Hay in Abu Dhabi: litfest vs LitFest?

UPDATED 29 Sep 19 The Hay Festival organisers have announced that an edition of the eponymous literature festival will be coming to Abu Dhabi next February.

Peter Florence, founder, director, and main man in the Hay Festival multiverse, declared that the Abu Dhabi version “will be a showcase for great writing from across the Arab world, a platform for inspiring voices from many languages, and a meeting place for readers and dreamers”.

He also told us that the intention is to run the festival annually.

But what of the UAE’s existing literary festival? Ahlam Bolooki, director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature – which is scheduled to run just a couple of weeks before Hay Festival Abu Dhabi – told us that her organisation welcomed any way of “spreading the love of words”.

Hay Festival is something of a phenomenon. An independent and not-for-profit enterprise, it has always been based on Hay-on-Wye; that’s Hay at the top, a small, usually sleepy and very attractive market town on the Welsh borders that has acquired the soubriquet ‘town of books’ because of the number of secondhand bookshops in town – there aren’t as many now, but it’s still a bookish place.

Hay Festival started 32 years ago as a very parochial homegrown affair. Since those early days of taking over the local primary school and adding a tent or two in the playground, it has burgeoned into a packed 11-day event with corporate sponsors, big-name authors and prices to match, a location some way outside the town (it needed the space), and an audience that tends to descend on the town from London and elsewhere solely for the Festival’s fortnight.

Hay Festival is today one of the world’s top literary bunfights, attracting the biggest names in writing and other fields. It affirms the potency of a good book and allows access to provocative thinkers. And it has acquired something of an unofficial fringe, the elegantly titled Where the Light Gets In festival of music and debate; any festival worth its name needs a fringe …

Peter Florence, the main man at Hay Festival

The Festival has been extending its remit. Books and authors remain the core, but these days it describes itself as “the Festival of literature, ideas and the arts”; the ‘arts’ tend to be performances (stand up comedy and hipster bands, mostly) and the ‘ideas’ are still to be found mostly in the books, but it is a statement of how the Festival would like to see itself.

Hay Festival has also been spreading its wings internationally, and there are now (or have been) Hay Festivals in 30 locations around the globe – upcoming Hay Festivals include Peru, Colombia, Croatia, Spain, Texas, and Mexico.

And now a version of Hay is coming to Abu Dhabi, locating at the Manarat al Saadiyat “and other venues” for four days from 24-27 February 2020.

We asked Peter Florence about the genesis of Hay Festival Abu Dhabi, and who made the first approach to whom. “We’ve been looking for a home for an Arabic festival for the last 10 years,” he said. “We’ve worked with the British Council across the region, and they made the first introduction a couple of years ago when Sheikh Nahayan’s team was at the Culture Ministry. The relationship moved with the people involved.

“It’s been a long and deliberate conversation to find and secure common ground, and to establish a way of working together. It’s developed trust and respect both ways.”

On the literary front the press launch listed a stellar collection of non-Western names, among them Lebanese novelist Hoda Barakat, winner of the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction; the 2017 IPAF winner Mohammed Hasan Alwan from Saudi Arabia; the Man Booker International Prize 2019 winner Jokha Alharthi, the first Omani woman to have a novel translated into English; and the rather fine Welsh-Indian poet, dancer and writer Tishani Doshi.

We are also promised “internationally acclaimed thinkers”, including human rights advocates Shirin Ebadi (Iran) and Ahmed Galai (Tunisia), both of them Nobel Peace Prize laureates. That could be interesting, given the country’s reputation in the human rights arena … Only last year a number of authors including historian Antony Beevor and journalist Frank Gardner cancelled their participation in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in protest over the jailing of academic Matt Hedges last year (he has since been pardoned but not absolved).

Florence is clear that this shouldn’t and won’t be an issue. “Hay has editorial control. The festival has always, and will always, keep an open and free platform. Writers ask questions and festivals open conversations.” Which is true enough, but it’s what questions get asked and what conversations get started that can so easily cause offence. There surely won’t be much incentive to wilfully antagonise the festival’s hosts …

“The Festival is made possible by the collaboration of the UAE’s Ministry of Tolerance,” says the press release, which presumably means the UAE government is funding it. Or to put it another way, “the UAE Ministry of Tolerance, with the guidance of the Court of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and the cooperation of Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism, is delighted to provide the organisational support for the Festival … The focus of the Festival on tolerance and human fraternity is a recognition that these human values are the sound foundation of the global society that is the United Arab Emirates.”

