012, and a fantastic array of authors wants to come and experience Dubai.”

Sir Maurice Flanagan, Executive Vice-Chairman of Emirates Group, the headline sponsor, is thrilled. A prize-winning playwright and published poet, he thought it “a no-brainer” when Abulhoul approached him with her proposal. “The internationally famous writers come here, love the place and spread their influential word about Dubai in their home countries.” It’s a win-win-win situation: good for Emirates, good for literature and good for Dubai.

Take Dame Jacqueline Wilson, former Children’s Laureate, who came in 2010 “wondering if the audience would be predominantly English expats, but I saw kids from places like Dubai, India, China and Japan. Everyone asked pertinent questions and the book signings went on forever. There were lots of traditional families, women wearing the niqab. Little girls who came from such different backgrounds looked at me with delight.” Significantly, Wilson “now gets quite chippy” if she hears the UAE’s cultural credentials being questioned: “It shows ignorance. In a few days, I got quite a feel for the country and the people.”

Lionel Shriver says she relished the opportunity to become acquainted with “a unique locale. There’s no place like it. I’m always on the lookout for new locations and the better travelled I am, the more interesting my books. It’s humanising. You never quite believe in a country you’ve never set foot in, and I’ve not spent much time in the Middle East, which means the countries are abstractions. Alchemising any country into a place that exists in the personal map I keep in my mind is great – and I like making that map bigger.”

Perhaps the last word should go to Jeffery Deaver, who has put Dubai on the real-life literary map. “Without being too philosophical, I feel that essential human values, societal values, are best exchanged through culture. That’s where truths are found, the best of human nature revealed, the worst exposed. It’s festivals like Emirates’ which let us see that the values in the Middle East are identical to those we have in America, and you achieve that understanding not through political or theological discussion, but through literature.”