What makes the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature tick?

- Hisham Wyne

As preparations for the 2016 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (EAFOL) got into full swing, Dubai’s copywriter Hisham Wyne had a heart to heart with Festival Director Isobel Abulhoul about books, storytelling and what makes her Festival tick.

Reliving the spoken word

“This is the land of genies. And on nights like this, the good genies will come out and join us in force. It’s a place of shadows and alleyways,” says the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature’s (EAFOL) Festival Director Isobel Abulhoul. It sounds like an introduction to the Arabian Nights. It’s not though.

February is to hand, and the build-up to EAFOL is in full swing. And Abulhoul is talking about Al Shindagha Historical Neighbourhood, one of the few areas in Dubai where old-fashioned Arabian courtyards and tiny squat villas sit calcified in the waves of time. “This is where Dubai grew out of – between the creek and the sea. And we’ve assembled an entirely different tradition of Bedouin poets and storytellers. There. We’re bringing them together. We’ll sit down over a charcoal brazier warming a ‘gahwa’ pot, and the stories will be passed from one to the other. And there will be simultaneous translation,” she says.

Specifically, she is referring to the first three days of the Festival she directs, which kick off with a schedule of story-telling and poetry recitals reliving the original oral tradition of the Emirates. The programme is called the Spotlight on the Emirates.

Abulhoul envisions people sat in sat in concentric circles – storytellers in the inner circle and the audience bringing up the circumference. A choir from Tripoli in Lebanon will interject musical offshoots from the poetry within breaks.

This is the Festival’s first ever “Stories and Poems from the Desert to the City” evening. Emirati poets including Ali Abu Al Reesh, Fahad Almamari, Humaid bin Thaiban Al Mansoori and Dr Hessah Abdullah Lootah will join proceedings. The opening evening of Spotlight on the Emirates will tribute to the life of writer and poet Mohammed Bin Hadher, who had put in an appearance at the Festival in 2010.

A year of reading

Young people need to read. So it’s a happy confluence that 2016 has been nominated as the Year of Reading by the UAE President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Dubai Ruler His Highness Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum.


EAFOL is the UAE’s first international literary event on the calendar for 2016, and is taking its representative responsibilities seriously. The Festival has extended its run from March 1st to 12th this year, adding days to make room for 150 plus authors and some 350 sessions.

“I can’t tell you how excited we were that 2016 had been declared the year of reading. And our festival is the first international literary event on the UAE calendar. We are perfectly placed to spread our message far and wide – that reading is enjoyable, fun and will open doors that you could never even have believed were there,” says Abulhoul.

Encouraging young people to read isn’t a new trope for Abulhoul and the Festival. That was the very remit of the Festival when it was inaugurated eight years ago. “For eight solid years, all we’ve done is promote reading. In a nutshell, the festival was born to encourage people – particularly young people – to pick up a book and read for pleasure. If you read for pleasure, you’re a reader for life,” she notes.


Live long and prosper

EAFOL has lived an outwardly charmed live from the get-go, with the swish setup, incredible hospitality and international roster of authors masking the tremendous work that goes into the event every year. Abulhoul recalls first setting out down the road. “We planned throughout 2008, and the first Festival was in 2009. We had 65 writers come in for the first one.”

Since, EAFOL has put on its skates and grown to new standards – both in terms of the international names it attracts and the size of the community invested in it. “From the very beginning, writers around the world have been intrigued to come to Dubai and find out more. And with each passing year, we’ve grown, and have more than tripled the number of authors for 2016,” says Abulhoul.

Word of mouth has played a key role in the Festival’s success. “A lot of this has happened through word of mouth as authors talk to other authors. And the message is that it’s a fantastic opportunity for writers to have a wonderful time where they’re treated with the legendary Dubai hospitality. It’s also a great opportunity for writers to dispel some of the things written about this part of the world by talking to other writers who actually live here. They can ask quite frank questions,” she says.




The economics of literary festivals

Literary festivals are very popular in current climes. There’s a particularly pleasing rash of them dotting the UK’s landscape, with some 600 odd at last count.

Festivals the world over have a few things in common. The gather authors and have them interact with the local community. They run engaging events and sessions. And most of them are set up as charitable organisations – because the economics of capitalism often don’t gel with their exploratory ambitions.

“I don’t know any literary festivals that I have read about or come across that are not set up as a charitable organization, as ours is,” observes Abulhoul. “We did our research before setting up our Festival, and saw that every other literary festival of note was a charitable foundation. And we realised that was the right model, giving us the freedom to plan events without thinking about making money from each session.”

EAFOL is overseen by the charitable Emirates Literature Foundation, which was established by decree by His Highness Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum in 2013.

