Isobel first landed in Dubai in 1968, and ‘one thing that has not changed is the people’ Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal

I was living in Cambridge [where I was born and was growing up] when I met a group of Dubai students who had been sent to the UK, thanks to the late Shaikh Rashid, to study English. One of my friends was friends with a student from Dubai and one day my mother suggested I invite him and his friends to have supper with us so they could have a taste of English hospitality. They came around to our place, and that was the first time I met my future husband... in 1967.

I followed my heart and in 1968 came to Dubai for the first time to meet his family. And that was it.

I landed in Dubai by a BOAC [British Overseas Airline Corporation] VC 10 flight that made three stopovers – in Cairo, Beirut and Azerbaijan. It was a very comfortable plane but small, nothing like the luxurious A 380s of today. It was December and I’d left a very cold wet England. It was my first time outside of Europe and as I stepped off the aircraft’s ladder in Dubai that night, I experienced several new things. I felt the slightly warm sand under my feet. The air smelt exotic – it had the scent of the east.

The only lights I could see were of the airport and a strip of streetlights; the rest of the area was in darkness.

The next morning was a lovely experience. I was staying in the guest room of my future brother-in-law’s home in Frij Al Murar in Deira. This was before the Corniche was built and when I drew the window curtains to look out, I saw a little donkey trotting past the window!

Apart from this little animal, all I could see was the sea and the sand; no palm trees, nothing. There were few roads at that time and certainly none in Frij Al Murar apart from hard sabka tracks.

I felt a bit like not Alice in Wonderland but Alice in Arabia; it was like I’d gone down a rabbit hole and ended up in this magical place.

Was I interested in books even at that time? Oh yes, my parents were avid readers and our early growing up years were without TV – which was quite normal. We used to visit the library for books, and gifts for birthdays and for festive times were always books. I could read by the time I was three, and would get completely lost in stories. It was magical.

There’s a huge difference between enjoying a book and a film; words form such a strong impression in your mind and in your mind’s eyes creating characters and vivid landscapes.

Heidi was a book I loved. I was with Heidi when she was in the Swiss mountains, I could see it in my mind’s eye, could feel it and I would get completely lost with her in the mountains… caught up in her stories.

An aerial view of Jamal Abdul Nasser Square in Deira in the 1960s Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

In a film, a director decides what Heidi looks like, what the mountains look like. In a book you are free to imagine the settings you want… it’s a direct conversation between two people – the writer and the reader. And what I read will be very different from what you read.

Fortunately, I discovered this very early on. I was addicted to books; I could never get enough stories to read. I love stories, literature more than anything else.

Early years in Dubai

Before I arrived here, the only book I had read about the Gulf region was one that my mother’s friend had given me when I was in the UK. He had visited Dubai in 1936. A professor at Cambridge, he had visited India for a conference and for some reason visited Dubai landing on the Creek in a sea plane. He never told me the whole story but gave me a book saying "I would like you to read this, Isobel." It was Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger. I read it before I arrived here the first time, and it gave me a huge insight into the culture, the way of life and traditions of the people. The black and white photos that Thesiger took, and his ability to help you understand a culture different from your own was amazing. I’d say it was the most important book anyone gave me.

While that book did give me an insight, I did not have too many preconceptions of the people or the place. I wasn’t expecting anything and that was probably a good thing, because when you have an open mind, you think "oh my gosh, this is amazing!" You are not thinking "oh this should be like this or that". I was not in an Aladdin or a Disney film, and I did not expect [the place] to be.

I loved the food and the fresh fish. I’d never eaten a mango before and I remember my future brother-in-law Dr Juma, who was studying medicine in Cairo at the time, bringing mangoes from Egypt one summer and, oh my, it was such an experience! The flavour was so unique. Then I got to taste Alfonso mangoes from India – they are my favourite.

Deira fish market in the 1970s. Isobel found the fish market in Dubai to be very interesting Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

It was such an exciting journey in terms of food. I would try anything. I was an adventurer and explorer in a very simplistic way.

