15 years of LitFest: Isobel Abulhoul on the life of books

This is the 15th year for the Emirates Festival of Literature. There will be around 250 authors and other session participants in town; that’s a far cry from the 65 or so who were at the inaugural edition in 2009, though even then there were still some big names on the schedule – among them Chimamanda Adichie, Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Ranulph Fiennes, Nujoom Al-Ghanem, Philippa Gregory, and Frank McCourt: LitFest has always been good at attracting top talent.

So it’s a good time to look back as well as forward. The Festival was founded by Isobel Abulhoul, and even though she stepped down as director a couple of years ago she’s still heavily involved. She’s the CEO and trustee of the Emirates Literature Foundation, which among other things runs LitFest. Her CV is pretty spectacular – she arrived here in 1968, married a year later, and began a career in Dubai as a nursery school teacher. Then she and her husband decided to set up a school from scratch because she wanted her children to have an education that combined the best of both Arabic and English; and she started Magrudy’s in 1974 as a toyshop that stocked children’s books because “I wanted educational toys for my children”.

Isobel Abulhoul at the very first LitFest, in 2009

And in 2018 she established the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature (which dropped the ‘international’ a year or so later, and these days abbreviates itself further to Emirates LitFest). Isobel Abulhoul is a force of nature; and she loves books, she clearly sees the manifold kinds of power and influence that books can have, and she’s been a major advocate for the value of reading in a world that sometimes seems to value shallow immediacy over information and imagination.

magpie: Looking over the 15 years of LitFest – and your own long career as an activist for the value and power of books (and without any suggestion that it’s over!) – what do you see as the highlights? And what are you most proud of in the way that LitFest has developed?

Isobel Abulhoul: It has been an incredible 15 years on a rollercoaster, which is the best way to describe the excitement and thrills that happen each year. For me personally, children are so important, and throughout I’ve wanted to ensure that children have an opportunity to fall in love with books and reading.

My life in the Emirates, since 1968, has been dedicated to this mission, reading for pleasure. Co- founding Magrudy’s 47 years ago, Jerboa Publishing and finally the Emirates Festival of Literature, have given me great insights into the world of authors and their books. Meeting an author in person and listening to their own story does have a huge and lasting impact on the audience.

I am very proud of the expansion of the education programme over the years, with five students’ competitions, a schools programme to visit the festival and authors’ visits to educational establishments.

It is very difficult to choose highlights from more than two thousand writers and speakers over the years, but I do have magical memories from the War Horse event with Michael Morpurgo, which had live songs and the giant puppets on stage. Also, Julia Donaldson captivating a packed venue with her stories, accompanied by her husband on the guitar. The evening in the desert, with poetry in different languages, under a starry sky, is the favourite event for all the international authors. They are transported to another place, another time.

magpie: Do you feel any pressure to argue against the negative aspects of Dubai’s international image? Is there anything you regret about the way the emirate and the UAE in general has developed? What role should the festival of literature and the foundation play in image-making and soft-power politics? Or is it all about the helping those who live here develop their own lives and their own culture?

IA: I always focus on the central mission of the LitFest and the Emirates Literature Foundation: to help as many people, particularly young ones, fall in love with books and reading.

Dubai is unique and the media from other places doesn’t always understand the dynamics of a fast-paced changing city, with great ambitions. I live in the moment with amazing memories of the past, and I have only admiration for how Dubai and the UAE has made such incredible progress in a relatively short space of time. It is not words and ideas, but actions that have happened that have transformed the landscape. When I flew back on New Year’s Eve after a short break, I was filled with admiration as I walked through a packed Dubai Airport, at how smooth and easy it was, everything working like clockwork.

The Festival and the ELF has many roles to play: providing a hub for the writing community, showcasing all the talent from the UAE on an international stage, encouraging reading and writing, inviting authors from around the world to visit and letting them make their own minds up about the UAE. Not a day passes without the team at ELF hearing from an author, a student, a teacher, a librarian, about the impact the festival is having.

magpie: You have strong views about literature and children. In a nutshell, what do you think books can bring to children?

IA: I believe passionately – and with scientific research to back me up! – that children get huge advantages in life from being read to regularly (bedtime stories) from the earliest ages, and then reading books for pleasure themselves. Increased confidence, vocabulary, empathy, knowledge, critical analysis skills, creativity are just some of the benefits.

When we read, or are read to, our blood pressure drops and our heartbeat slows. That is why reading to children at bedtime is a very relaxing way to fall asleep for them – and sometimes for the parents too!

magpie: You’re especially enthusiastic about literature for Emirati children. Given that a tradition of children’s fiction in print is so relatively new to the Arabic world, what’s the importance of stories and books in the mother tongue?

IA: Books for children should provide both a mirror and a window; so a child should see someone in books who looks like him or her, with the scenery being familiar too, that is the mirror and is relevant. Books should also provide a window on the world, so that a child’s understanding of other places, cultures and people is allowed to grow.

Books on all manner of topics for children should be available in their mother tongue, or their impact will not be as powerful. There has been great progress with publishing children’s books in Arabic.

magpie: If you had to restrict yourself to just three LitFest sessions in 2023, which would you be particularly disappointed to miss?

IA: That is such a cruel question! But here goes …

I’m so looking forward to Meet Lubna and Pebble by Wendy Meddour. The book brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.

A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe is a historical novel, set in Cambridge and in Wales. It is a heartrendingly beautiful story around a tragedy that happened many years ago. (Jo Browning Wroe’s creative writing workshop has deservedly sold out, but she’s tasking part in the Hard Times, Human Stories panel session on 4 February.)

And Anthony Geffen is showing his documentary of the late Queen Elizabeth, created for her Diamond Jubilee in June. He will share with us additional unseen footage and insights into a person who was a Queen not just for the UK and Commonwealth, but the world.

magpie: And finally – when can we expect a book (an autobiography, perhaps?) from you?

IA: I would love to write, but would need the time to focus as I would need most of my energy to do that. I have no idea if I could write or what genre, but it is on my wish list. Then I could return as an author to the Emirates Festival of Literature – that would be just such a dream!

Emirates LitFest this year runs at the Intercontinental in Festival City and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Library from 1-6 February. We’ll have our own favourite session in previews next week, but you can check out the full programme and buy tickets here.

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