This was written for Emirates Business 24/7 and can be found here:
For many years, residents of and visitors to Dubai city have associated it with trade, commerce and the ceaseless flow of goods. Any mention of culture results in complicit nodding and a mention of Dubai’s venerable Bastakiya area, safe from uninitiated prying eyes and nestled near the Bur Dubai creek side.
But culture as Dubai’s new currency is no longer the preserve of Bastakiya. From the sprawls of the Al Quoz industrial area to lavish establishments such as the InterContinental Hotel, culture and community are colliding and creating all over the place, in events such as the just-commenced Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature.
The festival, or Lit Fest as it’s come to be known by aficionados and the wider community, has formally thrown open the gates at the InterContinental Hotel, with a cast studded with authors, media people and influential community members trotting down the red carpet to the opening ceremony. It boasts well-known authors like Martin Amis, Imran Ahmed and Yann Martel holding forth on the opening day. There’s also Rachel Hore and Chris Cleave. The next day has Shobhaa Dé, Alexander McCall Smith, Robert Lacy and Caroline Lawrence, among others. The list continues, and the line-up has anyone with even a hint of interest in books or writing slavering in anticipation.
Emirati and Arab authors are also thoroughly in the mix, with Maha Gargash, Abdo Khal, Alawiya Sobh and Bahaa Taher all featuring on Saturday, the last day of what promises to be a fascinating sojourn in the world of words and ideas, poetry and prose.
But that is not where the charm of Lit Fest really lies. It absorbs panache from its co-option by the community. People with day jobs working the inescapable nine to five, writers, bloggers and social media types have all decided the Literature Festival is their event as much as anyone else’s and have been involved, each in their own way. It has thus far been a symphony played in allegro, with enthusiasm complementing, and in instances even supplanting, the careful hours of work put in by the organisers.
The primary difference between a city and a community is that one is built with bricks, mortar and gleaming steel, while the other is built on shared ideas, interpersonal commitments and common shared spaces, both physical and in the mind. We have constructed the former, and with events such as the Literature Festival, are crafting the latter. It is brilliant that the Literature Festival is drawing international fascination and hosting a star-studded cast. But what is more promisingly a sign of an evolving Dubai zeitgeist is the troupe of community journalists, photographers and volunteers who are giving it their all without expecting to monetise their work. They are there because it is their event, and they aim to make it a success.
Not to denigrate in the least the international authors promoting their books, and taking the time to talk with readers, fans and any who might want to drop in. Nor to take anything away from the sponsors and the organisers who have put in honest sweat, blood and tears while ensuring everything synthesises perfectly.
But Festival Director Isobel Abulhoul has the right idea. At the opening ceremony, she said the Lit Fest is owned by the community, and it is the community that is making it happen.
She’s right. By extension, it belongs to us all.