There were other experiences that were so different – like going out into the desert, or to completely deserted beaches … I just loved them; every day was different, every day was exciting but the most important thing was the people, particularly my extended family. They made me feel so welcome. I never felt odd or not included. I would learn a few Arabic words every day. Every afternoon the ladies would sit in the majlis and neighbours would visit. The visiting ladies were very curious to see me because I was different. We would somehow manage to converse and it was a wonderful experience.

I started teaching at the Dubai Infants School which was close to the Maktoum Bridge. I could drive and if I saw three cars on my journey it was a busy day!

All experiences I had were new ones. Everything was different. I was much more impressionable, and also much more open and loved every bit of it.

As for the weather, December was beautiful. But my first summer here was an experience – it was very hot. There was an AC in one room and normally all the household would gather in that room. However, I must say it wasn’t as hot as it is now in summer. It was surely less intense. The winters too were cooler. I remember installing an electric heater because it was so cold.

Deira Gold Souq in the 1970s. Isobel enjoyed visiting the souq as she "had never seen so much of gold in my life." Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

I didn’t really have any culture shocks as such. I did see donkeys carrying water but they never really shocked me. I loved going to the gold souq; I had never seen so much of gold in my life! The fish market was another fantastic place – something I’d never seen before.

We’d often go out to camp in the desert. You could leave the road and in a few minutes be in the sand and could set up a tent. The starry skies were brilliant because there wasn’t much light pollution.

Biggest takeaways

We lived in a house built around a courtyard and all around were trees. During meal times, a big dish of food would be placed in the centre and we would sit around it and eat together. And I remember the water used in washing the vessels would then be used to water the trees around the courtyard. So nothing was wasted. People were incredibly sustainable.

In fact, everything was reused. I still have a Nido tin back in the UK that I’d taken back filled with dried lemons. If you want to cook Emirati food, you need dried lemons.

I came from Cambridge where there was a river passing through so water was never scarce. But when I came here, where water is the most precious thing, I learnt to respect it a lot more.

Is there something that I miss of those days? No, because what I have always done is live in today. I don’t think about tomorrow too much and don’t think about yesterday. I enjoy today. One of the things that has not changed is the people. They are exactly the same – still very welcoming. They have a tremendous sense of humour; that hasn’t changed.

The only thing I missed when I came here was books. I noticed that there were not a lot of books in homes… there weren’t any bedtime stories for children. For me, books and education are interlinked.

When we had our first child, the first thing you think about is education. I very much believe it is every child’s right to get as good an education as possible.

The choice of schools at the time was limited so we set about founding the Al Ittihad Private School. It was funded by the late Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who donated the land and the money to build the first phase. I am delighted to know it is still going strong.

The school was a bilingual one – every classroom had an Arabic and an English teacher. Classes were taught in both languages and had what is now called an integrated day. You didn’t do for instance, English followed by Maths and Geography. Subjects could cross over without barriers. There were no fixed periods for classes and in 1975 that was a cutting-edge concept.

Isobel with author Ken Follett at the launch of his book in 2007 Image Credit: Supplied

If you are reading a book about the Arabian leopard, for instance, it didn’t have to stop there and the next subject start at a fixed interval. Students were encouraged to think about the leopard’s habitat, other creatures like it, why it is nearly extinct… it is quite like clicking on hyperlinks. In fact all subjects – social studies, history, geography, English – can be linked this way.

If children, particularly primary school children, get involved in something, they don’t want to stop abruptly and move to the next subject. If you are an artist and you are painting, there is no bell that rings to tell you to stop painting. You keep going. The integrated method of teaching when done well is a very good way of education for primary school students.

A few years after we set up the school we came up with an idea of setting up an educational toy shop. At the time there was still this very compartmentalisation of things – you either had a bookshop, or a toyshop or a coffee shop… you couldn’t mix them. But I had no prior knowledge of business so was ignorant of such attitudes and had no boundaries as well. I thought an educational toyshop should have books as well so started going ahead with my plan.

