Moving to a new location may have been good for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
The annual event was, for years, held at the Intercontinental Hotel at Dubai Festival City. The hotel’s hallways, floor-to-ceiling windows and views of Dubai Creek became a defining quality of the festival, and it is precisely for this reason why relocating to a new venue was beneficial. While the festival’s programming ensured a sense of novelty with every iteration, there was little doubt about how the festival would look like on the ground.
Well, the festival looks a lot different this year.
Now in its 14th year, the festival began on Thursday and is taking place until February 13 at the Hilton Dubai Al Habtoor City.
The event’s lime-green and red banners are arranged by the arched side-entrance of the hotel, making it easy to spot if you’re driving to the festival. Valet services are being offered at the venue, so you don’t need to worry about finding a parking spot.
The Magrudy’s-run bookshop – a recurring feature of the festival – has been set up just beyond the hotel entrance so once you walk through the doors, you’ll find yourself immediately surrounded by books.
The venue may not be as spacious, but as students pore over books and attendees rush from hall to hall, there’s a reprise of the festival’s signature bustle that was much missed in the previous Covid-stricken event.
“This is the first time we’re here. We’re excited, it feels fresh,” Ahlam Bolooki, director of the Emirates Airline Festival Literature, tells The National during a Twitter Spaces interview.
The festival opened with Emirati Day, a programme that shows off local talent with a series of talks, panel discussions, workshops and poetry performances.
Mohammed Ahmed Al Marri, director general of the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs, Mohammed Saeed Harib, creator of popular animated show Freej, and business leader Khalaf Al Habtoor were among the cultural figures who appeared at the festival’s inaugural day.
“Today is the first day of the festival and we are focusing on Emirati literature,” Bolooki said. “Attendance today is completely free because we want as many people as possible to come and discover the best local literature.”
As with every year, the festival has sessions in Arabic and English with simultaneous translations available for most of the sessions. However, you will need to bring your own earphones to listen in to the translations.
“When you enter the session, there’ll be a QR code taking you to a Zoom link where you can listen to the simultaneous translations,” she says. “We also have a Japanese author here this year, Toshikazu Kawaguchi, who has written Before the Coffee Gets Cold and he will be speaking in Japanese with simultaneous translations available. All you need to do is bring your own headphones.”
While a majority of the international authors in last year’s programme appeared virtually at the festival, the event is marking an assured comeback to in-person events.
“We’re very happy to have international authors flying in again,” she says. “Last year, due to Covid, international authors joined us virtually. This year, it’s back to full attendance.”
The festival has an international programme that highlights the source literature behind some of today’s most popular films and television series.
Bridgerton author Julia Quinn and Chernobyl 1986 author Serhii Plokhy, both of whom had their works turned into hit Netflix projects, will be appearing at the festival.
Sara Gay Forden, author of House of Gucci, which has been adapted into a film starring Lady Gaga and Al Pacino, has also been confirmed.
While virtual sessions did offer an advantage as it expanded the festival’s reach, Bolooki says when it comes to a literary event, nothing replaces an in-person gathering.
“The energy is palpable and we missed it so much,” she says. “The energy speaks for itself and having like-minded individuals in the same space. Some of the best friends I’ve made have been through the festival.”