Thanks in part to the fuss surrounding Geraldine Bedell and her novel The Gulf Between Us , the inaugural Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature enjoyed a higher worldwide profile than might have been expected. The mix of writers from around the English-speaking world and from across the Middle East opened dialogues and began friendships that, in many cases, seem set to last well beyond the three days of the Festival. For example, Greg Mosse, who teaches at West Dean in Sussex and who was in Dubai to lead a number of writing classes, and Rachel Holmes, Director of Literature and Spoken Word at London's Southbank Centre, plan to bring three of the featured Arab poets to Britain later this year. They will each enjoy a week-long residency at West Dean, in Sussex, the college where Mosse leads a number of writing courses, and conclude the visit with a performance at the Southbank.
Mosse - whose wife is the novelist Kate Mosse - stressed to BookBrunch the importance of such cultural exchanges, and also said how impressed he was with the students who took part in the three sessions he had led at EAIFL. Between them, the students, aged between around 18 and 55, spoke seven languages, though the classes were conducted in English: one centred on plot and character, another on location and dialogue, with each student contributing fragments to a saga set in the Lebanon during the closing decades of the 20th century. 'The idea is free, so if any of them wants to carry it on they are welcome,' said Mosse.
Though attendance at the 50-odd sessions varied considerably (Jung Chang, Ranulph Fiennes, Kate Adie, Mark Tully and Wilbur Smith were among the top draws), audiences proved themselves to be committed and engaged. We in Britain may now be somewhat blase about literary festivals - hardly surprising, given the number we have to choose from - but in the Middle East they are novelty (Time Out Dubai thought the concept both 'radical' and 'ambitious'), and it was clear from the attention paid and from the intelligent questions fielded that there was a hunger for such events in a part of the world more used to hosting high-profile sports stars.
Fringe events involved 900 local schoolchildren and encompassed music, dance and a display of artwork inspired by books and writers, as well as poetry workshops and storytelling; Letterland, the phonics programme for children aged three to eight, hosted a range of activities in the Kids Zone. Sunday was designated Education day, with many of the authors going out into the local community to undertake a variety of events: Kate Adie visited an international school and talked to students and teachers about the role of women and her own as a reporter. Among the questions she was asked was about the experience of being shot at. Penny Vincenzi and the Mosses went into colleges, and Peter James addressed 420 cadets at a police academy, where he was surprised to be saluted. Fiona Lindsay, one of the Festival's interviewers, drew on her work with the Royal Shakespeare Company to prepare and perform the opening act of Romeo and Juliet with a group of schoolchildren, many of whom had never heard of Shakespeare.
All in all, it was a remarkable event. Festival Director Isobel Abulhoul of Magrudy's, in whose imagination the idea took root a couple of years ago, has a great deal to be proud of. The very concept had to be explained but, with support of first Bill Samuel of Foyles, a man with business experience of the Gulf region, Programme Director Vivienne Wordley, Emirates Airlines, the event's headline sponsor, and the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Chairman of the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, her vision became reality. 'We are here as pioneers,' she said at the opening ceremony. 'We are right at the beginning of the journey, blazing a trail for others to follow.'
Photo: EAIFL authors with (far left) Programme Director Vivienne Wordley on the desert excursion that concluded the Festival.