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

Villa 88 - - Contents -

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.”

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