28 March 2017Last updated

Features | People

A new chapter

Mrinal Shekar speaks to Dubai’s Literature Festival’s director Isobel Abulhoul to find out what it takes to put together the region’s ‘largest celebration of the written and spoken word’

Mrinal Shekar
3 Mar 2017 | 12:00 am
  • Isobel Abulhoul


Organising the festival must be a mammoth task. When do you start the process?

You’re right. Since EAFOL has grown to be the Middle East’s largest literature festival, logistically it has numerous challenges. To ensure it all goes smoothly, we begin by inviting authors to each festival at least 18 months in advance. Which means we are deep into the strands and already programming for 2018.

How do you identify the authors you’d like to see in the Festival?

Team members share their wish lists of favourite authors; we carry out surveys among those attending the festival; and collectively we read hundreds of books submitted by publishers. After this exhaustive exercise, we make a long list. The festival looks for diversity in genres, topics, and nationalities, plus current rising stars and beloved favourites. The children’s and young adult strand is very important to the vision of the festival, as is inviting authors from the Arab world and the region. Publishers are enormously helpful in providing book proofs well ahead of publication, and highlighting authors who are great performers.

How many people are involved?

There is a small team who works year-round to bring the festival to life. Having said that, we also welcome interns each year. They are assigned to work in areas of their interests: programming, operations, marketing and education. The festival could not function without the incredible volunteers who take on essential roles and make sure it runs like clockwork.

Which year did you receive the highest number of visitors and what was the count?

We have built year-on-year on the festival’s success and popularity, and we have been very lucky to see increased numbers with each passing year. Last year, visitor numbers reached 40,000, with more than 15,000 students benefiting from our Education Days programme. This year, 25,000 students will be positively impacted through our Education Days, Student Sessions and author school visits. And, with a packed nine-day programme and 180-plus authors, we are once again hoping for record numbers.

What has the biggest challenge been?

Time. No matter how far in advance you plan, there is always a last-minute flurry and adjustments. With the passing years, the team has become expert at responding and finding solutions to any challenges that may land at our feet. Organising an annual international literary festival could be compared to climbing Mount Everest (in my imagination). It takes enormous effort from a dedicated team, and there are many challenges along the route. It becomes a tremendous and worthwhile achievement when you finally reach the top. The ‘top’, for me, is when I pause for a moment in the main foyer of the festival and watch thousands of happy people, made up of every age group, nationality and background, busily hurrying from one session to another, usually clutching a book. That is pure joy.

And your proudest achievement?

Receiving public recognition for promoting education and reading from His Highness
Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Member of Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain [Isobel is an OBE], the Al Owais Foundation, and the UAE 2016 Pioneers Award.

One incident that you’ll always remember?

There are several, but I am not going to share them with you!

A forgettable moment?

The heavy rainfall last year that meant schools had to close for a day, and we had 50 or so authors who were going to give talks across the UAE. A large number of very disappointed students and authors. I would rather forget that!

How do you see the festival evolving?

The festival has grown from three days to nine days; from hosting 65 authors in its first year to 180-plus this year. For 2017, within the festival, we are introducing the Dubai International Publishing Conference, held in partnership with the General-Secretariat of the Executive Council of Dubai, and four residential Creative Writing Courses. We also have a Happiness Strand, in recognition of the never-ending quest that humanity has to become happy. The festival is a home-grown event, with its roots firmly in the community. It is important that we listen, learn and explore the world around us through the medium of books and their writers… Reading for pleasure is a gift, and in this, the UAE’s Year of Giving, let’s make sure that as many people, particularly young ones, receive that gift too.

What’s the best compliment you’ve received about the festival?

There have been several, but there is one that stands out for me. An author wrote a most moving note after attending the festival and I am sure he won’t mind me sharing his words with you. After the 2015 festival, Graham Baker Smith said: “I keep thinking; ‘oh, this time last week I was... at the top of the Burj Khalifa/at the Mamzar Theatre/in the desert.’ It seems a bit dreamlike and it’s going to take a few days to adjust. What you conjured into life, through your vision and determination and the sheer quality of the people around you, was a mini world as it could be if governed by the best of our humanity. A place where everyone was eager to communicate, no one was a stranger, respect was universally mutual, ideas were thirsted after, pursued and explored with vigour and energy but always with an acknowledgement of the other’s point of view. It all worked beautifully, I talked with writers of horror and crime and fantasy and silliness and they all had a similar vitality and commitment… Everyone was fed, those who served were genuinely warm and kind - one waitress invited me to her wedding!

If only the world could come to this festival and see and learn how it could be, that it can work, this ‘being human’ thing, being not the same as each other but not so very different either. Thank you all again from my heart. You have given me memories I will cherish forever.”

Any advice for budding authors?

Read every day, read widely, outside of your comfort zone. Keep a diary, write at least 300 words in it a day. Always have a notebook to hand and jot down character observations, snatches of conversation that perhaps you can use at some stage in your writing. Be true to yourself.

If given a chance to invite all your favourite authors – dead or alive – who would attend?

I’ve had a wish list from the very beginning of planning the first festival: Ernest Hemingway (his grandson John is coming this year!), George Orwell (the annual Orwell lecture in 2017 is delivered by James Naughtie), Bill Bryson (our 2017 theme is Journeys and he would have been wonderful) Emma Donoghue for writing room, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Haddon, John Steinbeck, Wilfred Thesiger for writing Arabian Sands, Naguib Mahfouz, Ken Kesey, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Russell Hoban, Fyodor Doestovesky, Ugo Betti, WB Yeats and Roald Dahl.

Just imagine having these incredible writers at our festival – the stuff of dreams!

Mrinal Shekar

Mrinal Shekar