Ahlam Bolooki, the new director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, reveals what preparations go before the fest opens, why Dubai is best placed for the festival and why reading a book is better than watching a movie.

How early do you start preparing for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature?

Organising the festival is an 18-month-long process. We are already inviting authors and dignitaries for the 2020 edition.

In a nutshell, what goes on in the back room before the lit fest?

As a non-profit organisation we rely almost entirely on funds from sponsorships and continuously look for sponsors who believe in what we do who will come on board and support the Emirates Literature Foundation. A lot of research goes into the fest. We do a lot of indepth study into who [we would like] to invite to the fest because we have to block their time well in advance. There is an annual literary calendar of festivals that writers go to so we need to book authors in advance to make sure we get the big names every year. It’s a long process and we are really busy the entire year.

From hospitality to tourism and now to the world of books, career wise how has been the journey so far?

I’ve always believed in my instincts, my gut feeling. Growing up, I was quite a people’s person and at the university career fair I was attracted to the hotel industry. So after studying hospitality, I entered the industry working for a year in operations to really understand the working of a hotel. If you don’t understand how something works it’s difficult to have an overview of the industry. I then joined the marketing team and spent three years handling promotions of three restaurants that were part of the Jumeirah Group.

You then moved to tourism…

Yes, it was a natural transition from hospitality. I moved to Dubai Tourism as [head of regional campaigns] handling marketing, communication and events. I was working with the Dubai Calendar team and so dealt with event organisers from across the emirate; one of them was the Emirates Literature Festival. I was actually part of the team that promoted the fest internationally. So [before coming here] I was pretty aware of what it is. In fact, I hosted and moderated a few sessions last year.

What kind of a relationship do you have with books?

I must admit, I’m not one of those people who used to read a lot as a child. But I always believe it’s never too late to pick up a book and enjoy the joys of reading. Some people say the world is divided into readers and non-readers when in fact it could be that you are interested in a particular subject but have not found the right book in that genre to enjoy.

What do you think is the role of the festival?

I’d say the role of a literary festival is to create a safe haven where the community can meet their literary heroes, interact with the people behind the books they love. It’s where conversation flows and where your inquisitive nature can come to the fore… a safe place to have discussions about topics around the world and for intellectuals looking for meaningful conversations and meeting like-minded people. Any literary fest has the responsibility to do that. The curation of the fest is important — the kind of authors to have. What’s unique about the fest in Dubai is that one-third of the world lives within a six-hour radius from here. Having Emirates Airline as the title sponsor providing us with tickets to bring authors from all over the world means the programme can be truly diverse.

Also, I think [attending the lit fest] is a great way to get a feel of the place if you haven’t been to the region. For a lot of people who visit here, all they know about the Middle East is what they have been fed by the media.

The type of conversation authors have and the kind of questions they get are what they don’t expect. The audience here is quite intellectual and very aware. Many authors don’t expect to have such a fan base here. Authors who attend this fest realise that although they might be living far away from their readers, they are still able to relate to them in many ways.

We have a very strong education programme as well where we make sure almost all of our authors do school visits. And when the authors return from the visits they tell us ‘I went there to give something but I’ve actually received something as well’. Interacting with children is always enriching for [both].

Is it a challenge to get readers interested in print?

I think reading — the act in itself — is what is important. If your preference is an e-book for reasons of being eco-friendly or for ease of convenience, that’s still great as long as you are reading. Some people prefer the touch, feel and scent of a printed book and want to make notes in margins. But technology is developing and today you can make notes, underline parts, flag some areas… Technology has made content visual, quick and accessible and easy to read.

While there are ticketed sessions, many of the festivals education programmes are free to students
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We at the festival target not just readers but non-readers too. For instance, we have a youth day, which is a series of inspirational talks by authors on subjects such as social media usage, career choices... topics any 16- to 30-year-old would be interested in. The youths enjoy the interaction and that might lead them to want to know more and they might pick up a book by the author. That could be the beginning of a relationship with books.

