The fourth Emirates Airline Festival of Literature continues to grow in popularity as it caters to the growing UAE literary scene
The Gulf has long had a rich tradition of aural storytelling. Yet the literary tradition in this part of the world is still in its infancy.
But just as the region, and in particular the UAE, has become modernised, in some cases seemingly overnight, a literature scene is fast being developing; and already it’s gaining a reputation abroad.
This is noted by Isobel Abulhoul, the Director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature – an annual event held under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice- President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
“It [The literature scene in the Gulf] has grown organically over the last 30 to 40 years,” she says. “And I think the future looks very bright [for Arab literature]. Poetry in particular has made a smooth transition from an aural to a written format.”
So how has this transition taken place and in the short space of just 30 years? “It hasn’t been straight forward,” says Abulhoul. “The skills needed to tell a story are quite different to those required for writing it, in which case you rely on words instead of performance. The innate ability to tell a story is needed to be a writer however,” she adds. “And Emiratis are fantastic storytellers. They have good vocal skills, so they automatically – genetically – seem to know how to do it”.
The development of such a scene here has been further helped by the establishment of literature festivals like the Sharjah Book Fair – which celebrated its 30th year in 2011 and is held every November; the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF) held annually at the end of March or the beginning of April; and the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature which took place this March, for the fourth year in a row.
Run by a non-profit making organisation, the event takes place at the InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City and the Cultural and Scientific Association in Al Mamzar, Dubai.
However its headquarters are in the Bastakiya district of Dubai, in a building known as the Dar Al Adaab (‘House of Words’). Writing workshops and talks by authors are also held at this venue in the runup to the event. Most of the organisation’s time however is taken up with planning and running the annual festival which has gone from strength to strength in recent years.
This year the multicultural line up included the likes of David Nicholls, Mourid Barghati, Nicholas Sparks, Chetan Bhagat, Terry Wogan, Annabel Karmel, Imtiaz Dharkan and Paolo Giordano. But there were more than 130 authors and poets; as well as a number of celebrities and some chefs, who have published cookery books, taking part.
And while many of the writers came from around the globe, a large proportion of them were Emirati. In fact the number of Emiratis making appearances has doubled year- on-year. There is never a language barrier however as simultaneous translations take place in English and Arabic during all the talks and workshops.
It’s clear from the popularity of the festival that modern Emiratis and residents alike are embracing the written word and are interested in many different forms of writing. There’s been a surge in interest in short story writing for example, which is a genre that is relatively new to the region.
“Short stories – just to put everyone’s misconceptions to rest – are not easier to write than long stories,” says Abulhoul. “In fact, they require a lot more skill. It’s interesting that many Emiratis have chosen to write short stories. “
Given the recent interest in film-making in the UAE, it’s hardly surprising that there’s been a demand for script-writing workshops too. “What I have witnessed happening in the last seven to eight years has been a growing interest in scriptwriting, alongside the visual arts and film; and so writers in the UAE are developing dual talents,” explains Abulhoul. “They want to direct a film, but they understand that they also need to have a story to tell and to be able to write it.”
Michael Morpurgo, whose book The War Horse has been made into a major motion picture by Stephen Spielburg, also attended the festival last year, as did the Emirati director, writer and producer of the acclaimed local film ‘City of Life’, Ali Mustafa.
“People need to go back a step and realise that even if they’re making and directing a film, it has to be written and it has to be well-written to come to life on the big screen,” says Abulhoul.
Although it aims to increase awareness of Arabic authors and promote Arab literature in general, the festival also pushes the importance of education and literacy and as a result holds a day specifically for school children on which numerous children’s authors visit schools across the UAE.
This year it touches on the subject of publishing too, providing workshops about how to get a novel published. But the festival also aims to promote other aspects of Emirati heritage to what is always, a multicultural audience in Dubai. “I think Emirati writers are delighted that they have this opportunity to speak to such a wide audience,” adds Abulhoul. “The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is truly unique.”