Seventeen-year-old author Dubai Abulhoul has been inspired by her namesake home city to write fantastical tales that have gripped the imaginations of children and adults alike
Being named after one of the world’s most dynamic and ambitious cities might sound like a lot to live up to. But for 17-year-old Dubai Abulhoul it was all the inspiration she needed to realise her dreams. “My father chose the name for me,” says the Dubai-born author and filmmaker. “I come from a city that isn’t scared to dream big.”
Her goals have so far included the screening of a two-minute animation called Galagolia when she was just 11, and for which she was recognised as the Middle East’s Youngest Director at the inaugural Gulf Film Festival. The English-language mini-movie tells the story of a 10-year-old Emirati girl, Maitha bin Humaid, who, just like Abulhoul, lives in Dubai’s Deira district. She inherits the throne to the mystical kingdom of Galagolia and we chart her journey of self-discovery through a world of demons and deception.
Later that same year, Abulhoul expanded upon the fantasy-fiction short and embarked on her debut novel, Galagolia: the Hidden Divination. Balancing her studies and literary endeavours was a challenge. Getting her first offering onto UAE bookshelves four years later in 2011 proved an even bigger one.
“Initially, I contacted publishers and said I was a 15-year-old author and none of them responded. Only when I didn’t reveal my age did they reply to emails. Jerboa Books [which specialises in children’s literary titles] published my novel.”
Abulhoul’s persistence had paid off and not only was her book stocked in stores from Magrudy’s to WH Smith, right across the UAE, but it topped the bestseller list in Dubai Mall for four consecutive weeks.
The young writer was a guest speaker this year at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, which took place in early March. Alongside novelists Dr Kamal Abdel-Malek and Mona Tayim, on Thursday 6 March, she participated in a debate about the evolution of the Arabic language and the use of Arabizi, or so-called “chat alphabet”.
She also joined a panel discussion about the art of writing fantasy literature with respected Sharjan businessman and author AA Bukhatir. “The festival is one of my favourite events and has made a massive difference to me personally,” she says.
“I launched my first book through it and had such a great response. For so many talented authors to be under one roof is incredible. It inspires me to write even more, every time I attend.”
With the annual festival over, it’s back to business for Abulhoul. Determined to be the young standout in her sector, she’s busy penning the second tome of her Galagolia trilogy. “My sequel follows the same theme and character of my first book and I’m about halfway through it,” she says. “I don’t want to rush writing it, so I’d imagine it will be published in the next one to two years.”
Which sounds like a gentle pace, if you discount the fact that Abulhoul is also a full-time student at Abu Dhabi’s New York University. “I’m studying a double major in political science and English literature, and I sometimes find it hard to juggle. But I can normally get away with writing a chapter or two during a maths class,” she quips.
Despite her young years, Abulhoul is now something of an old hand at writing, and has some sage advice for those with similar passions. “Don’t wait to graduate to start writing or doing what you love,” she says. “I can’t imagine waiting until I am 20 or 25, knowing I have the ability to do it now. Don’t take your age into consideration, whether you are old or young.”
Age and ageism are topics that often float to the top with Abulhoul; she’s keen to quash stereotypes and prove detractors wrong. Her confidence and conviction were first demonstrated when she delivered an impassioned speech on the subject to an audience of hundreds at TEDxDubai in 2010. She hasn’t wavered since and draws parallels between herself and her namesake emirate in the pursuit of excellence.
“People may look down on me for my age, but I’m not going to stop doing what I love. Yes, I’m still young, and of course I’ll make mistakes, but I’m open to constructive criticism and I’m continually learning.”
And it’s not just science fiction and sorcery that the emerging author has a talent for translating into text. She’s turned her hand to journalism in recent years, contributing regularly to the popular Arabic newspaper Al Bayan and the English-language newspaper The National.
“My intention with the articles I write is to enlighten people, providing an ‘outside-the-box’ type of view on issues like education,” she says. “I recently touched upon how education systems – from the UAE’s to British and American curriculums – need reform, for example. To reach the older generations for me is sometimes very hard, so I just tried to put myself out there this way.”
Abulhoul’s words have been far-reaching and haven’t gone unheeded by the Dubai establishment.
“About two months ago, I was invited by the Executive Office to discuss ‘incorporating creativity into younger generations’. I was the youngest one in the meeting,” she says. “Reaching my generation won’t simply be done through museums and books: we need to bring technology and creativity right into the system. We need more creative writing; it’s not just about maths and sciences.”
Social views and politics apart, Abulhoul’s film ambitions were also of interest to the highest levels of government, with the promise of turning her first book into a 3D feature film.
“My novel is currently in the initial stages of production under the order of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, and it’s being handled by the Executive Office,” she says. “I’ll oversee the script, but the production and direction will be handled by a separate team. And film is a medium I definitely want to explore further in terms of creativity and sending a message. I want to be the first Emirati to win an Oscar!”
As bylines go, “Dubai Abulhoul” is a memorable one, and is surely destined to grace more newspapers, novels and new movie releases in the not-too-distant future. While her social conscience and editorial pieces keep her grounded, it’s Abulhoul’s creative scribblings that really motivate her.
“I always say that reality is far too boring for me,” she muses. “I’m looking to push boundaries, which is why I’m into fantasy.
“As a writer, be it fiction or non-fiction, it’s that ‘other universe’ you want to get into. It’s just something that you have to experience.”