Literature Festival in Dubai

Tony Parsons, Michael Palin and Mohammed Hasan Alwan interviews

Michael Palin
Michael Palin
Tony Parsons
Tony Parsons
Mohammed Hasan Alwan
Mohammed Hasan Alwan

Since its debut in 2009, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature has been pushing boundaries in the industry and promoting literature in all forms throughout the region. This year’s event, taking place on March 8-12, is predicted to be just as big as last, with 30,000 visitors expected, alongside more than 100 authors: big names on the line-up include Michael Palin and Margaret Atwood, as well as budding local writers from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. There will also be workshops galore, where visitors can learn everything from cookery skills to trauma writing, calligraphy and Arabic poetry.

The beauty of literature is that anything you’ve ever been interested in has been written down – now all you have to do is indulge in it. Here’s some exclusive insight from visiting literary greats, our picks from the festival, and some of the best beach reads to get you warmed up.
EAFL takes place on March 8-12 at Dubai Cultural and Scientific Association in Al Mamzar, and the InterContinental Dubai Festival City. Tickets from Dhs39, available at

Michael Palin

The UK travel writer, documentary maker and comedian dishes the dirt on his 40-year career.

We accidently wake Palin at 5am. He’s not impressed; we’re not surprised. He may be a hardened traveller who, at 67, still regularly tackles off-the-beaten-track adventures whenever he can, but getting the time zones wrong on a phone interview is not a great journalistic tactic (unless we wanted to ask him hard-and-fast questions off-guard, we suppose).

Luckily for us, Palin is a celebrity of the friendly sort. We call him back a few hours later and apologise profusely. ‘Don’t worry – these things happen,’ he says. A quintessential English gent, he’s soft spoken, captivating and amusing. Known as the ‘comedian’s comedian’, and one of the most famous travel writers and journalists in the world, his trip to the UAE to open the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature next week is highly anticipated.

‘The title of my talk when I come to Dubai is “40 Years without a Proper Job”,’ he says with a humble chuckle. Palin has been lucky enough to indulge in the things he loves most throughout his life – and get paid for them. ‘I’ve always done things that I’ve connected to, and felt were very much part of me and expressed my personality,’ he explains.

Back in Dubai for the third time, he’ll be trying to amuse people with anecdotes about what he’s done, things he’s seen and adventures he’s had along the way, from Monty Python’s beginnings in 1969, to expeditions in the North Pole. His travels in our part of the globe go back to 1988, when he was making his hugely popular Around the World in 80 Days show for the BBC. ‘I’ve only been to Dubai twice. By the rules of the programme we had to do it in real time and travel on the surface of the planet, rather than take any aeroplanes. In Dubai we managed to get a dhow at the very last minute, which took us across to Bombay in about seven or eight days.’ In true ‘roughing-it’ Palin style, he found himself vulnerable and out in the elements in one of the most metropolitan places in the Middle East. ‘The boat had no radar, no radio or any way of contacting the rest of the world. It was a very exciting trip.’

Hugely compassionate, Palin has a great sense of humanity, telling us that the characters he meets around the world inspire him deeply. ‘In Vietnam for instance, there’s a very small mountain to climb, on top of which were amazing views. There was a young girl, aged about 15 or 16, who said to me in very good English that she would be my guide.

She was from a small village, had learned English by herself, and she took me up the mountain and showed me things. She had an enormous amount of information, enthusiasm and a great sense of humour, and a real pride in where she was going in her country.’

Palin hopes he’s made a similar impression by doing what he loves. But would he prefer to be remembered as a comic or a travel writer? ‘It would just be nice to be remembered, really,’ he says. ‘I’m glad people still appreciate all the shows, and if what I’ve done has encouraged people to travel, that’s great.’
Michael Palin speaks at EAFL on Tuesday March 8 at 8pm at Dubai Cultural and Scientific Association, Al Mamzar.

Tony Parsons

The man who grew from punk writer to pop-fiction author talks mood swings, travel and his former crazy ways.

What will you be doing at the literature festival?
I’m going to be doing talks and teaching a masterclass on how to write a bestseller. There are certain principles and rules to follow that people don’t often get. I think I’ve got a few handy tips.

Once a rebel punk writer for UK music mag NME, you’re now a wealthy man who’s living an almost entirely different lifestyle. Are you happy with how things have turned out?
My life now is really what I wanted. Not in terms of the house, but I just wanted the freedom to follow my passion. The greatest thing anyone can achieve in life is to be doing something that they love. The young Tony Parsons would be quite pleased with the way things have worked out, though I think he would be personally surprised. That’s if I could wake him up, sober him up and pump his stomach.

You’ve become a spokesperson for the modern man and write a column for UK men’s magazine GQ. How do you make your views resonate with your audience?
Those GQ columns go out to quite a narrow band of men, aged between 20 and 35 in white-collar jobs. Every writer essentially writes for himself or herself. You have to believe that what you’re doing has some truth and merit in it. I’m not a social worker. I’m not looking to improve anybody’s life, but writing means you make a connection. It’s like hearing a great song when you’ve had your heart broken – it sounds like it’s about your relationship. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to write stuff that’s true for me, that says something about men, and hopefully other people share that.

