Celebrated travel writer William Dalrymple will be in Dubai for EAFL next month
‘I’ve got a TV crew making angry faces at me,’ laughs William Dalrymple, on the phone to Time Out from his farm in Delhi. The Scottish historian and travel writer will be in Dubai for EAFL next month, but when we speak to him he’s busy putting together his own project, the Jaipur Literature Festival. ‘The programme goes to press tonight, so it’s not a calm day,’ he says, although his refined upper-class accent never wavers from calm composure.
He may be talking to us under the angry glare of an impatient TV crew, occasionally whispering that he’ll ‘be there in five minutes’ in response to the ‘hurry ups’ from beyond, but Dalrymple remains engaging, enthusiastic and eager to talk throughout our interview. Even when a rabid-sounding dog starts barking wildly in the background, he continues talking politely and with poise, resisting the urge to scold the canine in question.
Likely to be one of the most entertaining fixtures at EAFL, Dalrymple’s award-winning books (all of which have garnered gushing critical acclaim) comprise a 25-year love affair with the strange and the sacred in India, covering subjects as diverse as medieval history, Moghuls, religion, caste wars and, in most recent work Nine Lives, Jainism. Oh, and there’s the Jaipur Literature Festival, of course. Described by Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, as ‘the greatest literary show on earth’, is he in competition with EAFL? ‘There’s a large cheque in the post going to Tina Brown after that,’ he laughs. ‘But there’s no finite number of literary festivals. They’re spreading like swine flu at the moment, and none of them seem to be becoming less popular by dent of the competition. I think it’s a case of the more, the merrier.’
Just how merry – or, rather, important – it is that litfests are popping up all over the globe is evidenced by Dalrymple’s experience of past Jaipurs. ‘By far our most popular events last year were the Pakistani writers,’ he tells us. ‘This was only two months after the attacks on Mumbai and the massacres of ordinary civilians [at the hands of] Pakistani nationals.’ He adds that right-wing politicians in Mumbai had threatened bookshops that stocked Pakistani books, making the presence of Pakistani authors at Jaipur potentially problematic. ‘[But] people were fascinated to meet Pakistanis,’ he says. ‘Many Indians hadn’t met a Pakistani until the festival, nor heard liberal Pakistanis express their version of events. There were some hostile questions, but there was rapt interest.’
Rapt interest and engagement over contentious issues reminds us of last year’s EAFL. A session by Rajaa al-Sanea, for example, whose debut novel Girls of Riyadh was banned in Saudi Arabia for its frank criticism of what it perceived to be the kingdom’s oppressive interpretation of Islam, was packed with people keen to question the young author, whether they agreed with her work or not.
A thunderous round of applause for al-Sanea at the end signalled that an understanding had been reached between the differing factions. That kind of success, however, was overshadowed when star author Margaret Atwood dropped out over a censorship row. But Dalrymple is quick to point out that censorship is ‘hardly a uniquely Arab problem’, and shouldn’t undermine EAFL. ‘The response to the festival last year shows there is an appetite for literature [in Dubai],’ he says. ‘Had the festival happened and no one turned up, that would have been a very different thing. But that’s not what happened.’
Dalrymple is coming along because, he confesses, Dubai is ‘a bit of the map I should be learning more about’. He admits his knowledge of the Gulf is limited, but before becoming a journalist in India in the late ’80s and subsequently settling in Delhi, Dalrymple had planned on making a career in the Middle East. ‘I could have easily ended up as a full-time Arabist rather than a full-time South Asianist,’ he says. ‘I was a keen teenage archaeologist and I was supposed to have a job with the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, but it was closed down by Saddam Hussein just before I got there.’
Perhaps when he’s finished writing about India he’ll consider the Gulf. But can he ever be finished with India? ‘After 25 years, every day something weird still happens,’ he laughs. ‘It’s still a country that has the capacity to amaze and delight. It’s fantastically unpredictable, and it can be deeply frustrating. But whatever it is, it’s never boring.’