Dubai's first literary festival is attracting big names – Paulo Coelho, Khaled Al Khamissi, Anne Fine – and looks set to be another feather in the UAE's arts and culture cap.
Shiva Kumar Thekkepat investigates

It was only a matter of time. In the last five years, Dubai has launched a film festival, a jazz festival and an art festival. What was sorely missing was a literary festival. That is now being addressed. The recently announced Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature (EAIFL) will now fill one of the few remaining gaps in Dubai's arts scene.

Literary festivals are an increasingly popular option for countries looking to attract a niche audience of top-end, discerning visitors. Witness the Hay Festival in the UK and the Cartagena Festival in Colombia, two of the best known among them. So, after the architectural marvels that the city boasts, will it now be the best literary festival in the world?

Why not, says Isobel Abulhoul, director of EAIFL and successful bookshop chain, Magrudy's. As the brain behind the festival, Isobel is well qualified to speak up for EAIFL, and she does so with passion.

She remembers how it all came about. "Just over a year ago, I was sitting in my office in Jumeirah and Bill Samuel, vice-chairman of London bookshop Foyles (who is also one of the directors of EAIFL) dropped in with his wife to say hello and catch up on his way to India," she recollects.

"As we sat there, I think it was his wife who said, ‘What you guys need is a festival of literature'. I replied it would be great, and a big discussion ensued for about 20 minutes.

From there to the formal announcement of EAIFL it took quite a lot of hard work before Emirates agreed to be our sponsor, which happened in December last year."

The inaugural Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature will take place for three days from February 26, 2009. The initial announcement was made at the London Book Fair last April.

"After we formed the EAIFL committee, we found an ideal opportunity at the London Book Fair to announce the festival as it was honouring publishers from the Arab world," says Isobel.

Authors indeed are the lifeblood of literary festivals, and initial fears that EAIFL, as a fledgeling fest, would not be able to attract the heavies were soon put to rest. "Less than four weeks after the announcement of EAIFL at the London festival we already had 22 authors committed to us," says a gratified Isobel.

Among the famous writers who will participate in EAIFL are Margaret Atwood, the English adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Paulo Coelho, Louis de Bernieres, Rageh Omaar, Penny Vincenzi, Anne Fine, Jung Chang, Mark Tully, Egyptian writer Khaled Al Khamissi, and renowned children's authors Jeremy Strong and Lauren Child.

"For a new, unknown literary festival this is something really special," says Isobel. But the deluge has its happy disadvantages too. "Initially we had thought it would be a problem getting the big names," says Isobel. "Now we're wondering how we're going to fit all these people in. How many festival events can we have? So, it's been the opposite for us, really."

"The opportunity to be a part of the Middle East's first international literary event has been a huge draw for writers of all genres," she smiles. "The festival is certainly on track to play a key role in the UAE's burgeoning cultural scene."

There are two key elements for the festival: education and literacy. "The focus on education is the reason we decided to hold EAIFL when all the educational institutions, schools and colleges in the UAE would be open," says Isobel. As a way of highlighting this issue the festival will conclude with an ‘Education Day'.

"All the participating authors will be going out into the educational community where they will be sharing whatever is relevant from their experience as an author or the topic they champion," outlines Isobel.

"This is an important aspect of the festival because for students, whether they are six or 21, the chance to get close to world-class authors can be a momentous event. It can be something that will stay with them till they are in their rocking chairs!"

Alongside education, literacy is the other vital strand of the festival. "Literacy is increasingly becoming headline news these days – not only is it an issue among the youth, but there are also very real concerns about the teaching of Arabic," explains Isobel.

"I believe that a celebration of anything that has a connection to literacy has to be beneficial, so we'll have debates and discussions about pushing back boundaries, among other vital topics."

The idea behind this, according to Isobel, is to realise the vision of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to eradicate illiteracy in Dubai.

Hence, the decision to cater for people from all walks of life. Authors will give talks and participate in debates that will be open to the public. Only some events will have an entrance fee to keep the audience at a manageable level.

"Children will be encouraged to take up reading for fun, not just because they have to," says Isobel. "They will be able to meet with writers of all genres and discuss with them certain ideas or points of view and then take home their respective books and read them with a newly acquired insight which, from personal experience, really brings a book to life."

The EAIFL organisers hope this will help address a very real concern in these parts. According to the Arab League Educational Cultural and Scientific Organisation (Alesco), 100 million people across the Arab world are unable to read or write. The UAE has pledged to eradicate illiteracy completely by 2015.

EAIFL will also be the first international literary festival to dedicate a day to promoting the development of literary understanding through interactive workshops, readings and seminars.

"This festival will form an integral part of the ongoing development of the UAE's cultural offerings," says Dr Salah Al Qassim, adviser to Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, who are co-sponsors of the festival along with the Emirates group. "In line with the UAE's vision to achieve a 100 per cent literacy rate by 2015, EAIFL and its partners will help spearhead the development of this cause with annual events."

