How does Dubai’s Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val at­tract the best names in books? Direc­tor Iso­bel Abul­houl re­veals all.

As the 2017 edi­tion of the Emi­rates Air­line Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture opens its doors to­day, Mri­nal Shekar speaks to the fes­ti­val’s direc­tor Iso­bel Abul­houl to find out what it takes to put to­gether the re­gion’s ‘largest cel­e­bra­tion of the writ­ten and spo­ken

Friday - - Contents -

Or­gan­is­ing the fes­ti­val must be a mam­moth task. When do you start the process? You’re right. Since EAFOL has grown to be the Mid­dle East’s largest lit­er­a­ture fes­ti­val, lo­gis­ti­cally it has nu­mer­ous chal­lenges. To en­sure it all goes smoothly, we be­gin by invit­ing au­thors to each fes­ti­val at least 18 months in ad­vance. Which means we are deep into the strands and al­ready pro­gram­ming for 2018. How do you iden­tify the au­thors you’d like to see in the Fes­ti­val? Team mem­bers share their wish lists of favourite au­thors; we carry out sur­veys among those at­tend­ing the fes­ti­val; and col­lec­tively we read hun­dreds of books sub­mit­ted by pub­lish­ers. Af­ter this ex­haus­tive ex­er­cise, we make a long list. The fes­ti­val looks for di­ver­sity in gen­res, top­ics, and na­tion­al­i­ties, plus cur­rent ris­ing stars and beloved favourites. The chil­dren’s and young adult strand is very im­por­tant to the vision of the fes­ti­val, as is invit­ing au­thors from the Arab world and the re­gion. Pub­lish­ers are enor­mously help­ful in pro­vid­ing book proofs well ahead of pub­li­ca­tion, and high­light­ing au­thors who are great per­form­ers. How many peo­ple are in­volved? There is a small team who works year-round to bring the fes­ti­val to life. Hav­ing said that, we also wel­come in­terns each year. They are as­signed to work in ar­eas of their in­ter­ests: pro­gram­ming, op­er­a­tions, mar­ket­ing and ed­u­ca­tion. The fes­ti­val could not func­tion with­out the in­cred­i­ble vol­un­teers who take on es­sen­tial roles and make sure it runs like clock­work. Which year did you re­ceive the high­est num­ber of vis­i­tors and what was the count? We have built year-on-year on the fes­ti­val’s suc­cess and pop­u­lar­ity, and we have been very lucky to see in­creased num­bers with each pass­ing year. Last year, vis­i­tor num­bers reached 40,000, with more than 15,000

