Ahead of the six-day Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai, Vision talks to event founder and director, Isobel Abulhoul, about what lies in store for the UAE’s book lovers, the challenges of staging live theatre and why reading shouldn’t be a Brussels sprout
What can visitors expect from this year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature?
This year we’ve extended the festival by a day and I hope we will easily top the 30,000 visitors of last year. I’m excited about every single author coming to this year’s event. That includes Leslie McLoughlin, a professor of Arabic from the University of Exeter, and his session on 'What is the Arabic for Selfie?'; the renowned Palestinian writer and poet, Mourid Barghouti; or Dr Lewis Dartnell, the astrobiologist, and his book How to Rebuild our World from Scratch – the list goes on.
From a personal perspective, I’m thrilled and honoured that David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, is coming to the festival. There will also be Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – who is the most wonderful writer – and David Nicholls who wrote One Day and his latest book Us. Those three are absolute must-sees on my list.
What do you think will be the highlight of the 2015 programme?
The icing on the cake for me has to be the War Horse production and the War Horse puppets, Joey and Topthorn. We’ve never looked at literature in this way before and puppets are a very old and ancient tradition. I expect that the Cultural and Scientific Association, Al Mamzar – the venue for the production – will sell out its 1,000 seats. The audiences for the War Horse play in London ranged from eight to 109-years-old. Everybody will be absolutely captivated by the whole performance.
People in the emirates are incredibly artistic and express themselves through illustration, which is also something that cuts across languages – a very important consideration in a multinational, multilingual society
There have been huge challenges getting the production to Dubai. It is incredibly technical: each puppet needs three puppeteers. In addition we have a lighting director, the composition director and then the overall director. It’s been a steep learning curve on how technical live performances of this kind are. But I’m glad we’re doing it because next year is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death and the idea is to continue the theatrical strand for 2016. It is right, as part of the celebrations, that we look at the spoken word, plays and theatre too.
What do you hope to achieve with the festival’s dedicated Education Days?
In 2009 we had one Education Day and at that very first festival authors asked me, What should we talk about? I said go out and speak about your book, or about what inspired you to read and eventually become a writer. They came back saying they had never had such a wonderful experience – speaking to large audiences of young people from all different nationalities. So we expanded it to two days and this year authors are going out to more than 100 colleges and schools across the UAE and we’ll also host seven events at the festival itself.
It’s a bit like butter: we try and spread these wonderful writers as far as possible to take the message that reading is fun. Children go to school and learn to read and write and it’s a bit like eating Brussels sprouts – they only do it because they think it’s good for them. We want to allow as many young people as possible to understand the joy between the covers of a book. Reading is very much a habit; we want to inspire people for whom books may not be part of their daily lives and so they’ve never thought of books as fun.
What are some of the competitions that run alongside the Education Days?
We have four competitions open to students of any nationality in the UAE between eight and 23-years-old, which are key to the educational vision of the festival: the Oxford University Press Short Story Writing Competition, the Taaleem Poetry Award, the Chevron Readers’ Cup and Hamdan Bin Mohammed Heritage Center Qasidah Par Coeur Competition [poetry recital].
The competitions are deliberately diverse. It encourages those who have writing talent, people who love reading and can retain information, and it encourages performance skills and to learn poetry by heart. We have around 1,000 entries to the writing competitions across the age ranges; some 100 teams of four students from schools across the Gulf in the Readers’ Cup; and at least 400 students in the poetry recital competition. The finals for each competition are held at the festival.
What new elements of the programme can visitors look forward to?
This year we’ve brought graphic novelists and illustrators from around the world to the festival. They will let visitors into the secrets of how they are made. Graphic novels are hugely important in this part of the world and they have a great following. People in the emirates are incredibly artistic and express themselves through illustration, which is also something that cuts across languages – a very important consideration in a multinational, multilingual society.
The other new element we have is Big Ideas, where scientists and mathematicians share their concepts. The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is a bit like a drip effect. We want to bring people in through the magic door, into enjoying reading and writing; it’s not a Brussels sprout, this is a bit of chocolate.