Award-Winning Authors Assemble at the Emirates LitFest

Over 200 authors from 45 countries gathered in Dubai last week to participate in the 12th edition of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Founded by Isobel Abulhoul, a British bibliophile who has lived in Dubai since the 60s, this is the largest literary festival in the Arab world.

Here are some of the highlights from the six-day Festival:

Jane Goodall

“If you’ve ever seen old NatGeo photos of a woman sitting with chimpanzees in the wild, it is most likely Goodall”

Ethologist and conservationist Dr Jane Goodall is rightly called ‘a living legend’. If you’ve ever seen old NatGeo photos of a woman sitting with chimpanzees in the wild, it is most likely Goodall.

Goodall arrived in Africa in 1960 to study the behavior of chimpanzees and then spent the rest of her life advocating for wildlife and environmental conservation.

At 86, she is still travelling the world to create awareness through her organization, the Jane Goodall Institute. What I loved about the session was how optimistic and inspiring Goodall is. She mentioned working with children as her biggest reason for hope.

Fatima Bhutto in conversation with Julia Wheeler - Picture Credits: Emirates LitFest

Fatima Bhutto

“We have to make our own stories because only we can do justice to them. We can’t leave it to Hollywood” – Fatima Bhutto

Fatima Bhutto was at the Emirates LitFest to promote two of her books: The Runaways and New Kings of the World.

Looking stunning in a white and lime green sari, perhaps a nod to the brand colours of the LitFest, Bhutto charmed the audience with her wit and intelligence while tackling a theme as grim as terrorism. Her book, The Runaways, is the story of two young people Sunny and Monty who get radicalised and join ISIS. 

Bhutto admitted, “This book was a hard sell. If you go to publishers and say I want to write a book about why young people get radicalised, they don’t want to hear it.”

It was for this reason American publishers initially didn’t pick it up. However, after its international success, The Runaways will now be published in America as well.

When asked if she feels hopeful about Pakistan, Bhutto answered, “I have a lot of hope for Pakistan always. It’s a very young country, with the majority of the population under the age of 35… the question young Pakistanis need to ask ourselves is: what vision do we want for Pakistan? My hope is that our vision gets bigger and more encompassing until it can hold everyone.”

Fatima Bhutto in conversation with Richard Dean - Picture Credits: Emirates LitFest

In the session for New Kings of the World, a non-fiction book focusing on the rise of Bollywood, dizi (Turkish TV series) and K-pop (pop music from South Korea), Bhutto emphasised that these cultural phenomena have a reach way beyond their borders. For example, the popularity of Shah Rukh Khan in Peru which is thousands of miles away from India or dizi providing solace and entertainment in Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon.

The popularity of these counterpoints to American popular culture emphasise the importance of representation and diverse storytelling. The session ended with rapturous applause as Bhutto said, “We have to make our own stories because only we can do justice to them. We can’t leave it to Hollywood.”

Arab Writers Going Global

“If translations weren’t available, how else would we have read great Russian or Japanese literature?” – Jokha Al Harthi

Award-winning authors Hoda Barakat made the point that we should not be looking to the West for validation

The Festival of course has many sessions highlighting the best of Arabic literature. As a non-Arabic speaker, the one session I still wanted to attend featured award-winning authors Hoda Barakat and Jokha Al Harthi, along with their translator Marilyn Booth.

One of the things the panel debated was why Arab books gain importance only when the translations do well. While Hoda Barakat made the point that we should not be looking to the West for validation, author Jokha Al Harthi, whose book Celestial Bodies won the Man Booker International Prize in 2019, made a case for more international translations.

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Modesty: A Fashion Paradox

If fashion is about making a statement and modesty is about not attracting attention to oneself, isn’t modest fashion an oxymoron?

Hafsa Lodi, a fashion journalist based in Dubai, launched her book Modesty: A Fashion Paradox at the Emirates LitFest. The launch featured a fascinating discussion on modest fashion between Lodi, Ghizlan Guenez, CEO of luxury modestwear website The Modist, Mariah Idrissi, the first hijabi model to land a major global fashion campaign, and Sara Hamdan, Editor-in-Chief of Think with Google MENA.

At the heart of the book is the paradox: if fashion is about making a statement and modesty is about not attracting attention to oneself, isn’t modest fashion an oxymoron?

As modest fashion has become a multi-billion-dollar industry, it is assumed that all women who dress modestly are religious or traditional. In her research Lodi discovered a multitude of perspectives, religion being just one of them. Lodi brings these perspectives to light in the form of personal insights and interviews with individuals and companies who have shaped the modest fashion industry.

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Tayari Jones

“We admire women for the extent that they can suffer… And I didn’t want to write that” – Tayari Jones, the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 winner

Novelist Tayari Jones, a literary powerhouse, spoke about her book An American Marriage to a packed house. An American Marriage, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019, had catapulted to fame as a 2018 Oprah’s Book Club pick.

Jones was absolutely brilliant and so funny – not at all what I was expecting as the novel is the story of an African American couple, Celestial and Roy, torn asunder when Roy is wrongfully imprisoned on charges of rape.

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Markuz Zusak

Markus Zusak’s self-deprecating humour belies the fact that he is an award-winning novelist, with The Book Thief selling millions of copies worldwide

While Tayari Jones was someone I would like to have as a mentor, author Markus Zusak is someone I’d love to have as a friend. Funny, personable and so incredibly humble, the audience hung on his every word. His self-deprecating humour belies the fact that he is an award-winning novelist, with The Book Thief selling millions of copies worldwide and even made into a major motion picture.

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Festival Finale

You know when they say save the best for last? For me the Festival Finale, the proceeds from which went to Dubai Cares’ programs for refugee children, was just that.

Onjali Q Rauf, author of the award-winning children’s book The Boy at the Back of the Class, read her letter to refugees, Markus Zusak shared his family’s history of migrating to Australia from Eastern Europe following the Second World War. Palestinian poet Farah Chamma performed a powerful poem about freedom of movement, travel and the arbitrariness of borders and passports.

Hazza Al Mansoori, the first Emirati astronaut in space, spoke about (literally) reaching for the stars

Harry Baker and Chris Read made the audience laugh with their unique comedy-rap-jazz while addressing serious themes like xenophobia and the environment. Hazza Al Mansoori, the first Emirati astronaut in space, spoke about (literally) reaching for the stars; Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala’s father, read out a poem in Pushto and English on women’s empowerment. I loved seeing Toorpekai Yousafzai, Malala’s mother, for the first time ever recite a poem in Pushto in support of Malala’s mission for girls’ education.

There was not a dry eye as the Festival Finale concluded with a multinational choir performing Everyday Wonders: The Girl from Aleppo. This five-movement piece was written by Kevin Crossley-Holland inspired by the biography of Nujeen Mustafa, a remarkable Kurdish teenager with cerebral palsy who was pushed in a wheelchair across six countries from Syria to Germany by her sister Nasrine. The music, composed by one of the world’s leading composers Cecilia McDowall, left me with goosebumps. It was the perfect end to a wonderful week.

 

About the Author:

An international trade and development consultant, Tamreez Inam works for the Education Department of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. An avid reader and aspiring writer, she loves talking about books on her instagram account @tamreezi.

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