It’s obvious you wear your heart on your sleeve and have honest opinions on what you see. Do your opinions depend on your mood at the time?
Yeah, I think my opinions definitely depend on my mood. I think it’s okay to change your opinion, as long as you believe it. I don’t think you should strike poses or cop attitudes because you think it’s cool or clever or funny. I think you owe that not so much to your readers, but to yourself.

Your more recent novel, My Favourite Wife, was bashed by critics, yet you spent nearly twice as long on it as you did on bestseller Man and Boy. Why do you think it didn’t translate?
It would make commercial sense to me to just write books recognisable in a certain part of England, but I’m interested in the world and I travel a lot, and I don’t want my books to be just about a few streets in north London. The book I’m writing at the moment is set in Phuket in Thailand. A year or so ago, my publishers were very keen for me to write a novel set in Dubai. The fact that I’d never been to Dubai was a bit of a drawback, so I think that’s one of the reasons they wanted me to come here.
Tony Parsons speaks on Saturday 12 March at 10.30am at the InterContinental, Dubai Festival City.

Mohammed Hasan Alwan

We quiz the up-and-coming Saudi author on the challenges of writing.

What will you will be doing at the litfest?
I'm scheduled for the Ones to Watch event, which deals with young writers. The event aims to shed light on our journey of writing and how we got noticed.

Tell us about your book, Saqf Elkefaya.What was the thinking behind it and what issues are you trying to convey?
It’s about an unsuccessful love story in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The idea behind it is that despite how [Saudi] society frowns on love, it can still grow as ordinarily as it does everywhere else, yet has different fates.

Most Saudi writers, when touching controversial subjects, choose to remain anonymous. Why did you decide to reveal your identity, and what impact has this had on your personal life?
Male writers in Saudi Arabia, as in many countries, are less judged on what they write than their female counterparts. Therefore they enjoy relatively more social freedom in terms of expressing controversial subjects within limitations. We see an increasing number of writers from both genders who try to challenge those restrictions and speak their minds. To me, writing is a bond between people on an intellectual, spiritual and emotional level, and it would make no sense if one end of this connection was anonymous.

You studied in the US. Has your time their blinkered your perception of Saudi?
Not at all. In fact, it did quite the opposite at many levels. It helped me think outside the box by situating me in a context where I can hold a positive comparison between two cultures and two societies. Also, being a Saudi in post-9/11 America made me a target of critical and inquisitive questions about my country. Those questions motivated me to investigate the roots of everything that I grew up with and took for granted, and try to explain it in a rational context among a diverse cultural background.
Mohammed Hasan Alwan speaks on Saturday March 12 at 6pm at the InterContinental, Dubai Festival City.

Festival highlights

Don’t even think about missing these events.

An evening with Michael Palin and Wole Soyinka
Everyone’s favourite English gent Michael Palin is in Dubai to kick off the festival and talk about his comic escapades and fascinating adventures around the world, while Nigerian author Wole Soyinka offers a more serious subject matter. The human rights activist, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, will be inspiring others to use literature for change, speaking about his horrific life experiences and how he overcame them.
Dhs125. Tuesday March 8, 8pm-11pm, Dubai Cultural and Scientific Association, Al Mamzar.

An evening with Margaret Atwood and Benjamin Zephaniah
Acclaimed critic, novelist and musician Margaret Atwood will be a guest at the second gala evening of the event, as will kooky visionary poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who rhymes in patois and ensures his audiences become transfixed on subjects, even the ones they know little about.
Dhs125. Wednesday March 9, 8pm-11pm, Dubai Cultural and Scientific Association, Al Mamzar.

Max Easterman workshop 1: Trauma Journalism
BBC correspondent Max Easterman explains the challenges of a news journalist’s role in emotional, traumatic and highly dangerous situations.
Dhs300. Thursday March 10, 9am-3.30pm, InterContinental.

Jane Bristol Rhys with Maha Gargash
A fascinating insight into the lives of women in the UAE, Bristol Rhys’s book, Emirati Women, was based on eight years of conversations with ladies in the region. She’ll be joined by Emirati author Maha Gargash.
Dhs65. Thursday March 10, 3pm-6pm, InterContinental.

Mark Billingham masterclass: How to write crime fiction
The bestselling crime writer reveals the secrets of using character, plot and dialogue to build suspense and keep readers hooked.
Dhs200. Friday March 11, 10am-12.30pm, InterContinental.

Hermoine Macura
Go on a visual journey through the Middle East with this inspiring photojournalist, who captures captivating shots of varied cultures and traditions.
Dhs30. Friday March 11, 8pm- 9pm, InterContinental.

Tony Parsons in conversation with Paul Blezard
The famed journalist and novelist, known for bestselling novel Man and Boy, chats about his life, from his working-class roots to making his fortune from writing.
Dhs65. Saturday March 12, 10.30pm-11.30pm, InterContinental.

Desert Heat: Illymiyah and Arableak
The UAE hip-hop duo explain how the genre is fusing the social differences between the East and West, and how hip-hop can be traced back to Bedouins. They’ll also be performing on the night.
Dhs30. Saturday March 12, 7.30pm- 8.30pm, InterContinental.

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