A WORLD OF WORDS
As the Emirates Airline Literature Festival comes of age, its dives headfirst into its second decade with brand new Festival Director, Ahlam Bolooki, writes Lyndsey Steven
The Emirates Airline Literature Festival dives into its second decade with a new Director
IT’S ALWAYS A DAUNTING TASK to try to fill someone’s shoes, especially when the shoes in question belong to Isobel Abulhoul OBE, the formidable founder of the Emirates Literature Festival, who has helped promote the importance of literature in UAE, and, in doing so, encouraged the rest of the world to view the country in a more open-minded light.
But from the outset, it’s plain to see why this weighty baton has been passed on to Ahlam Bolooki. She’s articulate, energetic and palpably pumped for what lies ahead. It’s also handy that, with her prior experience at Dubai Tourism and the Jumeirah Group, she has straddled this world before.
“At Dubai Tourism, we were actively promoting the Emirates Literature Festival as one of the highlights on Dubai’s calendar and I also used to moderate sessions for them,” Ahlam tells me from the foundation’s new headquarters in the re-gentrified Al Shindagha Historical District.
Upon leaving Dubai Tourism, Ahlam worked on a six-month project for the foundation, which, she says, “was halfway between Dubai Tourism and the festival, attracting university students around the region to the festival.”
Having clearly made an impact, Ahlam was then offered the full-time role as festival director of the non-profit organization by Isobel, with the founder staying on in as CEO and Trustee of the Emirates Literature Foundation.
“One of the reasons Isobel brought me onboard was that she wanted someone younger who is from this part of the world. I read both English and Arabic equally.” And often, it appears, at the same time. “I switch between books depending on my moods – it’s kind of like watching a few different television series simultaneously.”
Agreeing that a literary festival should be a reflection of the world in which we live, carrying with it the responsibility of being the home of conversation, the overarching theme for 2019 is ‘ United by Words.’ “It’s interesting times around the world right now,” says Ahlam. “You have people being treated differently and discriminated against because of the color of their skin, their ethnicities, or their beliefs, and we really believe in the power of words and literature to bring people together. Hearing stories from different parts of the world that are similar to yours is a good reminder that we have those universal concerns – and that our hopes and dreams are the same. At the same time, even if you read a story that is completely foreign to you, there are moments that you’ll relate to.”
Now, as she takes the festival into its second decade, Ahlam knows constant re-invention is key to help it retain its reputation as one of the leading international literary festivals in the world.
Citing the diversity of the festival as one of its unique fortes, thanks largely to Dubai’s geographic location, which grants access to so many authors across the world, Ahlam says: “We’re so lucky to be so diverse. One third of the world lives within a six-hour flight radius of Dubai.”
The program for the 2019 edition, which is on from 28th February to 9th March, looks like a veritable goldmine and is as diverse as they come. Ahlam herself is most excited by the appearance of Mary Robinson, the former Irish president, who has written a book on climate change, as well as Jennifer Palmieri, the Director of Communications for Hilary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and author of Dear Madam President, and economics professor Richard Baldwin, who will be talking about the threat of globotics.
As champions for gender equality, it’s a happy coincidence that International Women’s Day always falls within the festival dates. “Last year, we had CNN International cover our International Women’s Day panel, which is a huge deal,” Ahlam recalls.
Intent on expanding the Arabic program, Ahlam also includes Buthaina Al-issa in her top picks – “She is such a powerful voice amongst Arabic youth,” – and Tunisian poet Anis Shoshan – “We’re bringing back our Poetry under the Stars this year and Anis writes beautiful Arabic poetry, delving into issues like racism and gender equality.”