Isobel Abulhoul's Letter from the Middle East: December

Opinion - International Friday, 13 December 2019

In the third in a series of columns by the ceo and trustee of the Emirates Literature Foundation Isobel Abulhoul questions why literary festivals have been criticised as being only for the privileged when the reality is very different

The stereotypical festival audience in the West is often perceived to be middle-class, over 40, perhaps retired, and white. As we know, this is not the whole story, with great efforts being made to be inclusive and reach out to those who may feel that a literary festival is not for them.

What critics don’t appreciate is the important role that festivals around the world can play in providing a window to the world. They bring new ideas and ways of thinking, contributing to the creation of a compassionate society in which literature and culture can evolve and flourish. Sharing stories across cultures strengthens our bonds and brings greater understanding on all sort of topics that affect us in the world today.

Our audiences in Dubai not only benefit from meeting authors and hearing stories that they might not otherwise come across, our Arabic authors relish meeting their global counterparts, and the international authors also find it an enriching experience, breaking down misconceptions, forging friendships and building understanding. Literary festivals are so much more than marketing books and writers to the privileged.

During the 2020 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, which takes place from 4-9 February, we are acknowledging the important role that festivals play by hosting a conference for festival directors from around the world. At a time when all festivals face similar challenges, the conference is open to anyone organising a literary event, and we intend to cover a range of topics which will be relevant to all, including programming challenges, financial models, literary tourism, marketing, crisis management and more. In particular, we are keen to encourage partnership working, something we have already begun to explore with initiatives such as live streaming Sir David Attenborough’s session to Dubai from Cheltenham last year; we are looking at working more closely with other festivals next year.

The Festival in Dubai began in 2009 with just 65 authors. It came from an ambition to encourage more people in the UAE to read, particularly among the Emirati population who had not grown up with the easy access to books taken for granted in the West, so that reading for pleasure is not a strong part of their culture. The Festival has now grown to be a hugely significant and respected international event, and we are proud to have been a catalyst in making literature more accessible, and instrumental in building the cultural landscape of Dubai.

Sharjah too has done a fantastic job of championing literature, positioning itself as one of the world’s major publishing hubs in the world, and it is a great honour for the region that H.E. Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi has been announced as the next president of the International Publishers Association, taking up office in 2021. The huge importance of promoting literature in the region has also been recognised by the Hay Festival, who will be bringing a new edition to Abu Dhabi next year.

In 2020 the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature will host more than 160 authors, bringing people of all ages and from all nationalities together with authors from across the world. The acclaimed programme for children reaches around 30,000 students across the UAE: from government, private and charity schools as well as students of determination. Bringing children face-to-face with a book’s author is one of the best ways of making them want to read and this is a key part of the education programme. Authors’ school visits and Education Day sessions at the Festival make this happen, while writing and reading competitions, in both Arabic and English, get young people excited and keen to extend their creative skills.

Each year more and more nationalities attend, a direct reflection of the 200-plus nationalities residing in the UAE, resulting in a remarkably balanced audience profile – a consequence of the Festival purposefully engaging with everyone living in the UAE and continually seeking ways to improve. Simultaneous translation, plus Arabic sign language interpretation, is available in most sessions to ensure they can be enjoyed by all.

We are always keen to curate imaginative and powerful panel sessions that showcase the Festival’s diversity of genres, enhancing cross-cultural understanding and appreciation of a variety of topics. Local and international voices are mixed together on panels, sometimes revealing different perspectives, but more usually harmonious viewpoints on a range of issues. This year’s Festival is no exception, with sessions on faith and spirituality in the modern world, the science behind racism, sustainability issues and what that means for the region, and much more.

The Festival’s success in developing a culture of reading as an enjoyable habit in the UAE and its efforts to inspire have been recognised through many awards over the years. By providing an equal platform for international and locally-based talents, the Festival continues to build the literary landscape in the UAE and further afield, giving inspiration to the next generation of writers and offering access to the best literature to all of the many nationalities that call Dubai their home.

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