Ahlam Bolooki, Director of Emirates Festival of Literature Discusses This Year’s Upcoming Event,

Lindsay Judge   |   02-02-2022

Ahlam Bolooki’s passion for reading goes far deeper than a career choice. As Director of Emirates Festival of Literature, she is responsible for bringing international and regional authors together for a dialogue that helps to highlight the importance of literacy in today’s society and particularly in the region.


After a break from a physical event last year, Emirates Festival of Literature is back this month and it’s bigger than ever. With a new location and an incredible line-up of authors there’s plenty to see and discover. Under the theme “Here Comes the Sun” this year edition will see big names presenting and hosting interactive sessions throughout the week. Attending speakers and authors include Gary Vaynerchuk, Nadiya Hussain, David Walliams, Iman Mersal, Indra Nooyi, Azza Fahmy and HE Omar Saif Ghobash. There will also be a highlight on Emirati talent on day one of the festival and throughout the programme. Here we find out more about what to expect with Festival Director Ahlam Bolooki.



What can you tell us about this year’s edition of Emirates Festival of Literature – what can we expect?

The festival begins on 3rd February so not long to go now! Throughout the ten days we will have very special events happening around town, as well as the main event over the weekend. For the first time in thirteen years our venue has changed, and this edition will be at Habtoor City, on Sheikh Zayed Road. It’s a great convenient location with lots of possibilities.


What are some of the precautions you have taken in relation to COVID-19?

We are very excited to have many authors flying in this year as last year we had to take the decision to not let any international authors attend. This year, so far, everything is going to plan which is very exciting and the authors are still very much interested in coming to Dubai. I think now that we have familiarised ourselves a little more with the virus and how to protect ourselves, people are a lot more confident to travel. At the festival we will have certain measures in place to ensure everyone stays safe. All the authors will be COVID-tested before speaking at the festival, as well as everyone in the team. We will monitor the situation closely and follow the government guidelines.


What are some of the highlights and visiting authors to look out for this year and is there anything new to discover?

We chose this year’s theme “Here Comes The Sun” because we wanted the event to be a ray of positivity after the difficult two years the world has faced and we’ve got exciting sessions covering a range of topics. A few highlights include a session with Indra Nooyi, the former President of Pepsico. I am moderating the discussion between her and Her Excellency Reem Al Hashimi at Expo 2020 Dubai on the last day of the festival, so that will be really exciting.


We have a session with Toshikazu Kawaguchi who is the author “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” which is a fictional novel translated from its original Japanese. The book is about time and travel and it’s really fun and quirky so that will be exciting. We have a session with Selma Dabbagh author of “We Wrote in Symbols”. She put together this anthology of love and lust in Arab literature written by women and it’s a really interesting book that has had a lot of attention.


We’ve got some amazing fiction award-winning authors including Brit Bennett, author of “The Vanishing Half”, we have C Pam Zhang, author of “How Much of These Hills Are Gold”.  And we are going back into the desert for our signature poetry event. We have Charles Dickens great, great, great granddaughter Lucinda Dickens Hawksley coming. She will be hosting a special event with a talk about the women in Dickens’ novels on February 7th which marks Charles Dickens’ two-hundred and tenth birthday.


Can you share a little on some of the Emirati authors taking part?

Day one of the festival is completely dedicated to Emirati literature and it’s free for all to attend. We will have a session on short story novels which will see a group of Emirati writers reading exerts out of their short stories. We’ve got a lovely poetry event hosted by Emirati poets, we’ve got a session on the cultural economy in the UAE, where we will have different speakers from various industries talking about the new cultural economy, whether that’s streaming or NFT’s or all sorts of different aspects of cultural economy. We’ve got a panel on women in unconventional roles. It’s a nice mix of fiction and non-fiction related events. We also have scriptwriters; we have Mohammed Saeed Harib, Creator of the Region’s First 3D Cartoon Series ‘Freej’. He will be speaking as part of a session on stigma in the arts in Emirati culture. There will be so many exciting sessions.


How has the festival grown and developed since the beginning and what do you think is the impact it has on the region?

I think it’s had an incredible impact. First of all, it is a homegrown festival that was established here in the UAE and was started by the creator of one of the oldest book shops in the country. So it was built on the knowledge of what people here in the UAE are reading and are interested in. Over the years it has become so much easier to attract prominent figures and writers from all over the world. The festival has established such a solid reputation amongst the global literary communities, and we deal with publishers everywhere in the world.


We have strong relationships with book agents, with thousands of authors who have been with us over the years. They know us well; they trust us, and they actually see us as the go-to place to discover new authors and fresh voices. They come to us to ask about collaborations in the region and we act as a catalyst for dialogue between the East and West. And we always have Arab authors sitting on panels alongside authors from all over the world, discussing their literature and various social topics. It’s quite unique and accessible and it allows attendees to see some of the greatest minds in the world come together and talk about topics that are important today.