It’s this status that allows EAFOL to put together a massive educational programme where over 100 authors go out into schools and colleges, entirely for free. They talk to students about why books matter, the written word, and how they became writers. The students benefitting from this outreach cut a wide swathe – from government school pupils to enrolees at bare bones schools where parents mightn’t have the resources to bring their charges to the festival proper.



Encouraging local writers

The show doesn’t just star international novelists and essayists. It also spotlights local authors who’ve always aspired to write, and through the Festival have found a way. A case in point is children’s novelist and community stalwart Rachel Hamilton. The quirky author has launched a career from her home in a Dubai suburban enclave.

Children's author Rachel Hamilton

Children’s author Rachel Hamilton

“I’ve wanted to be an author since I was about four years old, but it was only after I had my own children and started telling them bedtime stories that I discovered that, for me, all the fun was to be found in making up stories for kids rather than adults. I often think it was probably because my brain hasn’t evolved much since the age of thirteen!” she says.

Her story is almost the ideal type for how Festivals help galvanize aspiring scribblers. She’d been a loyal follower of EAFOL since 2009. “I went to the first few festivals as a visitor, and then started attending workshops as a wannabe author as I thought about writing my own book. When the Montegrappa First Fiction competition launched in 2013, I entered my children’s novel, ‘The Case of the Exploding Loo’, and was amazed and delighted to win the runners up prize. It was like being whipped up into the world’s best whirlwind.”

Less than two months after the competition, she had a literary agent and a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster. Hamilton made her initial mark on the small people world with her “Exploding” books. The books themselves are quite safe, but the central characters have to contend with a few spontaneous upchucks by household appliances and the like. “The Exploding books are quirky detective stories for 7 – 12 year olds, featuring a geeky 12-year old investigator and a world of science, silliness and fun,” she explains.

This unicorn is taking over New York

This unicorn is taking over New York

February 2016 saw the launch of the first of her new four books series – ‘Unicorn in New York’ – with Oxford University Press. The new series is a funny fish-out-of-water saga featuring a starry-eyed unicorn, in search of fame, let loose in New York City. Louie the Unicorn and his faithful gang of friends – a troll, mermaid and faun – have adventures in the city that never sleeps.



Getting the mix right

For all the massive amounts of planning, meticulous scheduling and telephone diplomacy that goes into getting hundreds of well-regarded writers on a plane to Dubai, Abulhoul says the basic tenets of success can be simple. “You really have to believe that what you’re doing is for the good of your community. And I think that all of us in the team share this belief that the Festival is a fantastic thing that is enriching society, breaking down the barriers of language and nationality, and bringing people together to listen to great speakers. We’re not ashamed of showing our enthusiasm for literature, and the words of those wonderful people who put those books together for us, and I think that resonates with authors.”


Festivals like EAFOL eventually rise or fall based on how the community responds. There’s no point having big halls half-empty. Fortunately, Abulhoul and her team have cracked how to get people packing in. She says it’s simple – you just give the public what they want. “You just have to put together a programme of exciting speakers. You have to entice the public by creating different angles on things. You want a programme that people find intriguing and want to be a part of. And the family focus of our festival has been very important in getting so many down to the event every year.”

Younger readers are incredibly important, which is why EAFOL sets huge store in its well fleshed out children’s programme. “Parents are very happy to come down and bring their children to the Festival for the weekend. Children can soak up new ideas while the parents attend the sessions they really want.”


A very personal journey

Abulhoul has been a part of the UAE for very many a year, and is a tireless champion of the written word. “I’ve been in involved in books and education all my adult life, and believe those are two things that matter. I realised that a celebration of books through their writers would be such an amazingly exciting event. At that point, there wasn’t a purely literary festival in the UAE, and we wanted to do something about that.”

She has a life-long fascination with books. “What do we do when we go to someone’s house? We look at their books, and that tells us a lot about that person – what they like, what they dislike, I mean, I still have the books I read as a child. I’ve got books that meant so much to me. They’re tattered, torn and battered. But they will always have a place in my life. For instance, For Whom The Bell Tolls – my all time favourite book – is still there on my bookshelf.”


When the Festival first started, Abulhoul was involved in most things to with organisation running pillar to post. Thankfully, EAFOL’s explosive growth has meant an expansion in the team that has allowed her to focus more on the long term. “I’m focusing on where we’re going. We are far from finished in terms of initiatives, but each initiative takes a huge amount of planning and we need time to do that. In five years, I really hope the festival will become the premier event in the Arab world that showcases the best of world literature in different languages. I want it to be a space that brings harmony to discussions where people respect one another but can still agree to disagree.”