Off to a flying start: Dubai’s literary feast

Puppets, poets and a world-class pianist delight audiences at the launch of the seventh Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

With the quote “Books give soul to the universe” ringing in the audience’s ears, the seventh edition of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature got off to a flying start last night. Attendees packed into the 1,000-seat theatre of Dubai’s Scientific and Cultural Center, Al Mamzar, to launch the Gulf emirate’s annual literary showcase.

“The Festival of Literature has become an essential part of the national cultural scene of Dubai and the UAE,” said His Highness Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, UAE minister of culture, youth and community development. “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they are written. Readers owe it to themselves to regard books with that respect. Only then can they legitimately criticise and appreciate them. Only then do the books have their charms to delight and instruct.”

This year’s Literature Festival is set to be one of the biggest, with more than 130 international and local writers and speakers slated to entertain audiences under the theme of Wonderland. More than 40 authors from the Arab world will share their thoughts and work during the five-day festival in Dubai.

We forget that we spend all of our adult lives in search of that particular magic which keeps us alive

Lemn Sissay, Poet

Peace and tolerance were the themes of the opening night. Pianist Jason Kouchak performed two compositions, including one titled Knight of Peace, a world premiere composed for the 2015 festival. Poet Lemn Sissay, associate artist at London’s Southbank Centre, recited his poem Let There be Peace.

Kuwaiti-born author Naif Al-Mutawa, too, evoked the theme. His comic book creation, The 99, depicts a group of Islamic superheroes who through their exploits, “highlight the positive values Islam shares with humanity” said Al-Mutawa. The comic has been televised in more than 70 countries.

“I don’t believe that writers choose what they write about. I believe it chooses them,” said Al-Mutawa.

The evening was crowned with an eagerly anticipated performance from the South-African Handspring Puppet Company, creators of the puppets for the play War Horse, adapted from the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo. Two of the play’s puppets, Joey and Topthorn, performed a 15-minute piece called Horse Life created specially for the evening.

guests lit fest dubai
Guests enjoy the opening night of the Emirate Airline Festival of Literature, which included a recital from the poet Lemn SissayImage: Darren Arthur

Dubai’s annual literary event attracts some of the biggest names from around the world. The programme for 2015 presents a range of authors, artists and thinkers, including Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, radio presenter Anita Anand, poet Imtiaz Dharker, historian Bettany Hughes, illustrator Satoshi Kitamura and best-selling young adult authors Lauren Oliver and Markus Zusak.

Some new features of this year’s event include a look into the world of graphic novels and the festival’s first live theatrical performance – the War Horse Concert, which includes readings and songs from the sell-out book and play on Wednesday.

“None of this would be here without the imagination. The imagination is as real as this podium,” said Lemn Sissay. “We spend our lives believing artists and writers and the imagination is something that children do. We forget that we spend all of our adult lives in search of that particular magic which keeps us alive, which keeps our spirits up.”

The festival runs from 3 to 7 March at the InterContinental Hotel in Dubai Festival City. Since 2009, the event has drawn book lovers from across the region for a week of author readings, workshops and poetry performances. The 2014 edition was named Best Festival at the Middle East Events Awards, the second consecutive year it has won the accolade.