How is the platform helping to foster talent within the UAE?

It plays a huge role. We now have an entire day dedicated to Emirati literature and fifty per cent of our programme is now in Arabic. Many local authors are timing their book launches to be in time with the festival. They see it as a milestone to work towards. It also allows them to be in great company as the festival has great writers from all over the world. We’ve had Emirati writers who through the festival, have been invited to other festivals around the world. Three years ago, we established the Association of Literature Festival Directors and they come to our festival with the purpose of discovering local talent which can then be exported. So yes, we play a huge role in creating opportunities for local writers.


What advice would you give to aspiring authors in the region?

The UAE is still a young country, and we are developing in many industries. We’re not as advanced as a lot of nations, but we are making real progress and there are programmes now that can support aspiring writers. We’ve been running the Lit Fest Writing Prize for the last ten years and through that we’ve had eight or nine internationally published writers who applied through the festival. Some of these now have multi-book deals with publishers around the world.


This year we’ve also launched the first chapter of the ELF Seddiqi Writers Fellowship. We closed the submissions on 2nd January and I’m very optimistic after seeing them. I really feel that we are in possession of applications from some of the greatest writers in our region that will emerge in the next five years. The successful candidates will be paired with global writers who will take them under their wing with a structured 40 hours of learning from and we are very excited to see where it leads.


In a world where everything is digital – how important do you still think it is for people to read?

In this world, where there’s an over-stimulation of multimedia and short-form content, there is so much noise for our senses to take in. Most of what we take in is on the surface and we never stay with one idea for longer than a few seconds before moving onto the next. What that does to us as human beings is a dangerous thing because we lose touch with who we truly are in our essence. I think taking time to read books firstly gives us an in-depth experience. There are certain books that I’ve read where I truly felt like I knew the characters. It’s like they were people that I met at a certain time of my life, and I’ve moved on, but I still have a connection to them. Through reading, you get exposure to so many lives and experiences that are outside of your own and it’s a form of meditation. You are interacting intimately with the thoughts, lives and private conversations of the characters in the book, and I think the level of empathy that cultivates in us as human beings is incredible. And then of course there is just so much pleasure in it! It’s a joy that I hope everyone gets to find in their lifetime.


Tell us about your passion for books – where did it stem from, and did you always want to work in this industry?

I didn’t read very much as a little girl; I know it’s something that my mother certainly tried very hard to get me interested in but as children, I guess we are occupied with other things. The first book that got me interested in literature was “Shame” by Jasvinder Sanghera which I read when I was 18. It tells the story of the struggle of a woman escaping an arranged marriage situation. It’s non-fiction and it got me into reading a series of books all related to the struggles of women and how they got themselves out of those situations. That was the first time that I really got into books.


My career has been disconnected from any of this – I studied hotel management, then hospitality, I worked in the tourism sector. I worked in marketing and my writing skills were something I found through that. That got me into exploring creative writing courses and then discovering the festival. At first, I was volunteering and moderating at the festival while I worked elsewhere and then it just happened that when I left my previous job there was an opportunity with the foundation for a part time project and then six months later that turned into this job. So, my stars have aligned!


What for you makes a good book?

I’m personally very interested in domestic fiction which is focused on family or individual stories related to complications in relationships, whether that’s in a family, friend or societal setting. I’m very interested in interactions between characters and psycho-analysing their relationships and different personalities. A good book always has honest, open and raw characters and I think the thoughts need to be quite tightly connected to each other, so you are hooked on the story.


Is there anything you would still like to do with the festival that you haven’t done yet?

I think we’re building on what we do every year. This year for example we will have two formal debates. This is something that I’ve always wanted to do, and it will be exciting to expose our audience to debates where either side could be right and this idea that you could debate two sides to one argument as strongly as each other. That’s something that I think is important for students and young people in the region to learn. I’m very excited about exploring that and doing more of it in the future.


We always try to do something fun and new, so we’ve got a Fright Night this year dedicated to crime fiction and horror stories which is something we’ve never done before. Of course, we have the Fellowship Writers Initiative that I already mentioned. So every year we try to introduce new elements and it’s a natural, organic growth that happens bit by bit.


What are some books you would recommend readers to go out and read now?

Most of my reading this year has been the festival author’s books so I would recommend you read some of the books by the authors that will be taking part. Britt Bennett’s books are amazing, I would really recommend those. Elizabeth Acevedo is someone that I’m really excited about in the prose and poetry category. Avni Doshi has some fantastic books. Fadi Zaghmout is an Arab author who’s had a couple of his books translated into English, he has a unique and interesting voice. Iman Mersal is a great poet who I would really recommend. There are so many exciting books to read!


Emirates Festival of Literature will run from 3rd to 13th February 2022. For more information visit their website at emirateslitfest.com