We also have sessions with cook book authors, books on business, social issues, literature, history... From such diverse subjects they will be at least one that could be of interest to a person. Most sessions are bilingual or offer simultaneous translations in other languages.

What’s new this year at the festival?

I think it’s [more] important to look at why the fest has been so successful — it’s because it has reinvented itself; that’s how it has stayed relevant and continues to be strong. Change just for the sake of change is not a good thing. There’s a lot that’s been successful and it’s vital to look at the model and what has worked and build on that.

I personally read equally between English and Arabic so I would be able to bridge the gap between Arabic and English literature in making Arabic literature more accessible to the English speaking audience. I think in the first instance they need to be guided and that’s something I’d love to expand upon. Also, the world of reading is changing what with e-books and audio books, so I think the second decade of the fest will have to expand in a direction that is a lot more inclusive. For instance, there is an audience who listen to podcasts, who are interested in conversations, so there has to be a wider scope for inclusivity where we can reach more audiences and bring them closer to the world of books.

Do you think the fact that many sessions are ticketed is preventing the larger community from attending the fest?

If you go to a cinema, you will pay, right? So how different is it for a literary event. We believe that literature should have its rights as well. Authors spend two maybe three years locked up in a room summarising the learning of their lives in one book. You read that in maybe a week. I think [a book] is so much more valuable than watching a movie or attending a concert. You are getting a lot more. So I think people need to change their perception that literature should be free or education should be free but they don’t think twice about paying to watch a sport, movie or entertainment.

That said, a lot of our education programmes is free to students because I think it is important to captivate students while they’re young. We are also looking at elements around the festival where people can attend sessions for free whether it is the Majlis where we have talks and authors doing shorter versions of their sessions. We are looking at a few new things like having a family oasis as well, possibly a screening a movie of an author whose book has been made into a film. Schools are doing entertainment and plays that are open to the public. We have book club gatherings and are looking to engage with a few open mic local initiatives in the family oasis as well.

What do you think is the USP of the Emirates Lit Fest?

For me, the biggest is the diversity. This diversity you cannot really find in many festivals around the world. Also we have a strong bilingual (English and Arabic) community. We are also the only literary festival in this region [others are book fairs]. We do not focus on book sales but on conversations on stage and bringing the author and the reader closer to each other.

One session you are not going to miss this year...

There are so many, but one that comes to mind is a business day — it’s a series of conversations with business authors who have written on different subjects. It’s a ticketed event.

Emirati poets, AI, Age Earthquakes at the 2019 Lit fest

Apart from a diverse range of authors, including Dr Jane Hawking, Jo Cantello, Pierce Brown, and several Emirati authors and poets who will be speaking, there will be panel discussions with renowned thinkers and writers and experts.

While futurist Gerd Leonhard looks at the imminent clash between technology and humanity, celebrated transportation guru, Sam Schwartz, a.k.a. ‘Gridlock Sam’, will join General Director of Artificial Intelligence at Dubai Police, Brigadier Khalid Nasser Alrazooqi to assess how AI is expected to change the future of cities.

Globalisation expert Richard Baldwin will be on a panel session ‘The Job Machine — Are We Becoming Obsolete?’

Douglas Coupland will discuss his insights into the world of 2019 with Age of Earthquakes co-author Shumon Basar.

Research scientist Lewis Dartnell, author of The Knowledge: How to Rebuild our World from Scratch, unravels the story of humanity and reveals the chains of consequences that explain why things are the way they are. Biologist Rowan Hooper assesses the science of peak potential, reviewing the role of genetics. Dr Giles Yeo too discusses impact of genetics.

Danish food writer and chef Trine Hahneman will join environmentalist and conservationist Dr Majid Al Qassimi, Director of Animal Health and Development, discussing how we can ensure that the food we eat is sustainable.

For the full list of authors, visit emirateslitfest.com/authors. The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature opens on March 1.