Dubai: A cultural icon, an unstoppable woman and a tireless campaigner – the Cambridge-born and educated Isobel Abulhoul OBE has earned many accolades as director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature since its inception.
As the Middle East’s largest celebration of the written and spoken word launches its 10th edition in Dubai on March 2, XPRESS caught up with the woman at the helm for an exclusive interview.
Impromptu, yet in-depth, her responses cover everything from the festival’s 10 biggest takeaways and what lies in store to who her favourite author is and how her littlest grandson, just a year and half, wants 10-12 books read to him in a day. Excerpts:
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is a 10-year-old event now. What are its 10 biggest takeaways?
The list is long but here are some of the main takeaways:
1. The homegrown event was born in Dubai following the vision of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who is also a poet and writer and his abiding wish to encourage people to read. Over the years, the festival has striven to uphold this vision.
2. Our festival today is recognised as the best literature festival in the world.
3. We have grown from a three-day event with 65 writers, of whom six were Emiratis, in year 1 to 10 days with 180 writers, including 41 Emiratis, today.
4. We have been responsible for countless young people to write their own stories by holding student competitions and inspiring interactions with eminent authors.
5. The festival has helped foster a reading culture among students. Schools report that books of writers featured in the festival are borrowed by more students at their libraries.
6. The School Librarian Award introduced last year has put librarians in the spotlight.
7. The festival provides a great networking opportunity for authors, publishers and translators from all over the world.
8. Our offering is unique as we are a pure literary festival and attract international visitors.
9. Our programmes for teenagers and young people and their families have ensured they fall in love with books.
10. The festival guarantees joy, feeds your soul and makes you come away changed for the better.
Are you doing anything special to mark the festival’s 10th anniversary? What are the highlights?
We have a special evening called For the Love of Words planned at the Dubai Opera at 8pm on March 6. It will feature some of the world’s best performance poets in both Arabic and English.
We will also launch a book to commemorate 10 years of the festival. The book is also titled For the Love of Words and features 84 authors, illustrators and poets, all of whom have taken part in the festival over the years. The limited edition book will also be on sale.
For the first time, a University Day will be held. The event on March 8 will rope in renowned speakers for the benefit of university students.
In addition, we will have the usual sessions and workshops with well-known authors, including food writers and historians.
You’ve been at the helm of the festival right from the beginning? How does that feel?
I feel incredibly lucky and privileged to have been part of an event which has grown so much. I do feel tired on some days, but there is a special reward when you see something just grow and grow. Communication is hungry for live conversations and debates. The time is right for such exchanges in an increasingly technology-driven world. My passion lies in making people fall in love with books.
Has technology redefined reading? And is it for the better?
I own a Kindle and find it useful but I still purchase physical books. The experience of reading a Kindle and a physical book are very different. As long as people read, the mode doesn’t matter.
A former teacher, you also co-founded the book chain Magrudy’s. How much of a reader are you? What kind of books do you like and who is your favourite author?
I am totally addicted to books and have been reading since I was three. I finish two-three books a week. I like literature, fiction and my most favourite author is Ernest Hemingway.
Is your family as addicted to books?
It would be impossible for them not to read. I have four grandsons, all of whom love to read. In fact, the youngest, just one-and-a-half years old, wants 10-12 books read to him every day.
What is your advice to parents in the context of reading?
Give your children as much exposure as possible to books. The more they read, the better their vocabulary and their disposition.