The Emirates Festival of Literature began in 2008 as a way of bringing together those who are interested and inspired by reading, offering a platform for visitors to access the works and ideas of writers, and offering the authors the opportunity to connect with their audience on a broader scale.
Isobel Abulhoul OBE
Now, fifteen years later, the festival has become one of the UAE’s most important annual events as it attracts authors and visitors from all around the world, bringing together a community of people who are interested in a host of topics covered by literature. It has also helped to put local talented authors out there on a global platform, celebrating their work and helping to get them international recognition. This year, as the festival celebrates its fifteenth anniversary, we find out more from Isobel Abulhoul, CEO of the Emirates Literature Foundation.
Tell us about the theme of this year’s Emirates Festival of Literature.
This year we are celebrating our 15th Anniversary, so our theme is ‘Old Friends’, bringing back to Dubai some of the amazing authors who have visited us before, such as David Walliams, Jeffrey Archer and Kate Mosse, amongst many others. We’ve also invited award-winning authors and experts on all sorts of topics who are new to the festival, such as the star of the hit series “Succession”, Brian Cox, bestselling authors Cecilia Ahern and Mohsin Hamid, renowned mathematician Marcus du Sautoy and experts on everything from comics, pop culture and keeping well in body and mind, to current affairs, business and science, so there is something for everyone.
What are some of the highlights that visitors expect to find at the event this year?
We have a magical evening of music, poetry and performance topped off with a Lebanese feast in celebration of Gibran Kahlil Gibran, marking 100 years since the publication of his inspirational book “The Prophet”, and the 140th anniversary of his birth. We also have dinner with celebrity chef Bobby Chinn with a focus on sustainable dining and Anthony Geffen showing us his documentary of the late Queen Elizabeth Second, created for her Diamond Jubilee in June 2022. He will share with us additional unseen footage and insights into a person who was a Queen not just for the UK and Commonwealth, but the world. No festival would be complete without Desert Stanzas, the festival’s much-loved signature event which this year marks the opening night on 1st February. It features poetry renditions and narratives that celebrate friendship, plus a homage to the preservation of the planet and the COP28 story, interpreted through performance.
How do you think the event and the foundation as a whole help to encourage the UAE’s literature talent to be recognised on a global scale?
The festival is a wonderful international platform to showcase Emirati talents who share this stage with their peers from around the world. This helps to grow the reputation of writers in the region within the international community and also fosters long-lasting friendships between Emirati authors and international counterparts, which leads to collaboration. In 2020 we initiated the Global Association of Literary Festivals, which is an opportunity to showcase our writers around the world. It opens the opportunity for Emirati authors and poets to be invited to other international Festivals. This year we are hosting 23 delegates, from Canada, the USA, South America, Africa, Asia and Europe.
What in your opinion are some of the biggest achievements of The Emirates Literature Foundation so far?
The Emirates Literature Foundation has an enormous range of initiatives and projects which are building, piece by piece, the literary jigsaw puzzle which completes the cultural landscape here in the Emirates. A few of the achievements, thanks to the amazing team, are the connection established with the network of authors from around the world which has raised the profile of Emirati writers; the many initiatives which have contributed to supporting the burgeoning publishing industry; and our education programme, which has harnessed the enthusiasm of educators for everything that the Foundation is involved in.
Tell us how the festival has grown since the beginning.
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature was founded in 2008 to allow readers or those who don’t yet enjoy reading, a chance to meet inspirational writers, poets, and speakers, up close, many of whom can help change their lives for the better. We started with just 60 authors. This year is our biggest and most diverse programme yet, with more than 260 authors representing almost 50 different nationalities.
What is your vision for the foundation moving forward?
My vision remains unchanged. It is to help as many people as possible, particularly young people, to fall in love with books and reading. I worry about the younger generation and their disengagement from literature and I believe this will have a negative impact on their opportunities in the future.
What is the biggest challenge you face currently in what you do?
There are not enough hours in the day for me or the team to actually complete our tasks.
What more do you think can be done to support local talent?
The Emirates LitFest Writing Prize, which began in 2013 as the Montegrappa, has resulted in ten writers based in the UAE becoming published internationally and we expect that success to continue. Last year we launched First Chapter, the Elf Seddiqi Fellowship, which gives ten new writers each year the chance to be mentored by international authors, along with a programme of talks from world-class experts in the industry and a field trip to the Gotham Writers Centre in New York. Two of the first cohort have already been signed by international agents before their year is up. The second group of successful applicants will be announced during the festival. Last year we also launched a publishing house, ELF Publishing, with the remit of finding new talent, and telling stories from the region which we can publish, so look out for more successful writers based in the UAE getting their books onto our bookshelves.
How would you assess the UAE’s literacy scene today?
Every day I see growth and expansion and it makes me so happy.
Why do you think it’s so important for younger generations to read books?
I believe passionately and with scientific research to back me up, that children being read to regularly (bedtime stories) from the earliest ages, and then reading books for pleasure themselves, have a huge advantage in life: increased confidence, vocabulary, empathy, knowledge, critical analysis skills and creativity are just some of the benefits. Books for children should provide both a mirror and a window; so a child should see someone in books who looks like him or her, with the scenery being familiar too, that is the mirror and is relevant. Books should also provide a window on the world so that a child’s understanding of other places, cultures and people is allowed to grow.
Who is an author that inspires you?
I can’t choose one author but if I think about authors whose work has impacted me as a reader I would have to say Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. You’ll note these are all fiction writers but they all have a hugely important message for the reader over and above the story.
What are three books that you have read recently that were particularly inspiring to you?
“Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus, “A Terrible Kindness” by Jo Browning Wroe and
“Age Proof” by Rose Anne Kenny.
Who is your favourite author and why?
It’s Ernest Hemmingway. I first read his novels and essays as a teenager and it had a huge impact on my love of literature, which has stayed with me. He has such a recognisable style, I was in awe of how he could paint such vivid pictures in my mind, both of characters and landscape, without using adjectives.
What is the professional motto that you live by?
Seize the day!