The big read

Dubai’s first literary festival, EAIFL, was a big success this year. Festival director Isobel Abulhoul tells Laura Chubb why 2010’s rebranded EAFL will be even better

Interview, The Knowledge

Did you expect EAIFL to be such a roaring success?
Well, I’m an eternal optimist, but I have to say that it exceeded even my huge, probably unrealistic expectations. There was this one crystallising moment when I was stood in the foyer surrounded by hundreds of people with programmes in their hands, all marching off to the next event. And there was this palpable sense that everyone was really getting something out of it and they wanted more.

What kind of feedback did you get from authors?
I put together a scrapbook afterwards and they all wrote the most wonderful things. For many of these world-class international authors, it was their first visit to the region and they were intrigued to learn more. I think they had their eyes opened. The other thing they really enjoyed was that they were able to exchange ideas and talk shop. They sat in the green room together and you could hear gales of laughter; you know, in-jokes and gossip. Apparently this doesn’t happen at most festivals: the authors come in, they do their session and they go. That tends to be the norm. But for our festival we have them captive [laughs].

It’s a great opportunity to introduce more people to Arab authors, isn’t it?
Absolutely – that’s very important. Many authors from around the world sat in on sessions with Arab authors, and they’ll have gone back and told other festivals that this person is really good and they must invite him. I look upon our founding authors as ambassadors, because we want them to go back and tell the rest of the world about the region and what’s going on here.

Do you think it encouraged more people to read?
We did hear that there was a massive uptake in library borrowing in the month after the festival.

So what can we expect from EAFL 2010?
We’ve extended it by a day and we’ve taken over more venues, so we have more authors, more sessions. The essence of the festival remains the engaging, live, edgy debate. That’s what makes it a truly fabulous experience and I believe that anyone who sits in on those sessions will remember it in 30 years’ time.

Who’s coming?
We’ve got two winners of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction [known as the ‘Arab Booker’]: Bahaa Taher, who wrote Sunset Oasis, and Youssef Ziedan, who won it with Beelzebub. We hope to have the third winner as well. The winner is announced at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair [March 2-7 2010] so it’s just if we can kidnap him [laughs]. I’m really, really looking forward to meeting Yann Martel, the author of Life of Pi, and Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian graphic novelist [best known for Persepolis]. That will be an extremely interesting session. There’s also Jeffrey Deaver, the author of The Bone Collector, William Dalrymple, and our ‘film star’ authoress Shobhaa Dé, who is often referred to as the Jackie Collins of India. So there’s something there for everyone. We’ve got about 90 authors at the moment.

We know Martin Amis will be there, too. He’s voiced some particularly forthright opinions about the Middle East in the past. Why invite him?
When you look at attracting the foremost authors in the world, these authors have all got opinions, and they tend to come forward with them. If you look at the list of Arab authors we had last year, there were all sorts of very interesting stories that may not have been quite as well known as, say, Martin Amis on the Western radar, but certainly were probably even more controversial, if that’s the right word. I mean, I don’t think he is controversial. I think that he’s got his opinions and his opinions are his opinions. He’s a very well-known author and he’s a very revered author and it’ll just be fascinating to have him along.

EAFL is an outstanding achievement, but literature is often about pushing boundaries and abhorring censorship. So how easy is it to have a literary festival in the Middle East?
It’s a great help that Dubai has been my home since 1968, so for 41 years I’ve lived and breathed Dubai. Everyone here has been so welcoming, so embracing, so kind over that time. I have an understanding of the culture and I think it’s like any culture, there are certain things within cultures that would not be acceptable and you have to be aware of that. Wherever you go in the world, regardless of what people say, there will be things that are unacceptable. The focus of our literary festival is to celebrate. It is not to cause upset, but it is to celebrate and engage and entertain, so that’s what we’ve really focused on.

EAFL will be at Dubai Festival City from March 10-13 2010. See www.emirateslitfest.com for more.

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