Isobel Abulhoul is not only the director and co-founder of Magrudy's but also founder of Jerboa book publishers and the Emirates Literature Festival, now in its third year. At this year's Sharjah Book Fair she was honoured with the Cultural Personality Award, presented to her by His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah.
Weekend Review spoke to Abulhoul about where she finds her inspiration, passion and drive.
How long have you had an interest in books?
I can't remember a time when I couldn't read. I think I started reading very early in my life. I was a voracious reader. I have loved books for as long as I can remember. My parents were both avid readers. My mother visited the library every week without fail and borrowed the maximum number of books allowed. She had been a night nurse and so used to read all through the night.
I was lucky to have such great role models. I turn to books for enjoyment. I turn to books for escape. I turn to books for comfort, knowledge, solace, excitement and discovery.
What is your ultimate genre?
Literary fiction. I love something that has actually got meat in it.
Which is your favourite book?
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. Maybe because I read it when I was a teenager, which was the seminal moment when I moved on from childish things to something that has touched me. I read it every year — it is like a comfort blanket for me. Every time I go back, I think what a master he was and how carefully that book was crafted.
How do you feel working with books?
I feel blessed, I feel absolutely blessed. I can't think of a more wonderful place to work than with books — because you have the books, you have the authors, you have the illustrators and people in the publishing industry — and the whole books industry, when you put it together, attracts very interesting people. It is really a passion — it is something I can't ever imagine not having an involvement in, ever.
How do you feel, having won the Cultural Personality Award?
I still can't believe it — it still hasn't really sunk in that I was chosen. The key thing for me was who the award was given by. Shaikh Sultan has been a beacon of light, he has been a literary trailblazer in the Middle East. He has done more than anyone else I can think of to promote literature. He has done so much for writers and readers, and for improving literacy rates. He has spearheaded so many imaginative ways to encourage our society to read.
My only sadness is that my parents, who I have to thank for my love of literature, aren't here to share that with me.
How did Magrudy's become established, and when?
Because I love books, I had very definite ideas about what I would stock and what I wouldn't. In the days before the internet, I used to read all the book catalogues, read all the time. If you found a good author you would be alerted to the next book he or she wrote. I put a lot of myself into Magrudy's and how we operate and how we decide what we are going to stock.
Is that where the idea for Jerboa book publishing came from?
Yes, because I got sick and tired of not being able to find equivalent good-quality children's books in Arabic.
I mean, it has actually really changed in the past five years. What we ended up with was second-best books next to really lovely English titles. I thought it was really unfair for children whose native tongue was Arabic. So in the end I thought I am going to set up a publishing company — and I did.
How did the Emirates Literature Festival come to be set up?
It was a chance meeting at a ladies' lunch that led to me putting forward a proposal to Emirates airline, which thought it was a great idea.
I think it was meant to be and the time was right.
There was a huge need for a literary festival in the region and that has been the reason for its success. It has gone so fast, really. It is still unbelievable for me. When I actually stand on the Friday, which is the biggest day, and see what is going on, it is absolutely unbelievable. It was a palpable sense of something that was so right for everyone that was there.
Was it difficult to attract famous authors to a new festival in the Middle East?
Yes, that was probably the most difficult part, but luck was with us. Had we been doing any other kind of festival, it would have been more difficult but that is the great thing about writers, they like taking risks. The big factor in big-name authors was that we had dedicated a day to education.
The authors loved meeting each other as well. It is getting easier — what I am doing is starting to plan earlier. I am already in advanced negotiations for 2012.
Why do you promote local authors?
We need to provide a platform and a voice for authors and poets from the Emirates. They are delighted to have this opportunity. It is an essential part of the festival's vision that we do this. One of the best sessions for me would be emerging Emirati children's writers. It is about us being a conduit for literary talent in the UAE.
Are you planning to sell more Arabic titles in Magrudy's?
Interestingly, since we started stocking Arabic titles, we have tripled the space that we give to Arabic books. Bookshops hitherto were either for English or Arabic books. Customers are buying more Arabic books and there are better Arabic books coming through. We have seen a huge growth and I would love to see it go further and further. It means we are getting it right.
Of all your projects — Magrudy's, the Literature Festival, Jerboa Books — what has been the highlight of your career or your experience with books?
I have agonised over this question. I have got five children and my sixth is Magrudy's. I have found it is a rather wayward child that is still in its teenage years, growing up. But I have lavished it with 35 years of tender loving care.
I have to be honest and say that the literary festival is the most exciting event I have ever been involved in, because of the sheer size of it, from the number of authors, to the number of festivalgoers, besides the number of sessions, the whole buzz and the excitement of being there and realising this is not a dream — this is really happening.