Authors gather for a group photograph on the amphitheatre steps inside the cavernous marbled interior of Etihad Museum on Tuesday. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Dubai: A gala reception at Etihad Museum on Tuesday rolled out the red carpet for many of the 184 authors from 33 countries attending the ninth edition of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

And by all accounts, wordsmiths gleaned a far deeper understanding of Dubai’s rise from the dunes after touring the museum’s interactive exhibits highlighting the December 2, 1971 unification of the UAE and beyond.

Authors visited the adjacent Union House, where the UAE declaration was signed, and were entertained by an authentic Emirati drumming performance on the museum’s vast esplanade.

In keynote dinner remarks, Shaikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, said the UAE dream continues its “multi-cultural journey at this global crossroads”.

“Imagination and creativity inspire journeys,” said Al Nahyan, adding that the founding of the UAE in 1971 was the start of a new story “that is still being written today”.

He thanked authors for their works and encouraged them to continue the penning of literary journeys.

“Thank you all for thinking, imagining, creating and writing. Our journeys need you. We welcome you to Dubai and to the United Arab Emirates with great enthusiasm and deep respect,” Al Nahyan said.

Later, in an evening dinner dubbed “Love Letters to Dubai”, longtime Dubai luminaries shared heart-warming recollections of early days of Dubai to give authors a more intimate feel of the yesteryears of the emirate.

Isobel Abulhoul, Director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and CEO of the Emirates Literature Foundation, said the official launch of the nine-day festival was held midway through the week to accommodate all authors attending early and latter days of the event ending on March 11.

Hosting the gathering at Etihad Museum was a novel way of extending Dubai’s hospitality to give authors a deeper sense of place and people, she said.

“Today is about a sense of place, a sense of the journey that the country has come on, that we have all come on,” Abulhoul told Gulf News.

Scottish author Paul MacAlindin said that after a day of touring the city and Etihad Museum, he had a more personal grasp of the country and its people.

“I think it’s fascinating with its interactivity that shows the scale of ambition at the start of the UAE’s history and how they modelled it similar to the European Union,” MacAlindin said.

London broadcaster Georgina Godwin, host of ‘Meet the Writers’, said she was impressed with the festival’s hospitality and the meshing of the gala launch with the country’s history.

“It’s extraordinary, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Godwin said. “The festival has been extremely well organised.”

Authors gathered for a historic group photograph taken on the amphitheatre steps inside the cavernous marbled interior of Etihad Museum before making their way to the outdoor Emirati buffet dinner beneath the giant UAE flag rippling high atop the 123-metre-tall flagpole.

Emirati and expatriate luminaries reflected on the role the emirate and the UAE has played in making their lives meaningful from a time more than 40 years ago when Dubai was once a small desert outpost with big dreams.

Eminent author Mohammad Ahmad Al Murr, Speaker and member of the UAE Federal National Council, reflected upon his five years of study at Syracuse University and “his shock at seeing New York City, its big skyscrapers”.

“I thought to myself: Can we have something similar to that? Can we come in a small way to that human experiment in architecture and culture?

“After 45 years, you can see for yourself the skyscrapers here, I will not take them as a sign of achievement unless they come hand in hand with great cultural achievement.”

Al Murr said the UAE’s modern skylines have been more than matched with a phalanx of new art, history and modern museums built from Sharjah and Dubai to Abu Dhabi that have brought the country to the forefront of cultural enlightenment.

Love Letters to the UAE

Dubai: An impressive array of longtime contributors to Dubai’s social, educational and cultural growth shared their thoughts over dinner, reciting brief, three-minute “love letters” penned especially for the occasion.

Speakers included Sultan Al Qassemi, social commentator; Julia Johnston, children’s author; Fatma Al Merri, CEO of Dubai Schools Agency; Alison Collins, founder of The Majilis Art Gallery; Ali Mustafa, film director; Francis Matthew, Gulf News Editor-at-Large; Lady Flanagan, wife of Sir Maurice Flanagan, founding CEO of Emirates Airline; and Dr Rafia Obaid Ghubash, founder of The Women’s Museum.

A few excerpts:

Lady Flanagan

“One day in 1977, my husband Maurice came home to say we were moving to Dubai ... ‘Only for two years,’ he said, ‘I have been seconded to the Dubai government.’ Forty years later, as you can see, I am still here. Sadly without my dear husband who died two years ago. He worked until he was 85 as executive vice-chairman of the Emirates Airline and Group because Dubai believes that old age brings wisdom and not decrepitude. First reason to love the place.”

Julia Johnston

“Do you remember when we never even heard of Dubai? None of our friends had heard of you either. And we had to search for you on a map. It seems incredible now that you are such a celebrity now and the whole world knows about you. I remember that first moment in 1975 as I stepped from the plane late at night and was hit by a blast of air so hot it made me reel.”

Alison Collins

“The house itself [The Majilis Art Gallery in Al Fahidi] embraces everyone who enters through its generous open doors, be they artists, art lovers, scientists, politicians or taxi drivers. Here is a level ground where people can just be. That has to be the core of our existence where cultural similarities are more important than cultural differences.”