It’s difficult to blog about the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai because there’s so much of it. When I go to Hay or Edinburgh or Cheltenham I’m usually only there for a day or two, and only actually in the festival for a few hours. In Dubai I got to live in the hotel where the festival was being held for almost a week.
It’s a very fine hotel, with huge conference rooms, which sits at the hub of a complex called Festival City on the banks of Dubai Creek. A little further along the waterfront was a huge fountain which looked liked like an unlikely submarine surfacing. It remained moribund until about 2pm each afternoon, when it would spring to life, blaring pop music and squirting jets of water into the air in a not particularly interesting way. But it turned out that this was just its warm-up act. On the last evening of the festival I wandered outside after a long signing session just in time to see the fountain do its thing. There was dramatic orchestral music, dancing water jets, laser beams slashing lines of red and green and lilac light through the spray, and – the designers having realised in a stroke of deranged genius that what most fountains lack is fire – actual flamethrowers. For five or ten minutes the peaceful creekside vista was transformed into one of the livelier bits of Apocalypse Now. It was very Dubai.
When I first went to the festival three years ago it was this sci-fi atmosphere which stuck in my mind afterwards (some of it found its way into Railhead). Dubai is a strange mixture of brash bling and deep conservatism, where giant portraits of the ruling sheikhs gaze down from the walls of skyscrapers on gorgeous cyberpunk metro stations and flame-throwing fountains, while weird megastructures loom through the haze in a Simon Stålenhag sort of way. This time I didn’t see much of the city, as I had far more events to do, both on my own and in my capacity as sidekick and straight man to international show-off Sarah McIntyre. (There’s a video here of some of the stuff we got up to.) We took a trip down to Jumeria Beach one evening with fellow UK author Smriti Prasadam-Halls, but mostly we stayed in Festival City, so this year’s memories are much more about the people we met there.
They aren’t joking when they call it an international festival of literature. The Brit contingent included Piers Torday, Abi Elphinstone, Frances Hardinge, Patrick Gale, Michael Foreman, Andy Miller, Tanya Landman and Candy Gourlay (who lives in London but comes originally from the Philippines and was greeted with wild excitement by Dubai’s large Filipino population). But we were surrounded by writers and artists from all over the Arab world and from India, the U.S.A and the Caribbean. I don’t think I’ve ever found myself in such cosmopolitan company, and it was brilliant. I particularly enjoyed talking to the Egyptian author and journalist Ibrahim Farghali (I’ve brought home an English translation of his novel The Smiles of the Saints) Emirati children’s author Asma Kalban, and Jamaican poet and academic Kei Miller – no, it’s too dangerous to start listing everybody, since I’m bound to forget someone, and there were some people whose names I never even learned, but it was good to be among their conversations, and hear news and views from places far from poor old Brexit-blighted Britain.
The audiences are just as mixed. Dubai has a huge ex-pat community so there were lots of Britons, Americans and Australians at our events, but lots of local Emiratis too. One group of boys from a school in Fujeira drove for three hours to see Sarah McIntyre and Emirati writer/illustrator Maitha Al Khayat doing a wild and wonderful English/Arabic pirate comics jam. (I missed that event as I was doing one of my own. I missed almost all the other events for a similar reason – if I wasn’t doing an event I was preparing for one, or signing, or knackered – but word reached me of wonderful things going on in other rooms – a brilliant poetry reading, a great session on travel writing, and a picture book event where Smriti Prasadam-Halls managed to move the adults in the audience to tears with an account of how her relationship with her sister had inspired one of her books.)
All the kids were great audiences – enthusiastic and keen to join in without getting too rowdy, and full of intelligent questions. We heard again and again how much they look forward to the festival and the chance it gives them to meet authors. Eleven-year-old Viraaj and his sister Vritti came to nearly all my events, and after the last one Viraaj gave me, Sarah, Piers and Candy copies of this bookmark he had made for us.
I hadn’t planned to return to Dubai – I had a great time on my first trip, but I hate travelling, don’t like hot weather, and seldom get much sleep in hotels*. Then, last year, the festival was targeted by campaigners who want writers to boycott it because of the Emirati government’s human rights record and the fact that the festival is sponsored by an airline. I’m broadly in favour of airlines, so the second argument was never likely to move me. I’m completely in favour of human rights, but the idea that boycotting a litfest will generate anything more positive than a cosy glow of righteousness in the breast of the boycotter seems absurd. The spectacle of British writers attempting to improve another country by trying to shut down its main cross-cultural arts event convinced me that I ought to go back and support the festival. I’m very glad I did.
All the pictures in this post were taken by Sarah McIntyre, or at least on her phone. WordPress assures me that they are all aligned centrally (WordPress is the main reason why I don’t blog much nowadays). You can read Sarah’s Epic Dubai Blog (and see many more of her photos) here.
*For once, tired out by all the events, I slept perfectly well!