That quote is attributed to Sheikh Nahayan Mabarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Tolerance, and clearly there’s a major investment in the idea: “Hay Festival Abu Dhabi will be an important initiative of our Year of Tolerance, which celebrates the legacy of our nation’s founder, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, whose tolerance enabled the success we enjoy as a country today”.

Organisers (centre) and speakers (to the sides) at the press conference

It looks as though the format will be slightly different from the standard literary festival fare of one or more authors talking about their books and taking questions afterwards. There are no details yet, but as well as “literary interviews” we are promised “thematic debates” and “spoken word performances.

Hay Festival Abu Dhabi will also cater for children and families, a big part of the Hay Festival back in Hay, and says it aims to deliver educational programmes during school hours. “Authors and thinkers’ will also be visiting local universities “to help nurture the next generation of writers and creatives”.

Exactly how this fits with Dubai’s well-established LitFest is not immediately clear. Many of the stated aspirations for Hay Festival Abu Dhabi – supporting regional literature, bringing the best and most interesting writers to the UAE, encouraging local creativity – are exactly the kind of goals that LitFest would claim.

There must surely be competition for the hottest authors and speakers; neither organiser would want to duplicate the other’s programme. And the timing seems a bit odd: LitFest is scheduled for 4-9 February, Hay Festival Abu Dhabi for 24-27 February.

On the other hand, you probably can’t have too much literature, too much discussion, or too much inspiration. Peter Florence notes that there are more than 250 literary festivals in the UK; “they all connect and support a wider habit of conversation. I am confident that Abu Dhabi and Dubai will both benefit from a friendly and collegiate rivalry, exchange and mutuality.”

That’s certainly the official line from the Emirates Literary Foundation too. We asked LitFest director Ahlam Bolooki how she reacted to the arrival of what could look like a serious competitor, and she gave us a carefully crafted statement that emphasised the maturity and credibility of her organisation.

“The Emirates Literature Foundation and the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature are here to improve the lives of our community, by spreading the love of words. We support the four pillars of the reading community; readers, writers, publishers and libraries. 

LitFest director Ahlam Bolooki: “here to improve the lives of our community, by spreading the love of words”

She also told us that ELF and LitFest “have been seeing demand for what we do grow every year. We host more events, workshops, debates and courses each year. We have grown out of our community and we are still firmly rooted in it …

“Not just our heritage but also our present makes us unique. Authors who have visited our Festival always want to come back, because even from their short visits, they can see the impact we are having.

“We could not be happier to see the fruit of our labours: a growing literary landscape. More people engaging with books, and more Arabic language writers finding a bigger audience. This is the Golden Age of Arabic literature, and this is something that has been integral to our Festival right from the start. We have been working to spread the word about this for the last 12 years”.

Peter Florence is happy to acknowledge this. “I admire greatly what Isobel’s team have done,” he told us. “The Emirates Litfest has broken new ground and has a clear and coherent identity. We worked with them when they first established – indeed they still use our ticketing systems.”

So is there a clear and coherent distinction between Hay Festival Abu Dhabi and LitFest? Will they be fundamentally different? Florence didn’t really answer that one, but says there’s room for both (“I think there’s vast scope for complementary success”) and sees Hay Festival Abu Dhabi as bringing some of the magic to the capital city: “Hay is very much the new kid in the neighbourhood. Sharjah and Dubai are beacons of literary achievement. We hope to extend striving for that excellence to Abu Dhabi.”

At base the argument is that you can’t have too much of a good thing. As Peter Florence put it, “the more we can all platform more great writers the better for everyone.”

Ahlam Bolooki said much the same thing to us. “We hope one day there will be an author talk, a read-in, a workshop, or a poetry reading every day in every city.” But she did add a caveat: “crucially, we want it to happen because the community demanded it.

Clearly there are grounds for coexistence, which would certainly be in the spirit of the Year of Tolerance. And clearly the world can support another four-day festival of reading and writing, particularly one that carries the stardust of Hay. Peter Florence talks about “a friendly and collegiate rivalry”, which does invite the question: which will be more significant in practice – the friendship, the collegiate collaboration, or the rivalry?

We think on balance that the Hay Festival Abu Dhabi is A Good Thing; we’re just not so sure about scheduling it just a few days after the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, rather than say at the other end of the year.

The full Hay Festival Abu Dhabi programme and list of speakers should be unveiled in November; there’s already a (skimpily clad) page on the Hay Festival website here.

Hay a couple of years ago. It’s not always this sunny at the end of May in Hay …

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