“A festival is a meeting place, an exchange of stories, and a celebration of humanity.”
– Peter Florence, Director of Hay Festival
The Hay Festival, one of the largest literary festivals in the world, began in Wales in 1987 and now hosts international editions in major cities around the world. For the Arabic-speaking world, Hay had previously held an event in Lebanon in 2010 titled Beirut39 comprising 39 of the most promising Arab writers under the age of 40. This year Hay is back in the Middle East with Hay Festival Abu Dhabi.
The festival was organised in partnership with the UAE Ministry for Tolerance. Commenting on their choice of destination, the Hay Festival Director Peter Florence noted that the UAE “is one of the most diverse and plural societies on earth”.
Hay Festival Abu Dhabi took place from 25 to 28 February 2020 and the theme was “Imagine the World”. Over the four days of the festival, we saw a mix of talks, panel discussions, poetry readings, film screenings and musical performances from artists from around the world in multiple languages to imagine the world as it is and as it might be.
Here is a round-up of some of my favourite sessions from the four days:
Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka
“[Winning the Nobel Prize] is such a burden. The money was nice… [But] you lose the remaining shreds of your anonymity. You can’t get into mischief. People expect you to behave yourself”
-Nigerian author and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka (being tongue-in-cheek)
On day one, Nigerian Nobel laureate writer and poet Wole Soyinka spoke about identity and language – especially his pride in his native Yoruba culture – and his support for dissent and freedom of thought, having been a prisoner of conscience himself.
When asked about the ‘Nobel Prize responsibility’, 86-year-old Soyinka answered, tongue-in-cheek, “It is such a burden. The money was nice…but my constituency ballooned and everyone felt I owed them something. You lose the remaining shreds of your anonymity. You can’t get into mischief. People expect you to behave yourself.”
Palestinian Festival of Literature Founder Ahdaf Soeif
Egyptian-British writer Ahdaf Soueif, most famous for her novel The Map of Love – which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999 – spoke about why she chose to write in English, her identity as an Arab and British woman, as well as the political causes close to her heart, including the rights of political prisoners, and the Palestinian Festival of Literature (Palfest).
In 2008, Soueif founded Palfest after a journey to Palestine to talk about her writing. She said she was moved by her experience of being in Palestine, where despite the dire conditions after the second intifada, people were still fiercely interested in having normal lives.
She wanted other authors to come to Palestine and that’s how Palfest was born. She didn’t want people to cross checkpoints to come and see the festival, so it became a travelling festival which crossed checkpoints to get to the people all across Palestine from Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron and even Gaza. It was a profoundly moving and life-changing experience for many of the participating authors.
Booker Prize Winner Bernardine Evaristo
“What a treat it was to hear Bernardine Evaristo in person. She won the Man Booker Prize 2019 for her book Girl, Woman, Other which is one of the best books I’ve ever read”
What a treat it was to hear Bernardine Evaristo in person. She won the Man Booker Prize 2019 for her book Girl, Woman, Other which is one of the best books I’ve ever read, both in terms of the stories and also the experimental style of writing (it is written as hybrid poetry-prose with no quotation marks for dialogue or full stops until the end of long paragraphs).
The session was held in conversation with Peter Florence, who had been on the 2019 jury for the Booker, and they explored the various themes in the book and the different characters. The book focuses on the lives of 12 (mainly) black British women and each chapter is dedicated to one character.
Evaristo had jointly won the Booker with Margaret Atwood and many in the media had commented that this felt like a cop out. When asked at the session, Evaristo said she had been absolutely thrilled to share the prize with Atwood and sharing it didn’t take the win away from her.
Historian Extraordinaire William Dalrymple
“Loot was one of the first words that came into the English language from India. The East India Company’s history is a story of corporate looting” – William Dalrymple
It has to be said, nobody brings history to life like William Dalrymple. Who would ever imagine that a history lecture would have the audience in fits of laughter?
At the festival’s outdoor venue, the Etihad Garden stage, a beautifully lit marquee, Dalrymple presented a highly informative and entertaining lecture on his latest book The Anarchy, which is the story of the East India Company (EIC). The EIC rose from a trading company in India to eventually become a military and political power.
“The East India Company was the world’s first multinational company. It was an empire inside an empire. It had its own military. Its own flag. Until it went bankrupt, it was the largest capitalist force in the world,” noted Dalrymple.
An interesting takeaway was that we think of the time of the British being in India as the colonial era or British Raj, but in fact for the first 250 years it was just the EIC looting India and only in 1858, after the company went bankrupt the official British colonial rule started.
Newly Minted Rom-Com Writer Tahmima Anam
“For her upcoming book, The Start-up Wife, Anam has chosen to write a rom-com about an entrepreneur couple”
Bangldeshi-British writer Tahmima Anam spoke about her trilogy that starts with the 1971 Pakistani civil war/ Bangladesh Liberation War (depending on which side of the fence you stand on).
The books came about from Anam’s graduate research into the war. In her research, she heard stories of love and marriage and loss, themes which didn’t fit into a graduate thesis and thus she was compelled to write them as a novel.
She mentioned that writing the trilogy was an extremely emotional process for her and she had to tap into a ‘deep well of sadness’ within herself. After she had children and had to deal with the premature birth of her child, she didn’t feel she could write such intensely emotional subject matter. For her upcoming book, The Start-up Wife, she has chosen to write a rom-com about an entrepreneur couple.
A Politician with a Message of Peace – Shashi Tharoor
Writer, politician and historian Shashi Tharoor spoke about the increasing disorder in world affairs at present. The rise of the East is viewed with scepticism and fear by the West. The international liberal order is facing a moment of crisis. Globalisation is confronted by economic nationalism. Strong leaders are exploiting the grievances of citizens (whether imagined or real) to discard global ideals and champion local interests.
Tharoor spoke out against the rise of intolerance in India at the moment, including the issues of Kashmir and the anti-Muslim Cititizenship (Amendment) Act, that have led to riots. He said the current government policies and the wave of intolerance have been counter to the principles of secularism and acceptance that India was founded on.
About the Author:
Tamreez Inam is an avid reader and aspiring writer. She loves talking about books on her Instagram account @tamreezi. An international trade and development consultant by background, she recently joined the Education team at the Emirates Literature Foundation, a non-profit organisation committed to improving lives by spreading the love of literature.