From the huge collection of books I’d brought down with me, I found the address of the publishers (remember, it was the pre-internet era) and typed letters and mailed them requesting for catalogues. The postal services were pretty good at the time and in six days I’d get a reply.

To source toys, I contacted the commercial section of the British Embassy for addresses of toy manufacturing firms. I contacted an educational supplies company for school-related items and we stocked those as well.

The bookstore became popular and soon requests for popular fiction and cookbooks began to come in. I soon learnt that the mix between toys and books was a very potent one. It was a great idea to put both together.

The first Magrudy’s store came up on the Dubai-Sharjah road in 1975. Bit by bit we invested in specialist and self-help books. By the 80s we set up stores in Jumeirah, then BurJuman and other places in the city.

The beginning of the lit fest

One day in 2007, I was in my office in the Jumeirah store when a couple of visitors – booksellers from the UK – came by and keen to know who had set up the store, requested to meet me. We had coffee, chatted about books, and they left.

The same day I also had a ladies lunch at home and one of the guests mentioned that the lunch was a wonderful experience "quite like [English bookseller and owner of Foyles bookshop] Christina Foyles’ famous lunches that she used to have with authors and artists", she said.

I said "it is really interesting you should say that because I have just been with her nephew and his friend who asked if Dubai has a literary festival and I said no".

Anyway, two days later this guest of mine wrote me a thank you note and said it was a great lunch and great conversation, and suggested that I pitch the idea of a literary festival to Emirates Airline.

The lady was the late Audrey Flanagan and her husband was the late Maurice Flanagan, who was vice chairman of the Emirates group. I did what she suggested and sent a proposal to Emirates Airline. They accepted and our first festival took place in 2009. Now we are planning the 14th festival. My life has been a case of not really planning things; I’m an opportunist.

Today our’s is considered one of the top five literary festivals in the world – an amazing achievement thanks to our team and sponsor.

There have been plenty of truly overwhelming moments related to the literary festival.

I can never forget meeting the great Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, the first year because it was his last event. He died later that year. He was a wonderful man and when he spoke about his book, I could find myself being transported to his wonderful book Angela’s Ashes.

He spoke to students at the HCT and they loved it as much as he did speaking to them. That’s what the festival is so good at- giving international authors a truly authentic experience of Dubai and its people.

Another overwhelming moment was in 2013.

I am a huge fan of children’s book author Michael Morpurgo. One of his books Warhorse was made into a play using enormous puppets and it was incredibly successful.

I wanted to bring this to Dubai so we got in touch with the production house that made these horse puppets and arranged to have them transported here from South Africa. Each puppet needed three puppeteers to manage it and they did a specially choreographed part for us. It was just magical because it was beyond belief that we could manage it.

Isobel (far left) at the press conference to announce the launch of EAFOL Image Credit: Supplied

The theme this year for the literature festival is ‘Here comes the sun’. Book lovers can expect sunshine, something upbeat, surprises, something completely different because they deserve it.

Have readers’ choices of reading changed over the years? Yes, particularly over the past two years. There has been an upsurge in mindfulness and mental health, meditation and mental well-being and I think it’s because of the impact of Covid. People are turning to ways to heal themselves, ways to feel at peace with themselves.

Children are reading a lot more and that is great joy. Fiction still sells very very well as do business books.

Incidentally, I don’t think a lot of people have moved to digital. Yes, when e-books were first introduced they were very fashionable and there was a huge worry in the publishing world that the physical book would die out. But that didn’t happen. Print books are still doing extremely well.

Reading an e-book will certainly not be the same experience as reading a print book, particularly for children.

The biggest upsurge is in audio books. I think a lot of people listen to it when travelling to work or driving.

5 books isobel would take away to an island


King Lear

We Are Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Fowler

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

The Secret Garden

Read more