Dubai: It has been two months since the Emirates Literature Foundation (ELF) received a new Chief Executive Officer. Ahlam Bolooki took on the responsibility in addition to her roles as Director, Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (Emirates LitFest) and Managing Director, ELF Publishing.
In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, Bolooki explains how her responsibilities have grown ever since she joined the Foundation six years ago, how she juggles work while taking care of her newborn daughter in office and what big plans she has in leading her team towards her vision for ELF and programming Emirates LitFest with new topics including AI.
After the big announcement about Bolooki succeeding Isobel Abulhoul, the founder of the Foundation, as the CEO of ELF came in, she returned to work when her daughter was only three months old.
Bolooki created a nursery in her office to keep an eye on her first child while she works. This special arrangement allows her to work without worrying about being away from her child and taking care of her needs. “I feel very privileged to be able to do that,” said a jubilant Bolooki.
“I can do my work, but also take the time to hold her when she needs me, take her on walks and read her books in between. She knows I’m always close by and can grow up watching me work on the things I love and care deeply about, which is important to me. She’s also growing up around books.”
Bolooki’s colleagues have become like family and they read to her daughter Raya and share their love of storytelling. “I’m constantly adapting to ensure that both my roles as a mother and at the foundation thrive side by side.”
She feels becoming a mother has strengthened her sense of responsibility towards the foundation’s education projects and children’s sessions at ELF. “I want to contribute to a world full of opportunities and creativity for all children, including my daughter. Every day, I work towards achieving this goal not just for her, but for all children who deserve a world full of the wonders of literature.”
Filling in big shoes
Bolooki definitely has big shoes to fill in. But, this has been a journey that she and Abulhoul have been planning together for long, she revealed.
“In 2017, I joined the Foundation and shared an office with Isobel. We planned for this moment extensively - succession planning was key. We’ve both worked very hard to prepare for this moment. My responsibilities have grown gradually from Festival Director, and it is now time for me to lead the team towards my vision for ELF and build on the success that we’ve had over the past 15 years, with Isobel supporting in the role of advisor.
Bolooki sees this as a bigger opportunity to create a positive impact and shape the future of society. “I’m excited about the endless possibilities that lie ahead and I love a good challenge. My primary priorities are to ensure ELF’s sustainability, enable it to continue to grow, and create a strategy that supports the growth of the literary ecosystem in the UAE and the Arab World.”
“I want to help build a community of writers in the UAE who have global readership. More writers will mean more readers. A bigger base of readers will create a healthier publishing industry, but most importantly elevates societies in every aspect of life.”
Promoting Arab literature
It is also a priority for Bolooki to make sure the world knows about Arab authors and literature. “We have created a movement when it comes to Arab World information online and made huge progress on platforms such as Wikipedia, and I am excited about using AI to amplify that effect many fold. This will also mean working on more translation projects. Children are our future and will always be a top priority for us at ELF. Our education programme is stronger than ever, and we will make sure it continues to grow and create more opportunities for children to engage with all aspects of reading for pleasure.”
Programming LitFest with AI
After 15 years of organising the Emirates LitFest, Bolooki says her team has developed a deep understanding of how to programme it for the diverse audience in Dubai and will soon be exploring the role of AI in literature.
“The Festival reflects the world around us and explores the big questions, current climate, and latest trends while celebrating the best of literature from around the world. We offer a safe platform for all to collide, discuss and debate. We have a creative team and are not shy of putting forward new ways of engaging our audiences.”
“One area that will be interesting for us to explore at the next Festival is the role of Artificial Intelligence in literature. What are the threats versus the opportunities? How, or whether, it will change life as we know it, forever. Watch this space,” she said with a chuckle.
“Next year, some book clubs will enjoy exclusive and intimate festival sessions for their members only,” Bolooki revealed.
This is part of the Foundation’s aim to strengthen its relationship with book clubs by offering tailored programming that caters to their interests and areas of focus.
“Book clubs are not only a vital part of the literary community but also a powerful tool for social change, and we have always engaged with them over the years. Recently, we invited Arabic book clubs from across the UAE to a Foundation Friends’ evening, where we discussed the 2023 Festival sessions and recommendations.”
She believes that such exclusive events will foster a sense of community among book club members, which is essential to the growth of the literary scene.
Growth of ELF
For Bolooki, the ELF is a catalyst that harnesses the power of storytelling and brings readers, writers, educators and publishers together for a better future.
Despite extenuating circumstances, she said the Foundation has shown tremendous growth in the last four years.
“With the Global Association of Literary Festival, we promote networking, collaboration, and partnerships to achieve our common goals. Our in-house ‘Wikimedians of the UAE User Group’ advances the cause of making cultural information accessible to all and preserving local heritage for future generations. ‘First Chapter: ELF Seddiqi Writers’ Fellowship’ creates global opportunities for locally based writers, championing the home-grown creatives.”
“We also plan to revive the International Writers’ Centre at our office in the Shindagha Historical District and create a creative hub where writers and readers can come together all year long,” she revealed.
The Foundation’s education programme aims to instill curiosity in young minds through various activities such as bilingual school competitions, the ‘ELF in Space’ project with Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi, created in collaboration with the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, and the recently launched “Reading for Pleasure” initiative in select Dubai schools.
The ELF Reading Caravan, meanwhile, takes the love of storytelling to children across the country. “Our virtual programme aims to reach children around the world, ensuring that no child is left behind. Our mission is to spread the joy of storytelling far and wide, to reach all children, even those who can’t come to us.”
“We also offer book clubs, author visits, and poetry competitions like ‘Poetry for All’ to keep students engaged and motivated, celebrating the rich cultural heritage of the UAE. The arts connect all life fields, including science, and we aim to inspire the next generation of scientists and astronauts,” said Bolooki.
She pointed out that the Foundation has always highlighted the best of Emirati literature and ensured Emirati authors have a seat on big panels. Emirati literature days, Emirati literature strands and author visits to schools and universities where predominantly Emirati students study are some of the literary initiatives focused on the UAE nationals.
“Our Emirati audience is now the second largest at the Emirates LitFest, with diverse interests. We’re dedicated to empowering the UAE youth and sharing the richness of Emirati literature with the world,” she said.
Elaborating on ELF Publishing, Bolooki said the publishing arm of the Foundation aims to showcase regional literature and present local narratives to the global community.
“With the publication of original stories like Aisha’s Pearl and Aisha’s Cake, we’re filling gaps in children’s literature, and sharing the Emirati perspective with a wider audience. We’re constantly searching for contemporary Arab voices that we believe deserve to be widely read, to translate them into English and other languages. And vice versa, we want to translate international literature into Arabic, especially books for a younger age group, to enrich their reading lists.”
Bolooki said ELF Publishing is very community focused. She recalled publishing a cookbook, Feeding the Soul, in collaboration with Dubai Police at the recent Emirates LitFest.
“The cookbook highlights the human stories behind being imprisoned and inspires healing through cooking and storytelling. And all the proceeds of the cookbook are donated for the rehabilitation of inmates at Dubai Central Prisons.”
“We have already achieved a lot, but these are still early days, and our ultimate plan is to establish a global distribution network for local writers and help them achieve great heights of success,” she added.