A love for literature
Good|March 2017

Isobel Abulhoul is the founder of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and the CEO of Emirates Literature Foundation. A lifelong lover of books, she lets us in on the realities of planning an on point programme in an ever changing world…

How did the creation of the festival come about? 

This is our ninth festival and, really, its creation came down to a chance conversation. I’ve been involved in books, publishing and education my whole adult life and in a way, it was a natural progression. I arrived in Dubai in 1968, I taught at Dubai Infant School and then co-founded Magrudy’s bookshop, so I guess I’d built up my experience and knowledge of books – what people wanted to read, who the best publishers and the best contacts were – so when it came to the idea of a literary festival, I had all the right experience in place. Although at that time, I’d never actually been to a book festival!

How do you create a programme and how long does it take? 

For 2018, we started in November 2016, so it is a very, very complex and time consuming job. But I think, as a team, we all love the minutiae and understand that the most important ingredient is the writers themselves. You start with the writers and looking at who you think would be popular. The most important thing is to bring together a list of authors who will attract a wide breadth of the public. And I think in a multinational community like Dubai and the UAE, that means looking at writers across the whole world, who cover every conceivable subject. So, for example, we have Michael Freeman the photographer coming this year, we have Nujeen Mustafa who’s co-written a book [about her experience as a Syrian refugee] with Christina Lamb, we have Frank Gardener, the Middle East security correspondent for the BBC, presenting his first work of fiction, we’ve got James Naughtie, famous for his work on the Today programme, presenting his own work of fiction but also giving our George Orwell lecture, which will be a fascinating thing. And we also must mention Jeffrey Archer, who if not the bestselling is certainly among the best-selling authors the world over. He always says he’s not a writer, he’s a story teller. And he certainly can tell a story.

In terms of overarching themes, theres a lot this year about Middle Eastern security, the Arab identity and the crisis in Syria. How do you create something so current when you’re planning so far in advance? 

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