Isobel Abulhoul on how the UAE's literary scene grew in 50 years: 'We did it our way'

Emirates Literature Festival and Magrudy book store founder on the country's long love of literature and why she's optimistic for its future

Portrait of Isobel Abulhoul (Photo by Antonie Robertson)
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As the UAE approaches its 50th anniversary on December 2, the country’s literary scene is buzzing.

This month, the Sharjah International Book Fair became the largest event of its kind in 2021 by welcoming more than 1.6 million visitors over 10 days. Preparations are also well under way for the 2022 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, which recently revealed its star-studded author line-up at Expo 2020 Dubai.

Follow the latest updates on Expo 2020 Dubai here

Days after announcing the event under the Expo 2020’s centrepiece, the Al Wasl Dome, Emirates Literature Foundation chief executive Isobel Abulhoul reflected on both the local industry and her personal UAE journey over the past five decades, which are inextricably linked.

“What can I say, it is a story of adventure,” she tells The National. “A lot of what happened in the UAE literary scene wasn’t planned.

“Since we had no real role models on how to build it, we did it our own way and I think that’s reflected on the success of the literature festival and the Sharjah and Abu Dhabi book fairs, to name a few.”

Like pages out of a book

The UAE's literary scene is a vibrant landscape radically different from the one Abulhoul encountered when she moved to Dubai in 1968 from England, three years prior to the formation of the country.

Newly wed to her Emirati husband, whom she met as a student in Cambridge, Abulhoul, 18 years old at the time, recalls the surreal experience of landing in the fledgling city and experiencing an environment only envisioned though books.

“It was a late night in December and I remember there were very few lights, so it was dark and starry. The airport was a tiny little warehouse and when you get off the plane, your feet touched the desert sand,” she says.

“It smelled warm and exotic and nothing like the cold and wet England I left 12 hours ago. And because my imagination was fed since early childhood with stories and books, it felt like I was living this adventure and fairy tale. It was beautiful.”

That enchantment soon met the realities of nation building. With the UAE story in its relative opening pages, Abulhoul wasted no time in making her contribution. She co-founded Al Ittihad Private School in 1975, the same year in which she also co-launched the Magrudy's book store chain.

Abulhoul recalls that the moves were made more out of necessity than pure entrepreneurial zeal.

“I had absolutely no retail experience,” she says. “I wasn't even thinking about that. By the time we launched the school I had two young children at the time, so education was very much on my mind.

“And once we opened the school I started thinking about how we needed a place where families can get books and educational toys, so we then set up Magrudy's.”

Bestselling books and authors

Initially opening on the Dubai-Sharjah Road and then in Jumeirah, before expanding nationally to include branches in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, the shop was renowned for its variety, ranging from bestsellers to non-fiction and instructional guides.

“This was a deliberate move because you need to remember the books were essentially our internet back then,” she says. “In those early days our family had cows and goats and I didn’t know if they were ill or not. So I got a book on it and was able to diagnose them when the time came.”

As for novels, Magrudy's specialisation in children’s literature allowed it to be the first UAE chain to bring JK Rowling’s 1997 debut Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to the country.

“I knew this was the beginning of some kind of phenomenon when two of my children found this book while we were on holiday in Cambridge and they were so entranced with it, I had to buy them a separate copy each because they couldn't share it,” she says.

“When I came back to Dubai I immediately imported more copies to the stores and we went to eventually sell something like 5,000 copies of it. We kept ordering the books to meet the demand.”

Magrudy's also went on to lay the seeds of what would become the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

With the Abu Dhabi and Sharjah International Book fairs launching in 1981 and 1982 respectively, Abulhoul says there was a need to complement those events — which mostly focused on trade — with those involving authors and readers.

“At the time authors would come through the UAE and publishers would ask to organise a book signing but I didn't want only that. We wanted the actual authors to meet and engage with the readers,” she says.

“So from nearly 20 years ago we had authors coming through, one of which was Francesca Simon (US author of children’s series Horrid Henry) and we created space for up to 70 people to come and listen.”

Those numbers swelled to over a thousand when it was the turn of Brazilian author Paulo Coelho in 2005.

Abulhoul recalls a line snaking its way around Ibn Batutua Mall’s Egyptian Court as audiences waited outside Magrudy's for over five hours to meet The Alchemist author.

“It was a logistical nightmare with someone like Paulo because he is a very free spirit,” she says. “He would take time out to pray and re-energise and on his way to the venue he saw women with babies in the queue and he would ask they be brought in.

“After seeing that, people started going out of the queue and went searching the mall for babies they can borrow so they can get in quicker.”

‘How dare they have a literary festival?’

More than the excitement of meeting their literary heroes, it was the spirited conversations and insights born out of these sessions that convinced Abulhoul the UAE was ready for its own literature festival.

With Emirates Airline on board from its onset and held under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, the festival was launched in 2009 and fast established itself as not only the regional leader of its kind, but offering many visiting authors — from Canada's Margaret Atwood to US thriller writer Jeffery Deaver — their first taste of the Arab world.

The latter was so enthralled by his experience at the inaugural event that when tapped by the Ian Fleming Estate to write the 37th James Bond Novel, 2011's Carte Blanche, he allowed the super-spy to spend a few thrilling hours in Dubai tracking his nemesis.

While the authors were receptive, Abulhoul says the wider industry was initially shocked at the festival’s success.

“There still remains some misperceptions in the West where the idea is not only 'how can Dubai have a literary festival?', but 'how dare they have one?' And that really gets under my skin,” she says. “Some people thought I was mad when I told them I was a founder of the festival.

“They just didn't realise that the UAE and this part of the world have a long tradition of culture and literature that is different than the West.”

While satisfied with the UAE literary scene’s evolution over the last five decades, Abulhoul's optimism regarding the next 50 years is tempered with some concern.

“While some great and important achievements have been done, it's not the total responsibility of schools, festivals and book fairs to promote reading but that of society,” she says. “If you are not reading to your child on a daily basis then you are depriving them because that's when the brain is at its most formative.

“That's my message to all families and I am very single minded about passing that love of reading on to the next generation because that forms the core of my being. It allowed me to dream, create opportunities and find solutions because there is a book for everything in life.”

Updated: December 01, 2021, 3:49 PM