Saturday, 7 March 2009

The Emirate Airline International Festival of Literature

Now that the week is over and the intervening five days since my return from Dubai have served to filter my thoughts, to act as the prism through which I can see recent events, I can tell you about the EAIFL festival.

Those of you who follow such things will be aware of the pre-festival fuss about a book that its author and publisher claimed was banned by the festival organisers, claimed was censored because of its content, claimed was being suppressed. We now know that this was not the case. None of it. The publisher had submitted the book for consideration and as is the right of any festival organiser, the submission was declined. It happens all the time in festivals all over the world. But that was in September last year. It seems that the publisher held this information back until just prior to the festival in order to gain publicity for the work but in doing so has, I feel, won a Pyrrhic victory. There is it seems no suppressive force at work here. Indeed I understand that Magrudy’s, the bookshop chain run by the festival organiser, will be stocking the book. That was the fuss. Now for the festival. Because the true story is as far from one of suppression and censorship is it’s possible to be. The true story is of a well-organised, richly diverse festival that attracted extraordinary crowds of local nationals, expats of many nationalities, western and eastern, and visitors from the Gulf States and beyond.

This was the first such festival to be held in the region. It was an experiment borne out of an idea conceived by two extraordinary people, one a scion of a British literary family, the other a co-founder of a large, local book chain and I can honestly say I have never been to a festival quite like it.

Dubai is a city of cities. Within its bounds are the Healthcare city, the Sports city, the Business city, the Motor City and many more. We were based, of course, in the Festival city, a towering semicircle of two hotels joined by an events centre, a building that really put the arc into architecture. Set on the north shore of Dubai’s creek, it has walkways and promenades along the flowing water and looking out over a small harbour of luxury motoryachts. Across the water was either a breaking yard or repair wharf – I could never quite work out which - for old, rusting hulks. It has a helipad to service the gleaming helicopters that bring yacht owners to their crafts. Frequently. It has, along the shore, one of the many malls I mentioned in the previous post. It is, to be simple, a self contained city within a city with views eastward towards central Dubai’s extraordinary cityscape and for 5 days it was my home and my office.

The home part was a suite in the Intercontinental Hotel. A suite with all the facilities one might expect of a five star hotel. I didn’t know what to expect having rarely stayed in a five star hotel. It had a bed, tables and a desk of course, But it also had a wet room where turning the tap on for the bath activated a fountain which came from the ceiling. The shower created a veritable monsoon that drained through the heated slate floor. There was a huge plasma screen, an iPod station and carpeting that my feet sank into. It had a mini bar. A bar the size of a Mini. It was the swankiest suite I have ever stayed in and it was larger than some Chelsea flats that I’ve lived in. Needless to say I loved it but, being there to work, saw too little of it.

The office part was centred in the events part of the complex, huge rooms that were to be the venues for the many talks and discussions. EAIFL had attracted over 60 world-stage authors and I was to chair events with 5 of them a day. My first event was with Turki al Dahkil, Samuel Shimon and Shakir Noor and was held in the one venue that required a short walk outside the complex to an igloo. Yes, you read that correctly. An igloo. In Dubai. An aluminium geodesic dome covered in white and set at the end of a jetty in the creek. It became my favourite venue as it was impossible to enter it without a smile creeping onto my face. The event went well and half an hour after it finished I was back to chair Kate Adie, talking about her marvellous book “Into Danger”, an exploration into why those with properly dangerous jobs do them. We discussed bomb disposal experts, snake venom collectors and deep sea divers, all with Kate’s modest sang froid and great natural ability to tell a story.

Up to this point, my impressions were of a festival that was so well planned, so beautifully organised that it would have been the envy of many a more established lit-fest, indeed there were times in the igloo that my mind drifted Hay-wards and to how similar it all was.But it was in the next event that the difference hit home.

