Dubai - celebrating the infinite variety of life and literature

Liz Thomson
Opinion - Bookselling Tuesday, 3rd March 2009

According to the map on the screen in front of me, I'm 36,006 feet above ground and travelling at 'a true air speed' of 554mph aboard an Emirates flight out of Dubai en route back to London. Below me are vast stretches of desert and snow-capped mountains, which serve to emphasize the 'otherness' of the Middle East to us Brits. On the way out, the flight path took us over Baghdad. Fallujah wasn't far away. The return route is different, passing close to Tehran. The Straits of Hormuz must be below us somewhere, but not marked. On the map, to the north-east, is Tbilisi. I've never travelled to the Middle East before and I'm acutely aware of the dislocation that comes with flying over cities I may never visit but which are familiar to us all as flashpoints of recent conflicts. Meanwhile, in my headphones, on the 1967 soundtrack I have selected, the Beatles are singing 'All you need is love'. Well, indeed.

The Beatles sang of universality, what brought us together rather than what divided us, and that was the point of the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature, which is what's taken me to Dubai. I've spent six days there, attending as a moderator along with Fiona Lindsay, who has spent years working with the RSC, and Paul Blezard, formerly the voice of Oneword. We have between us moderated some 50 events, with authors from across the English-speaking and Arab worlds, and from the Ukraine. A large percentage of the Festival audience was ex-pats, not all of them from Britain of course, but there was also a very healthy showing of Arabs, and not just for the Arab events. For example, a young woman from Kuwait told Lesley Pearse how much her novels meant to her and quizzed her about the writing and publishing process. We know that publishing is an international business, but it is fascinating to see what that means among actual readers, as opposed to our international colleagues in Frankfurt.
The infinite variety of literature (to paraphrase Leonard Bernstein) was on display: Jung Chang talked eloquently of life in China for three generations of her family, plucking from her handbag a Mao's Little Red Book, an armband and, most movingly, the tiny shoes worn by her grandmother, a concubine whose feet had of course been broken and bound. Peter James talked about crime-writing, Philippa Gregory about historical fiction. The BBC's Nick Gowing previewed research he's done into the effects of new media on the government response to crises. Rachel Billington and Anne Fine discussed their careers as writers of both children's and adult fiction. Robert Irwin, the noted Arabist, shared his thoughts on the camel, in life and lore, the subject of his next book. Mansoura Ez Eldin, Haifa Bitar and Sahar El Mougy discussed women's writing in the Arab world, a group of Arab poets celebrated the life and work of the late Mohammed Bennis, and Yousef Al Mohaimeed and Anthony Calderbank ruminated on the relationship between writer and translator. So, serious issues, not just candyfloss.
By the time the Festival opened, it was clear that Margaret Atwood, the event's literary star turn, would not be attending in person though an air ticket remained set aside for her. A PEN debate had been arranged, and Atwood had agreed to take part by videolink from Canada. The question remained: would she also take part in a one-to-one interview with me, as she had been scheduled to do? At the 11th hour, it was agreed she would, and immediately after the debate.
Everyone these days talks about the elephant in the room, and never was an elephant more present than at the PEN debate. In 90 minutes, neither Geraldine Bedell nor her novel, The Gulf Between Us, was mentioned. Censorship, self-censorship, political correctness, libel in general and libel in Canadian newspapers - all were discussed. Andrea Kurkov and Rajaa al-Sanea were terrific. On screen, Margaret Atwood, wrapped in a powder-blue fleece, looked a little perplexed: she was surely expecting to be quizzed on the Bedell affair.
In the end, it fell to me to do so though, expecting that the subject would by then have been exhausted, I'd prepared a different set of questions. But, despite my best efforts, I didn't uncover the mystery of why a woman as intelligent and thoughtful as Margaret Atwood reacted so precipitately on the basis of just one article and one person's say-so. Why didn't she do a little research of her own first? That she (as she put it) 'rallied around a flag that wasn't there' is evident. The question is: why? It was clear she regretted her actions, and she seemed to agree that her presence would have offered encouragement to women in the Arab world who face down not just the official censor but disapproval and punishment from friends and family as they battle to write and publish. Beside the death threats endured by the likes of Saudi writer Rajaa al-Sanea, author of Girls of Riyadh - a dentist, in addition to being a novelist - the question of the appropriateness or otherwise of Geraldine Bedell and her novel pale into insignificance.
And amid the fracas over her gay sheikh, let's not forget that it's only 40 years since, in Britain, a reforming Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, passed into law the bill decriminalising homosexuality. Lady Chatterley was unbanned less than half a century ago, and it's not so many years since the Lord Chamberlain had the right to close down performances he thought dangerous to public morals. Societies evolve at their own pace. Dialogue such as that which occurred in Dubai may help quicken that pace, but it can't happen if we stay at home.
A litfest in this region is an entirely new concept - Isobel Abulhoul of Magrudy's, the life force behind the event, had to explain to an advertising agency exactly what was meant by the term. Yet people came in their thousands over the three days, and they bought thousands of books, lining up patiently to have them signed in the sub-branch of Magrudy's that was set up in the vast foyer of the Intercontinental Festival City, where most of the sessions took place. Outside, on the promenade next to the Marina, a lively Fringe ran in parallel, while on the Sunday many of the authors - among them Kate Adie, Brian Aldiss, Penny Vincenzi and Kate Mosse and her husband Greg (who'd several writing classes during the Festival) dispersed to schools, college and the Women's University to talk about writing, about life, about being a working woman. Fiona Lindsay staged the opening act of Romeo and Juliet with a group of schoolboys, most of whom hadn't heard of Shakespeare. Peter James addressed 420 police cadets.

