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Some of the prisinors who are in the Dubai central jail in Bur Dubai. PHOTO: VIRENDRA SAKLANI/Gulf News archives Image Credit:

Dubai: Inmates at Dubai Jail have published a book of essays to be showcased at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature at Dubai Festival City from February 4-9.

The initiative was one of three announced at Monday’s press conference ahead of next month’s event; others included a conference of global literary festival directors to be held during the festival, and a 50 per cent increase in the number of free sessions. As well as this it was announced that Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo had been added to the list of 150-plus writers in attendance.

The book of essays by male and female inmates written in English called ‘Tomorrow I Will Fly’ is the end result of writing workshops held in local penal and correctional institutions by British authors Annabel Kantaria and Clare Mackintosh, organised by Dubai Police and the Emirates Literature Foundation.

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Left to right; Annabel Kantaria, author; Badr Abbas, Senior Vice President Communications Operations, Africa, Emirates; Ahlam Balooki, festival director; Omar Saif Ghobash, assistant minister for cultural affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation; Dr Hessa Bin Masoud, head of Dubai Public Library at Dubai Culture; Lieutenant Colonel Jamila Khalifa Salem Al Zaabi, Director of Dubai Women’s Jail. Image Credit: Supplied

Writing workshop in jail

Sessions started three years ago but this is the first time inmates’ work will be published and showcased at the festival. After this, copies of the book will be donated to prisons in the UAE and around the world, where organisers hope it will inspire similar initiatives.

Dubai-based Annabel Kantaria, an expat who won the Montegrappa award for first fiction at the 2013 festival - bagging herself a three-book contract - said the sessions were cathartic.

“It was good for their mental health and enabled them to process what had happened to them while enabling them to think ahead and plan for the future,” she said. “They get very philosophical in jail and this helps them express themselves on paper.

“I started the sessions by asking them why they wanted to be involved in the project and they said they wanted to be read by their families and other prisoners in the same situation.

“At times they said it may be bleak, but there is still hope of survival and growth inside prison. Most expressed a level of fear about being released and starting a new life and questioned whether their family would forgive them. It was important for them to say what they needed to say, not just write what they thought I and readers wanted to hear, so there’s a lot of honesty in this book.”

Dubai Women’s Jail

Lieutenant Colonel Jamila Khalifa Salem Al Zaabi, director of Dubai Women’s Jail, added, “These women are part of us and may be our daughters so we should know what they need. No one just becomes a criminal, in my experience they become like that because of one word ‘love’, they killed because they ‘loved’ someone or stole because they ‘loved’ someone. They still need strength, so you have to find her, respect her, and give her rights everywhere in the world.

“This has helped them find themselves especially inside jail where they are lost from the rest of the community and it shows that if we do something for them they feel like they can do something for the community again.

“Their writing has a good message to others not to do the same things. This is a first step for them to change and shows everyone they want to change and anyone who wants to change will,” she added.

Prsioner speaks

One unidentified inmate talking in a pre-recorded video shown to the audience at the press conference, said, “To be given the chance to write and have our writings published is amazing. We are very excited and can’t wait to see our work in print. This is very sentimental and has touched us to know that people care enough to believe in us, usually we are marginalised but you should know that we have ambitions too. We love reading and really want to write so we are so happy to be given this opportunity.”

Meanwhile, festival director Ahlam Balooki said the festival directors conference would help them address challenges, build alliances, and showcase Emirati talent to other international festivals, while the 50 per cent increase in free sessions would enable financial accessibility to all.

How did the book get its title?

‘Tomorrow I Will Fly’ comes from the writings of one of the inmates, a Ugandan woman, who until she had come to Dubai had never been on an aeroplane. In her works she dreams of her next flight, which will come when she gets out of jail and returns home to begin her new life.

How you can attend

What: Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

Where: Dubai Festival City

When: February 4-9.

Tickets: https://www.emirateslitfest.com/