NAT 230927 Isobel Abulhoul CE006-1704797241176
Isobel Abulhoul, founder of Emirates Literature Foundation, Emirates Literature Festival and Magrudy’s. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Dubai: Dubai-based Isobel Abulhoul needs no introduction. In fact, you would be forgiven if you think you know everything about her. After all, she is synonymous almost with the Emirates Literature Foundation, Emirates Literature Festival and Magrudy’s, all of which she has founded.

So, without mincing words, I ask her if there is anything at all outside these realms that people don’t know about her, and pat comes the response: “Good question”.

What follows is a delightful conversation as Isobel walks down untrodden lanes, both old and new, giving us rare glimpses into a life filled with passion and purpose.

Love of dairy cows, goats and horses

“We kept a herd of dairy cows – around 10 of them and a bull that was a lot of trouble – years ago,” she lets on. “I found a book that had been written to help outback farmers in Australia look after their animals. I read it avidly and tried to diagnose problems with our cows. The lesson I learnt from that was to leave it to the professionals! At one time, we imported some pedigree goats so we could drink the milk. Goats milk is meant to be very good for children with eczema, so one of our daughters benefitted from that. In addition, we had hens, and bred horses too.”

Isobel Abulhoul fondly talks of her early days in Dubai when the family kept goats and dairy cows on the family farm. Image Credit: Supplied

Isobel fondly recalls how they would ride horses as a family into the desert sands during her early years in the UAE. She moved to Dubai in 1968 when she married Abdullah Abulhoul, whom she had met at Cambridge.

She says rearing animals on their family farm at Al Khawaneej stood them in good stead. “It’s wonderful to have animals around, it gives you great joy and a sense of responsibility. Also, if children are upset, they can benefit hugely from sitting with pets. A pet never judges you, in the way parents do.,” says Isobel, who still keeps two dogs, a cat, some rabbits, tortoises and hens.

‘My children are my biggest legacy.’

Growing up on this “animal farm” as it were, were her four daughters and a son, who is currently UAE ambassador to the UK. Isobel counts them and her eight grandchildren as her biggest legacy.

“Nothing has given me more joy or fulfilment than being a mother. Nothing can surpass that,” she asserts.

Isobel Abulhoul in an interview with Gulf News. Gulf News

Ask her what her biggest legacy on the professional front is, and the reply again is prompt.

“I don’t have a profession, I have a passion,” she says.

The joy of ‘Reading for Pleasure’

That perhaps explains why Isobel has “never been busier” than now – despite stepping down from her active role as director of the Emirates Literature Foundation. In her capacity as advisor, she has another revelation to make: The launch of an “incredible pilot” called ‘Reading for Pleasure’ across six schools in Dubai.

As part of the project, which covers students aged four to 11 years, 5,000 books have been delivered to make up classroom libraries, so students have instant access to books that are of interest and for enjoyment.

Although Isobel has stepped down from her active role as director of Emirates Literature Foundation, she has never been busier than now. Image Credit: Supplied

“There will be many different interventions over the five years, to ensure that students have a chance to value and enjoy books, outside of testing. Students borrow books to take home and teachers read a story to the class at the end of the school day, are just two examples.” says Isobel.

The research element with students, parents and teachers is being undertaken by three universities – UAE University, Zayed University and University of Birmingham, she adds.

Growing up in Cambridge

The concerted effort to inculcate the joy of reading among young students takes us back to Isobel’s own school days.

“I grew up in Cambridge, which is an ancient university city with lots of libraries and bookshops. There was no TV and none of the distractions youngsters have these days. My parents, both avid readers, would read books to me. By the time I was three, I could read on my own. I think this played a great role in building my confidence,” she recalls.

