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Saturday, November 17, 2018

'Great expectations' at literary festival

by Alice Johnson

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature/Shutterstock

A wealth of international authors descend on Dubai in March for the city’s Literature Festival. Alice Johnson went to find which Arab-world authors are on the guest list.

For the past five years, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature has been bringing authors from around the world to Dubai – spreading a love of reading, the written word and highlighting the importance of literacy.

From its inception in 2009, one of its main themes has been education: a dedicated Education Day has therefore featured in every annual Festival and has seen numerous popular children’s authors visiting schools around Dubai. Not only is this a useful exercise in educative terms, but it also aims to fuel a life-long love of books and reading.

This year, the Emirates LitFest (5-9 March) features panels, discussions and sessions with more than 100 authors.

Being in the Middle East, it’s also important to highlight writing in Arabic – the native language of the Emirates, Festival Director and founder Isobel Abulhoul (OBE) says.

“The mother tongue of the Emirates is Arabic and as a literary festival it’s our duty to ensure that the Arabic-speaking population and residents who live in Dubai and UAE have the opportunity to see as much culture through literature as they can,” she says.

“We have continued to build and improve the programme in Arabic, following feedback from audiences [over the past five years],” the Director adds.

“Everything at the Festival is in simultaneous translation, so every session you go in to, you can either listen to in Arabic or English. This has been absolutely essential for the Festival, right from the beginning. We made this decision that we didn’t want language to be a barrier, or put someone off going to it. We have found increasingly year-on-year that non-Arabic speakers will go into Arabic sessions because they can listen live to what’s happening and understand it,” she continues.

The five-day Festival feature sapproximately 200 events comprising of panel discussions, lectures, in conversation sessions, workshops, masterclasses, a Fringe Festival, the Time Out Kids Zone; and a special evening event every night. These include an opening ceremony; a Murder Mystery Dinner with guest crime writers; Desert Stanzas and a poetry night in a Bedu encampment; the Lighter Side, an evening of wit and storytelling; and a special closing ceremony.

The number of Emirati and Arab-world authors attending has grown with each Festival; and this year there are more than ever. Home-grown talent is also prevalent, with the number of Emirati authors participating, growing with each passing year.

Noura Al Noman – already known for her children’s books – showcases the first ever young adult science fiction novel in Arabic ‘Ajwan’; while children’s author Maitha Al Khayyat is set to captivate young readers with her region-specific stories. Local poets Nujoom Al Ghanem and Adel Khozam are set to recite their works; while young author Dubai Abulhoul will also be talking about her work. Her novel ‘Galagolia’ was published when she was just 16.

“We have got a wonderful number of Arab-world authors attending… the majority of which are from the region,” Abulhoul continues.

Panels include a debate on the health of the Arabic language, “They are a wonderful panel of Arabists who look to safeguard the Arabic language… they will be looking at the state of the Arabic language today and how things can be improved. So I think that is a very interesting session,” she continues.

Famous Arab-world authors attending the Festival also include Ahlam Mosteghanemi – the Algerian author who has been called 'the world's best-known Arabophone woman novelist'. She is also the winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal of Literature for her novel 'Memory in the Flesh'.

Waciny Leredj – recently long-listed for the IPAF (International Prize for Arabic Fiction) – will also be joining his Algerian compatriot. Leredj is an academic and author of 13 novels, including 'Lolita's Fingers' and 'Ashes of the East'. He is also a former presenter of the TV programme 'Ahl Al Kitab'.

Since it launched five years ago, Abulhoul says she’s noticed a marked increase in the number of Arabic novels.

“The idea of popular fiction in Arabic is relatively new. We had the wonderful Khalid Al Khamissi with ‘Taxi’, which was one of the first (what I would call) popular fiction books. So it wasn’t serious, heavy or literary... it was like a complete change of scene, like in English when Bridget Jones’ Diary came out; it was a complete change of track and tack. People thought ‘what is this?’ and ‘how can this be fiction?’ I think this is happening in the Arab world. We’re now seeing a lot lighter, up to the minute, slightly more experimental books being written in Arabic,” she says.

“I think it’s wonderful. Not everyone wants to read a heavy tome, where you actually need a degree to understand half of it. People want to read for pleasure… I think it’s a fantastic addition to what’s available,” she continues.

The 2013 Festival takes place at the Intercontinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and in partnership with Emirates Airline and the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority (Dubai Culture), the Emirate’s dedicated Authority for culture, arts and heritage.

With such a strong lineup of Arab authors rubbing shoulders with high-profile international writers, this literary festival is likely to captivate a wide range of interest from the public.

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