For those who'd engaged with such very real life, it must have been dislocating indeed to pile on to a double-decker bus for a journey along mostly empty roads fringed by Barrett-style estates - 'little boxes... made of ticky-tacky', as Malvina Reynolds wrote and sang - that, with the recession, may remain unoccupied for some time yet. After an hour, we stopped at a desert oasis, Bab al Shams desert resort and spa, now made into an ersatz village, for an evening of camels and camaraderie. Unbidden, Maria Muldaur's Seventies' hit 'Midnight at the oasis' began playing in my mind's ear. Just as we might journey back in time in York's Viking Centre, here we entered old Arabia. For the likes of Claudia Roden, who was born and brought up in Egypt, it must have been particularly strange.
But the hospitality and the food were fantastic and, above the overly amplified music to which dervishes whirled and women demonstrated hair dancing (yes, really - Timotei should come and film a shampoo commercial), everyone chatted about their different lives and work. No one pulled rank. No one was grand. Jung Chang and Brian Aldiss had camel rides. Martha Mosse, Kate and Greg's teenage daughter, cried as Kate Adie talked about the lot of women in some of the countries from which she's reported. Martha said it shouldn't be like that, life wasn't fair. 'That's why your mother and I are feminists,' the broadcaster explained.
Sated, we sat beneath the moon and the stars, draining the last of our expensive wine (the cheapest bottle was over £50, a disappointment for such a writerly gathering) when a spotlight was focused on the ramparts - Kate Mosse, with her novelist's eye, was able to imagine the surroundings as the old fort it once was. A camel train entered stage left, led by a Bedouin, in a strangely affecting tableau. Then the sound of hooves, as three beautiful Arabian horses galloped on, their riders bearing torches. A mock battle ensued. Then, from stage right, the Bedouin and his camels re-entered, followed by a flock of plump sheep and, bringing up the rear, a donkey, all of them illumined against the ink-blue and star-studded desert sky.

It was time to go and, as we headed for the bus, we were each handed a carrier bag containing a soft-toy camel wearing shades, a pot of desert sand and a mug. There was something rather sweet about the way a bunch of writers, some of them more distinguished than others, entered into the spirit of it all. In the process, everyone learned something about everyone else, and new friendships were formed, addresses exchanged. And that, surely, is the point of it all.