Isobel's daughters on their family farm in Dubai Image Credit: Supplied

Isobel still remembers her first favourite titles. There’s a sparkle in her eyes as she escapes into her books, whether as little Mary who discovered the pirate twins that washed up on a beach in William Nicholson’s The Pirate Twins; or as the five-year-old Heidi visiting her granddad and his goats in the Swiss Alps in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi; or even the 10-year-old orphaned girl Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Isobel says she inculcated the love of reading early on as bother her parents were avid readers. Image Credit: Supplied

“I can still dream and feel like a child. I usually read well into the night and finish a couple of new books every week,” she shares.

So, what is Isobel reading right now?

The answer is instantaneous: Paul Murray’s tragicomic The Bee Sting - “I try and read all the Booker shortlisted novels each year, not always completing it”; and How Children Fail, “a fascinating take on education” by John Holt which she is re-reading.

“I must say that the Covenant of Water by Abraham Varghese is the best book I have read so far this year. It’s an unputdownable read,” she adds.

Early years in Dubai

Over the years, Isobel, who managed to bring her beloved collection of books to Dubai by ship when she moved, says books fired her imagination and shaped her character. She also credits her response to life situations to the vast learnings she has imbibed from the world of books.

“When I first landed in Dubai having left a cold, wet Heathrow in 1968, I could feel the sand beneath my feet. In a strange way, I felt I had arrived home now - the exotic balmy air smelt different,” she says, adding that a book called Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger, that her mother’s friend had gifted her, had proved insightful.

Isobel was able to nurture her love of horses too when she moved to Dubai. Image Credit: Supplied

Her earliest memories in Dubai are vivid: The drives she enjoyed with her husband in the desert (“There was no road beyond Dubai Airport back then”); a wild donkey trotting past her window on her first-ever morning with the shimmering sea in the background; her house in becoming an island as the sea waters came in when her mother visited; the great opportunity to be able to learn colloquial Arabic thanks to living with her Emirati family in the early days ; the recollections are many.

Ask her how expat life was back then, and she tells you, “I came here to start a new life with my Emirati family. I taught at the Dubai Infants School where children from different communities came. There was a lot of crossing over between the communities, much more so than now.”

A pioneer and trendsetter

A trendsetter even back then, Isobel started the Ittihad Private School along with her husband. “It was set up around an Integrated Day, a new concept in 1975, where subjects were largely project-based. The school began with 150 students but grew year after year and is still going strong,” says Isobel.

The first Magrudy's shop with the first-ever rocking horse in Dubai. Image Credit: Supplied

Setting up Magrudys, the book chain, in the same year was also an educational venture to begin with, she says, pointing to how it started off life as an educational toy shop but had a selection of children’s books from the very beginning. The demand for books was customer driven, plus requests for cards, arts and crafts and other items that may have been difficult to find in Dubai back in the 1970’s. Today, the chain boasts 17 stores across the UAE, with four more coming up soon.

Even with so much happening in her life, Isobel continues to put her passion to purpose. “Each one of us has a limited time on earth and we have a duty to try and leave the world a better place. We owe the world a favour,” she reasons.

Isobel lets on that she still has an unfulfilled dream: Writing a book.

“I have a desire to write, but maybe I am afraid to try. In the coming years, I would love to overcome that fear and pour my soul on to the page,” she lets on.

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Isobel says the idea about writing a book on herself does not quite appeal to her. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

And if she were to write an autobiography, what would its title be? “I think that the title of a book only comes once it is written, and the idea of writing about myself doesn’t appeal to me.”

Her favourite lines resonate with all that she says and does, whether it’s from John Donne’s ‘No Man is an Island’ (“No man is an island, entire of itself… never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”); or from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”)

Now, where Isobel herself fits into this prism of greatness - no guesses there.

These are a few of Isobel Abulhoul’s favourite things

• Book: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemmingway

• Movie: The English Patient directed by Anthony Minghella

Chicken Machboos
Chicken Machboos is an Emirati rice dish. Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal/Gulf News

• Food: Chicken Machboos, an Emirati rice dish

• Pastime: Swimming (“Its rhythmic movements help clear the mind, is good for creativity”)

• Holiday destination: Mountain ranges of Austria (“You feel the presence of the Almighty above the clouds”)