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May 21, 2015

United Nations of Bookworms

Text by Aparna Pednekar

In sync with the flamboyance that characterises Dubai, the Emirates Literature Festival is a marathon of books, master classes and poetry sessions in the desert. Snatching prize moments from 200 events with 170 authors from 35 countries, Verve samples contemporary Arabic literature on a global tasting platter

  • The Emirates Literature Festival, Dubai, Arabic literature
    Books on sale at the Emirates Literature Festival
  • The Emirates Literature Festival, Dubai, Arabic literature
    Crowds throng the festival venue
  • The Emirates Literature Festival, Dubai, Arabic literature
    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reads out excerpts from Americanah

At the InterContinental Hotel in Dubai, the seventh edition of the Emirates Literature Festival has kicked off in style, with a choir of 400 students, and a War Horse Concert. I miss the show due to gastronomic compulsions, downing margaritas and chimichangas at Tortuga Mexican Kitchen. Our table is a global village; there’s a half-Syrian, half-Spanish; an Australian; a half-Brit, half-Chinese and two Kuwaitis. It’s a snapshot of the melting pot that’s Dubai, a diversity that drives its novel-toting hipsters.

Reaching the festival venue, I’m thrown into the hurly-burly of things. There is a super fun itinerary of children’s events, including a Harry Potter night and a session with British comedian and author of Gangsta Grannies and Awful Aunties, David Walliams. For adults too, there’s plenty to choose from. The Graphic Novel stand is particularly intriguing; it also features the works of Lebanese cartoonist Zeina Abirached and path-breaking Islamic superheroes comic-book The 99, created by Naif Al-Mutawa.

But before I can say mashallah and plunge into the literary smorgasbord, there’s some rather romantic business to attend to.

A night of poetic fervour
The theme of the festival this year is Wonderland, and it’s embodied in the much-awaited Desert Stanzas event. It turns out I’m the only genius venturing out on Dubai’s sands in three-inch wedges! We’re transported by buses to the edge of the desert from where jeeps bump and grind over the sands to bring us to an arena-style ground lit by mashaals. Cushions on the sands, singing men in kandoras, the moon beaming above and sprightly horses circling the dunes create the ambience.

I stumble over to the food tents, grab desserts — khameer, chebab, luscious luqaimat — and settle down next to a group of Germans. The night kicks off with one of the Arab world’s most respected authors, 70-year old Palestinian Mourid Barghouti. He reads — in Arabic — from two of his poetry collections, A Small Sun and Midnight. Emirati poet Khalid Albudoor reads out an ode to Bedouins, Cuban poet Victor Rodriguez-Nunez recites in Spanish and Yang Lian from China reads in Mandarin. Imtiaz Dharker reads out a sensuous ode to her late husband Simon Powell, while Lemn Sissay, notorious for his theatrical delivery, and Welsh playwright Owen Sheers provide eye candy and soul food in equal measure. It’s a starless night, but the ambience sparkles. Halfway through, a handsome troika of camels ambles over and settles down behind the makeshift podium, smiling mysteriously. It’s an Ali Baba-era cliché, one that works its charm immaculately.

Redefining Islam and building fantasies
The next day, one of my favourite sessions is relatively low-key — former CNN anchor Riz Khan in conversation with Zia Chaudhry, barrister and author of Just Your Average Muslim. Though the auditorium is small, it’s packed to capacity and the audience is enthusiastic.

Another small but fascinating session is in Arabic and is attended by a posse of smiling teenage girls in abayas, clutching copies of young author Dubai Abulhoul’s fantasy novel Galagolia — The Hidden Divination. Eighteen-year-old Abulhoul, a student at NYU, is on the panel, along with 45-year old Noura Al Noman, whose sci-fi novel Ajwan is set to be made into a television series.

Drama at dinner
Dubai’s party spirit heats up for my last night at the festival, during the Murder Mystery Dinner, where the Dubai Drama group performs between courses of syringe-pierced scallops, lamb cutlets and chocolate puds. To solve the murder on stage, we have author Scott Anderson of the acclaimed Lawrence in Arabia at our table. Every table has a designated author and much mirth ensues well into midnight. The room is packed, the performances are a hoot and the mood is celebratory; a fitting climax to an engrossing event.

Author Speak
Alexander McCall Smith
At his session, ‘The Wonderful World of Mma Ramotzwe’, the Scottish author kept the audience in splits with his gentle wit and child-like chuckles.

On his writing routine “I write in all kinds of circumstances, and especially well on planes. I listen to music when I write; Mozart while writing Isabel Dalhousie (she’s the 40-plus Edinburg based protagonist of another series of books) and Penguin Café Orchestra while writing Mma Ramotzwe.

On the old-world gentility of his writing “There appears to be a curious view these days that there should be more edge, more conflict, which is precisely the sort of thing you want to avoid in real life.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Nigeria’s hottest literary star, whose third book, Americanah, is being made into a film starring Lupita Nyong’o and Brad Pitt, spoke candidly about feminism and the overarching importance of a woman’s hair!

On feminism“I was born a feminist.  I didn’t read Simone de Beauvoir and become one overnight.

I don’t understand people who aren’t feminists.”

On deep-rooted prejudices “If you’re from a certain part of the world, you don’t have a right to the English language. Because of course, in Africa, we spend all our time swinging from vine to vine and then settle down on an elephant…”

Abdullah Al Jumah
The dishy author of Tales of a Saudi in Europe and newly-minted travel show host shared his travel experiences with exuberance and humanity.

Travel advice “Read a novel about the place you’re travelling to. Keep your mind open.”

On being a rarity, a Saudi man backpacking across the world “It’s hard to get rid of preconceived notions about Arabs. In Rio de Janeiro, they were puzzled by the way I prayed; in Chile, my headdress fascinated the locals. At a hotel in Turkey, we had a minor skirmish with the authorities when I corrected the (wrong) way that the UAE flag was placed. But we, young Arabs, have to travel and open our minds to the world and vice versa.

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