I was in one of the other venues, the Al Merkaz ballroom, in conversation with Anita Amirrezvani whose book “Blood of Flowers’ was long listed for last year’s Orange Prize. It is a rich tapestry of a story, really, as it tells of a 17th century Persian peasant girl whose path to self discovery and redemption is through her ability, her talent, in rug making. We were discussing aspects of it when I noticed a group of seven women in the crowd who seemed to be paying slightly more intently focussed attention than the rest of the audience. When we came to questions from the floor I asked them where they had come from. They had come from Kuwait, they said, for this event. They were from Kuwait University with their professor and had raised funds to make the trip and attend, not as part of their studies – they were drama students – but because they loved the book. My heart soared.

As questions came from the floor I then noticed a young man sitting on his own in the front row who I sensed wanted to ask a question but was too shy to put his hand up. Just before I closed the event I asked if he would like to ask anything. He stood up and in a clear, loud and heavily accented voice asked “why there are no ‘potboilers’ from Iran” and ‘why no detective stories from Baghdad’. Anita hesitated and I asked if she would mind my answering. I asked him if he liked detective stories. I asked him where he was from. I asked him if he wrote. I then asked him if he understood where my questions were leading. He shook his head. I said that it is perhaps for him to be the first to write such works and that in years to come I hoped to see him up on the stage talking about them. He clapped his hands to his head, said, “Of course, I have been so stupid” and fled the venue, I imagine, I sincerely hope, to start writing!

There were many such moments of joy over the course of the next three days. It was a pleasure and an honour to be on stage with Frank McCourt, Kate Mosse, Andrey Kurkov, Louis de Bernieres, Karin Slaughter, all valued friends over the years, but it was a rarer pleasure to be so with Ibrahim al Koni, one of the best known of Arab writers, with the internationally acclaimed Iranian poet Fadhil al Azzawi, with the wonderful Mohammed Bennis and the delightful Adel Khuzam.

So what will I remember about this inaugural festival? What will the abiding memories be?

They will be of the Arabic poetry evening I hosted, perhaps one of the most taxing, nerve-wracking and unrehearsed but also enchanting and funny nights of my life, of going to the hotel terrace in the relative cool of the late evening and introducing the beautiful and gently intelligent Saudi author Rajaa Al Sanea and her sister Rasha to Kate Adie, Kate Mosse (whose blog is here) Brian Aldiss and his wife, Katy Guest and Claire Armitstead, Liz Thompson, Anthony Horowitz and his wife and then watching them all laugh and chat while drinking mint tea and Turkish coffee. Of listening to Kate Adie tell the funniest story I’ve heard in years and seeing those around the table weep with mirth. These will be some of the memories. There will also be the validation of the reason I agreed to go, to enter into the dialogue, to help build the bridges that we will need in the future if we are to make sense of and help repair this fractured global village, to embrace the differences and to mark the similarities, to help take yet more steps into the ocean of freedoms of speech and expression.

I was concerned that before I left for Dubai two journalists had been sentenced for writings they had posted on the internet, that for all our ability to talk, there were those whose voices were suppressed. I was concerned that in the hastily convened discussion on freedom of expression that they were not mentioned, while some western authors discussed self-censorship. I was angry that there was an elephant on the table and that some were not even acknowledging it, far less discussing it. It was our duty to do so I thought. It was I thought the reason we were there. I talked to a British journalist about it and her piece is here. I will remember this frustration as much as I will remember all the joys. But on my return to Britain I found this on the English PEN website:

“Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the emir of Dubai who is also it’s vice president and prime minister, has since decreed that no journalist should receive a prison sentence for press-related offences, and the journalists have all been released from jail.”

So along with meeting friends old and new, along with meeting someone who has changed my life, I will remember this, that talking does makes a difference, a very real difference to very real people. And that is what EAIFL was for, it is what it did and it is why I am proud to say “I was there.”



1 comment:

simon hill said...

Great effort Blez, sorry we missed you in Dubai by a week. Hope the rest of Hamwees birthday was ripping...