The third unique aspect of EAIFL will be an emphasis on translations in the wider theme of literature. "There is a lack of Arabic texts translated into English as there has not been an emphasis placed on it by governments," says Isobel.

"Translations provide important cultural understanding about different backgrounds and traditions and you can see this in a recent book – Khaled Al Khamissi's bestselling Taxi, Tales of Rides which has been reprinted seven times."

A bestseller in Egypt, more than 30,000 copies of the book have been sold so far and it has now been translated into English.

By translating books into other languages, you learn about other cultures and nationalities.

This is what EAIFL is hoping to promote with the festival. "Cultural understanding is high on the agenda for His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum which is evident in the Dubai Strategic Plan 2015 – to eradicate illiteracy and promote cultural understanding with different nationalities that live in the UAE," says Isobel.

"EAIFL will reflect the rich literary heritage from all nationalities that make up the UAE's population. As literacy is one of the most fundamental building blocks in the development of any society, EAIFL will highlight not only the educational importance, but also how entertaining literature in all its forms can be," says Al Khamissi who was present at the formal launch of EAIFL in Dubai.

Kate Adie, OBE, the famous BBC war correspondent and author of the bestselling autobiography The Kindness of Strangers, who was also present at the launch, says EAIFL would be an opportune time for a dialogue between Arab and English writers, to come together and promote the development of literary understanding.

"The festival will offer extraordinary opportunity for people to talk and write, particularly for those who do not belong to any organisation but like to read books and talk about life," she says. She believes that Arab writers should get good inputs from the people in the Arab world for their work. Their writings should talk about what the people of the region know because that is what they want to read.

That such festivals could work asa catalyst for young and struggling writers was a point emphasised by Al Khamissi. Egyptian youth want to write but have no support, he says, and there is a real need to increase such literary efforts for the people in the Arab world.

"EAIFL is also a great effort and commitment to get people to talk about what they can write in Arabic. This is
a big opportunity for all writers, particularly local, to take an active role in this festival," he says.

According to Isobel, EAIFL will not be only about selling books or book signings, though they will be an essential part of it. "There will be books launched at the festival. In fact, as of now two new books will be launched during the festival. One of them is by a first-time author, who has written a book based in Dubai."

"But that's not what the festival will be about: it's about people, no matter where you are from. If you are staying in Dubai or travelling to Dubai at that time, there will be something for you. There will be authors of children's books, history, politics, fiction... Jeremy Paxman (British author, journalist and television presenter) will be there too.

"We want to encourage all of the society of Dubai to find something of use here, so there will be a big fringe to the festival. There will be workshops, and for schools we'll have different events going on, and to add whatever is required we'll be sending questionnaires to school and educational institutions asking them what they would like included," elaborates Isobel. Throughout the three-day festival there will be events – it might be musical, it might be poetry, debates, or competitions."

Ultimately, EAIFL will be about books, and reading. Kate Adie puts things in perspective when she says, "I have a huge enthusiasm for literary festivals. One of the many reasons is because they don't attract only bookish, very intense people who have all read Proust. They attract an enormous range of people partly because they are normally held in places where people go.

"You may fancy a place, but you need a reason to go there.

A literary festival gives you a wonderful reason to go along. They've grown over the last 15 to 20 years in England to where there are now over a hundred. The authors they attract are also not only novelists and poets. Sometimes you can find politicians, sportsmen or comedians who write an autobiography and proceed to tell lots of jokes."

Participants are there to talk about the world of ideas, about current affairs, about matters which interest those who put something down on paper and the result is a forum for discussion, she says. "You don't have to have membership of a group or a political party or have a certain profession, you just have to love books and want to talk or listen to talks about them."

Kate also thinks Dubai itself would be a major attraction: "I'm glad there is finally a festival coming to Dubai. I've been coming here for many years. I've always loved coming here even though I can't recognise it every time I arrive, and I think it will be an absolutely fascinating place for people to see."
Kate has an agenda to promote literature, and with good reason.

"I come from the country of Shakespeare and tens of thousands of young people do not read books or in fact do not bother to learn to read," she points out. "In a well-off country like the UK, that is an abomination."

But it all boils down to pure pleasure for her. "Books are a door to another world. They show us how other people think and behave; they can take you to places that you may not have the money to visit. Reading is so much fun and we must make sure that everyone knows how to make use of these wonderful tools."

Isobel feels, given the UAE's great heritage of storytelling and oral poetry, EAIFL will play a key role in the country's expanding cultural scene.

"The Arabic language must be one of the richest in the world, and the opportunity to celebrate both Arabic and English literature, poetry, books and anything remotely connected will give the Arab world a chance to inform the globe about what is happening here," she concludes.