Speaking to Arab News on the sidelines of the press conference announcing this year’s edition, the festival’s director, Isobel Abulhoul, discussed the festival’s evolution into the UAE’s premier literary event, winning a number of awards. It has, she said, been a rollercoaster ride.
“I’ve been on the rollercoaster for the last 10 years and I’m still whizzing around at great speed,” she said. “Organizing an event of this size, thinking about different languages, thinking about our audiences, is a very complex composition and so we have to break it into tiny, tiny bits. Organizing a live event is all about details.”
It has become slightly easier over the years, Abulhoul explained, as the organizers have come to better understand the requirements of the audience.
“The most important thing is choosing authors who are not just wonderful writers but also performers,” she said. “Then, the audience have an amazing experience: It’s live, it’s happening, it’s conversation… It’s a kind of package deal.”
Abulhoul is aware that a literature festival may seem somewhat out of touch with the digital world — as reading and writing become less common pastimes. But she is also aware of the festival’s potential value.
“Literature is important in any culture,” she said. “It is a challenge in today’s busy world, because of technology and all the distraction, but we are succeeding. We are creating writers. We support the Emirati writing community and the expat (writers) living here.”
She said that, aside from book lovers, the festival also targets those who don’t yet read for pleasure.
“We believe if they come to the festival and meet great writers, listen to their live sessions and enjoy them, then they are more likely to pick up their books,” Abulhoul explained. “This can be the key that unlocks reading for them. And that is what we have been doing for the last 10 years: Getting more and more people into reading for pleasure.”
To help with this, the festival also organizes education programs, which include education days, student sessions and authors visiting schools. Student competitions for poetry, short stories and reading are also held, in both Arabic and English. Last year, more than 25,000 students across the UAE took part in the various programs.
Ultimately, Abulhoul said, the festival offers something that just cannot be found in the digital realm: A live experience.
“It’s a unique opportunity. It’s happening live. It’s a contrast to spending our lives on our laptops in the virtual world,” she said. “This is not the virtual world. This is the real world.”