stu­dents ben­e­fit­ing from our Ed­u­ca­tion Days pro­gramme. This year, 25,000 stu­dents will be pos­i­tively im­pacted through our Ed­u­ca­tion Days, Stu­dent Ses­sions and au­thor school vis­its. And, with a packed nine-day pro­gramme and 180-plus au­thors, we are once again hop­ing for record num­bers. What has the biggest chal­lenge been? Time. No mat­ter how far in ad­vance you plan, there is al­ways a last-minute flurry and ad­just­ments. With the pass­ing years, the team has be­come ex­pert at re­spond­ing and find­ing so­lu­tions to any chal­lenges that may land at our feet. Or­gan­is­ing an an­nual in­ter­na­tional lit­er­ary fes­ti­val could be com­pared to climb­ing Mount Ever­est (in my imag­i­na­tion). It takes enor­mous ef­fort from a ded­i­cated team, and there are many chal­lenges along the route. It be­comes a tremen­dous and worth­while achieve­ment when you fi­nally reach the top. The ‘top’, for me, is when I pause for a mo­ment in the main foyer of the fes­ti­val and watch thou­sands of happy peo­ple, made up of ev­ery age group, na­tion­al­ity and back­ground, busily hur­ry­ing from one ses­sion to an­other, usu­ally clutch­ing a book. That is pure joy. And your proud­est achieve­ment? Re­ceiv­ing pub­lic recog­ni­tion for pro­mot­ing ed­u­ca­tion and read­ing from His High­ness Dr Shaikh Sul­tan Bin Mo­ham­mad Al Qasimi, Mem­ber of Supreme Coun­cil and Ruler of Shar­jah, Queen El­iz­a­beth of Great Bri­tain [Iso­bel is an OBE], the Al Owais Foun­da­tion, and the UAE 2016 Pi­o­neers Award. One in­ci­dent that you’ll al­ways re­mem­ber? There are sev­eral, but I am not go­ing to share them with you! A for­get­table mo­ment? The heavy rain­fall last year that meant schools had to close for a day, and we had 50 or so au­thors who were go­ing to give talks across the UAE. A large num­ber of very dis­ap­pointed stu­dents and au­thors. I would rather for­get that! How do you see the fes­ti­val evolv­ing? The fes­ti­val has grown from three days to nine days; from host­ing 65 au­thors in its first year to 180-plus this year. For 2017, within the fes­ti­val, we are in­tro­duc­ing the Dubai In­ter­na­tional Pub­lish­ing Con­fer­ence, held in part­ner­ship with the Gen­eral-Sec­re­tariat of the Ex­ec­u­tive Coun­cil of Dubai, and four res­i­den­tial Cre­ative Writ­ing Cour­ses. We also have a Hap­pi­ness Strand, in recog­ni­tion of the never-end­ing quest that hu­man­ity has to be­come happy. The fes­ti­val is a home-grown event, with its roots firmly in the com­mu­nity. It is im­por­tant that we listen, learn and ex­plore the world around us through the medium of books and their writ­ers… Read­ing for plea­sure is a gift, and in this, the UAE’s Year of Giv­ing, let’s make sure that as many peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly young ones, re­ceive that gift too. What’s the best com­pli­ment you’ve re­ceived about the fes­ti­val? There have been sev­eral, but there is one that stands out for me. An au­thor wrote a most mov­ing note af­ter at­tend­ing the fes­ti­val and I am sure he won’t mind me shar­ing his words with you. Af­ter the 2015 fes­ti­val, Gra­ham Baker Smith said: “I keep think­ing; ‘oh, this time last week I was... at the top of the Burj Khal­ifa/at the Mamzar Theatre/in the desert.’ It seems a bit dream­like and it’s go­ing to take a few days to ad­just. What you con­jured into life, through your vision and de­ter­mi­na­tion and the sheer qual­ity of the peo­ple around you, was a mini world as it could be if gov­erned by the best of our hu­man­ity. A place where ev­ery­one was ea­ger to com­mu­ni­cate, no one was a stranger, re­spect was uni­ver­sally mu­tual, ideas were thirsted af­ter, pur­sued and ex­plored with vigour and en­ergy but al­ways with an ac­knowl­edge­ment of the other’s point of view. It all worked beau­ti­fully, I talked with writ­ers of hor­ror and crime and fan­tasy and silli­ness and they all had a sim­i­lar vi­tal­ity and com­mit­ment… Ev­ery­one was fed, those who served were gen­uinely warm and kind - one wait­ress in­vited me to her wed­ding!

If only the world could come to this fes­ti­val and see and learn how it could be, that it can work, this ‘be­ing hu­man’ thing, be­ing not the same as each other but not so very dif­fer­ent ei­ther. Thank you all again from my heart. You have given me mem­o­ries I will cher­ish for­ever.” Any ad­vice for bud­ding au­thors? Read ev­ery day, read widely, out­side of your com­fort zone. Keep a diary, write at least 300 words in it a day. Al­ways have a note­book to hand and jot down char­ac­ter ob­ser­va­tions, snatches of con­ver­sa­tion that per­haps you can use at some stage in your writ­ing. Be true to your­self.

OR­GAN­IS­ING an an­nual in­ter­na­tional lit­er­ary fes­ti­val could be com­pared to climb­ing Mount Ever­est. It takes ENOR­MOUS EF­FORT from a ded­i­cated team, and there are many chal­lenges along the route

If given a chance to in­vite all your favourite au­thors – dead or alive – who would at­tend? I’ve had a wish list from the very be­gin­ning of plan­ning the first fes­ti­val: Ernest Hem­ing­way (his grand­son John is com­ing this year!), Ge­orge Or­well (the an­nual Or­well lec­ture in 2017 is de­liv­ered by James Naugh­tie), Bill Bryson (our 2017 theme is Jour­neys and he would have been won­der­ful) Emma Donoghue for writ­ing room, Leo Tol­stoy, Mark Had­don, John Stein­beck, Wil­fred Th­e­siger for writ­ing Ara­bian Sands, Naguib Mah­fouz, Ken Ke­sey, Frances Hodg­son Bur­nett, Rus­sell Hoban, Fy­o­dor Doestovesky, Ugo Betti, WB Yeats and Roald Dahl.

Just imag­ine hav­ing these in­cred­i­ble writ­ers at our fes­ti­val – the stuff of dreams!

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Vis­i­tor num­bers to EAFOL have in­creased with each pass­ing year. Last year saw at­ten­dance reach 40,000

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